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Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]


The past never alters, but memory and history change all the time. It is 30 years since I interviewed Australian First World War veterans, and a quarter century since I drafted this history of their lives and memories. Those men are all long-dead, almost all of them before the first edition of Anzac Memories was published in 1994. They had grown old on the cusp of a resurgence of interest in Australians at war; indeed, their ageing contributed to that interest and a concern about if and how the Great War might be remembered after their passing. Were they alive today, they would be astonished at the extent and influence of Australian war remembrance: the crowds which pack Anzac Day Dawn Services across the country and on overseas battlefields; bookshops with heaving shelves of military history and memoir; lavish government-funded memorial and education schemes; politicians invoking the Anzac tradition as they send Australians to war and peacekeeping; and a nation preparing for what will surely be Australia’s largest ever commemorative occasion, the centenary in 2015 of the Anzac landing.

A new, concluding part of this book, ‘Anzac memories revisited’, considers changes over the past quarter century in Australian history and remembrance of the First World War. New sources have become available that enable historians to explore different aspects of the experience of Australians at war. Within the avalanche of Anzac writing there are some fine recent histories which offer new ways of understanding war and society in Australia’s twentieth century and war remembrance in the twenty-first century. ‘Memory studies’ has boomed in the academy in recent decades — both reflective of and reflecting upon our autobiographical age — and academics from multiple disciplines have developed approaches to interpreting both individual and ‘social’ or ‘collective’ memory. My own perspective has changed too. I was a novice historian in my twenties (and an expatriate living in England) when I first wrote Anzac Memories as a doctoral thesis. Half a lifetime later, and now back in Australia, the new chapters are influenced by my life experience and the rather different vantage point of later life.

The first new chapter in part IV, chapter 10, ‘Searching for Hector Thomson’, revisits the autobiographical introduction of the first edition and uses Repatriation Department files to uncover the war and postwar story of my grandfather. It’s a story about war damage, mental health and family tragedy that I was unable to tell in the first edition, and which I now use to highlight the impact of the war on postwar families, and the importance of family memory and history in Anzac remembrance today. Chapter 11, ‘Repat war stories’, is based on the Repatriation medical case files of Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrall, First World War veterans whose life stories figured in the first edition. I explore what this new information adds to my earlier account of these men’s wartime and postwar lives, and indeed test some of my conclusions from 25 years ago, including how veterans’ war stories were recreated through their difficult relationship with the Repat. A Postscript offers concluding reflections on ‘Anzac postmemory’: how has remembrance of Australia’s 1914–18 war and of the Anzacs changed since the last witnesses (the generation of men like Percy, Bill and Fred) died; how might we conceptualise Anzac mythology in the twenty-first century; and how can historians best contribute to public understanding of the war and its significance?

The first three parts of this book remain as they were in the first edition, except I have changed the title of part III, written in the early 1990s, from ‘Anzac today’ to ‘Anzac comes of age’, and I have added the years ‘1939– 1990’ to the title of chapter 8 about ‘The Anzac revival’. The new edition is, in part, an artefact of its time and represents its original historical moment. Anzac Memories was one of the last oral histories of Australia’s Great War and one of the first Australian oral histories to use memory not just to write about the past but also to explore the changing meanings of that past for individuals and in Australian society. As I explain in more detail in the introduction to the first edition, the three original parts of the book follow a chronological order: ‘Making a legend’ (wartime), ‘The politics of Anzac’ (the inter-war years), and ‘Anzac comes of age’ (from the Second World War through to the early 1990s). Each part comprises three chapters. The initial, oral history chapters in each part (1, 4 and 7) draw upon oral history interviews and outline the main features of the men’s experiences as Anzacs during and after the war, and into old age. The second chapter in each part (2, 5 and 8) focuses on the making and re-making of the Anzac legend during and after the war, and into the 1990s. The third chapter in each part (3, 6 and 9) comprises what I call a ‘memory biography’, focusing in turn on three men: Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrall. Here I explore the ways in which these veterans composed their war memories during and after the war, and into old age, and how those memories were influenced by the Anzac legend and by their own later life experiences and understandings.

The introduction to the first edition describes how I came to the topic through family war history, outlines the oral history interviews I conducted in the 1980s, explains how I used the interviews, and introduces Percy, Bill and Fred. The more detailed reflections about ‘Oral history and popular memory’ in the appendix represent the personal and intellectual context of the 1980s when I created and interpreted the interviews, and are also unchanged. The bibliography and index are updated to include new material from part IV.

Like most oral history books, Anzac Memories presents only the text of the stories told in interviews. The written transcript is a poor translation of an interview. It barely hints at the rich layers of meaning expressed in the aural exchange — through silence or emphasis, excitement or pathos — or the ways in which we communicate through face and body, with an arched eyebrow or eloquent hand. My audio cassette recordings could not capture non-verbal expression, though some of that I noted in my research diary of the time, and some of it is stamped in my memory of each occasion: James McNair resplendent in a silk dressing gown as he performed wartime songs; and Fred Farrall pointing to the First War discharge certificate which he had only recently hung up on his living room wall, next to pictures of Marx and Lenin. The Australian War Memorial is digitising my interviews and making the audio available online. Thanks to new technologies you can now download and listen to the original recordings and make your own sense of the meaning of sound as well as word. To access transcripts and audio go to for Fred Farrall; s01305/ for Percy Bird; and s01317/ for Bill Langham.

Each was a performer in his own way and keen to have his story on the record, and I imagine that my interviewees would have been amazed and pleased to know that their words and their voices would be so easily heard down the ages. And that through their interviews, and the ways in which I have interpreted and used oral history, they might continue, beyond living memory, to have an impact upon Australian war remembrance and history.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson