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An emotional history

Volume 6 Number 4 April 12 - May 3 2010

A new illustrated edition of Bill Gammage’s classic The Broken Years promises that the future and past of Anzac will continue to be contested. By Shane Cahill.

When Bill Gammage began work on the PhD that would become The Broken Years in 1974, Australian historians showed little interest in the Great War or those who fought in it, being far more interested in the dramas and conflict surrounding the conscription referenda of 1916 and 1917 and their defeat. As Marilyn Lake observes in What’s Wrong With Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History (UNSW Press, 2010), Gammage looked back to C.E.W. Bean and made the experience of ordinary soldiers central to the history of World War 1. Gammage’s study, Lake argues, was instrumental in the revival of the myth of Anzac and in establishing the ‘innocent young soldier’ as its face.

A generation on, and Anzac has moved from the periphery to the centre stage of the national story, a position Lake and her co-contributors believe to be distortion and misrepresentation of the Australian experience. Will this new illustrated edition again shake and then shift public perception of the conflict? Will The Broken Years Australian Soldiers in the Great War (MUP 2010) contribute to a less triumphalist and more human understanding of Anzac and Australia’s participation in military conflict? As Gammage notes in his preface to this new edition, ”History is never simply a story of the past; it is also a shaping of the future. The Broken Years is an attempt to write an emotional history of the AIF, a story of citizens at war. I hope no one will think it more than a start. The future of Anzac, and therefore its past, is still being contested.”

Now as when first published, the words contained in the letters and diaries of the 1000 Australian soldiers used by Gammage convey the depth and complexity of the experiences of the (mostly) young men.

“We just fell down and slept, rain and all, and shells falling all about us, but we were too exhausted to bother; we didn’t mind if we were killed; it was terrible.”

“We thought we knew something of the horrors of war, but we were mere recruits, and have had our full education in one day.”

These are the words of men responding to the grotesque realities of war. However, as Gammage notes in his preface to this new edition, most of the voices he used “are on good behaviour” and were careful to avoid mention, for example, of religion, politics and sex, all of which were important parts of their talk and actions.

We now can see – albeit in sepia – more of these realities in the photographs, maps and diagrams generously spread throughout the text in this illustrated edition. As with the written word, the participants set parameters. Nonetheless, a spontaneity emerges in image after image that demands our attention and consideration – Prime Minister Billy Hughes ranting from a podium to an audience of Australian soldiers, chatting among themselves as often as paying attention to their Little Digger; a reunion at a military hospital in Sydney where a slightly bemused repatriated young man is the object of the worshipful gazes of a grateful family; or the rest stop on a desert march near Suez where the soldier asleep with his hat pushed back and supported by his pack, for all the world a military forebear of the backpackers of 21st century Anzac day Gallipoli. And the corpses, the trenches, the wounds and disfigurements, the destruction, and the struggle for survival.