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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration


Bill Gammage

I’ve been asked to talk on my thesis, ‘The Broken Years’, which I wrote at the ANU in 1967–70, and particularly to mention aspects which might help you. You know the basic rules, so I’ll talk about what to say. Every topic and set of sources has its own challenges and opportunities, but I urge you from the beginning to think constantly about what you want to say, and to ensure that what you say rises from and above your sources to comment on the human condition. Your thesis only begins as a sequence of well researched and arranged sources. No less than literature, art and music, it should end by having significance arching above your topic.1

My interest in Australia in the 1914–18 war began in High School, when a country town memorial made me curious about what Australians had endured then. Later I was shown soldiers’ letters in the Australian War Memorial. The war emerged as a major event of which I knew nothing, and which no history I took mentioned. I wanted to read more on it, and more of those letters, and my honours and postgraduate theses were chances to do so.

It took me much longer to find what to say. I began work during the Vietnam War, which reinforced my early belief that Australia’s Official Historian of 1914–18, C.E.W. Bean, was ‘pro-war’. But at last Bean’s wonderfully sympathetic detail and the letters made me see that I should focus not on the war, at least not overtly, but on the men who fought it. Their lives were changed forever, and on such a scale that the impact on Australia and the world was immeasurable.

So I wanted to depict a tragedy—for individuals, for Australia, for the world. Some military historians have said that my work merely imitates Bean’s. I doubt that he would have thought so. He wrote an epic, an account of the character of Australian manhood during its greatest trial. I hoped to write of a terrible loss, a catastrophe which changed Australia forever.

How might a thesis say this? The Great War was a tragedy at many levels. It destroyed monarchies, individuals, classes, ways of life. In Australia it changed the direction of society. ‘The Broken Years’ is fundamentally about why Australia after 1918 was so vastly different from Australia before 1914. Yet the soldiers’ letters convinced me that I should centre on the individuals who most endured the war: front-line soldiers. I saw them as civilians, caught in a momentous event certainly, but no less citizens than we. My first task became to understand why they did what they did. That would teach me something about what remains the same, and what differs, between generations in Australia. In turn, that would convey larger themes about Australia, war, change and loss.

I began on the wrong tack. I wrote a draft of roughly 60 000 words, arranged by stages in a soldier’s experience: Before the First Battle, The First Battle, After and so on. While my supervisor, Bruce Kent, was reading this draft, I saw that it left unclear something vital to tragedy: a confrontation between man and circumstance. It showed neither how very great are the pressures needed to force someone to change long-held beliefs, nor how often in the end the war was great enough to force this change. The process was cumulative, not episodic. So the story had to be chronological, relentlessly intensifying the physical and psychological pressure, reaching a point where if the soldiers survived, their world changed, and they brought home new outlooks and ways.

Circumstance, for example, made soldiers more fatalistic—as reading their letters made me. They grew less and less able to think that they might have a say in what happened to them. Usually this point sits in the shadows of my writing, but occasionally I signal it directly (xvii), and sometimes I reinforce it stylistically. When describing the fighting after the Landing at Anzac, I write that exhausted men were forced to fight battle after battle in unwearying succession (58). There is a similar reference in the account of each of the battles which had greatest mental impact on the AIF (see for example 163).

Greek tragedy is the obvious model for a tragedy of man and circumstance. In the later writing stages the model influenced me, just as classical Greece inspired and consoled so many of the architects, sculptors, artists and poets who commemorated the Great War. There was the terrible irony of those pre-war ideals, so loud, so confident, so certain, coming to such ruin; and there was the tragedy of so many individuals who, because they were ready to defend what they cherished, were not only led to misery, pain and death, but took to destruction the very society they held dear. They made their own desert. From the beginning we know this happened: a Greek sense of tragic inevitability cannot escape anyone looking back on 1914–18.

A Greek model seemed apt for another reason. Politicians during the Vietnam War talked much as they had in 1914–18. I knew they wouldn’t deliver; I saw that Vietnam veterans would be disillusioned as those of 1918 were. The same script was being acted out. As the Greeks knew well, people never learn, or in time forget. The mistakes of our ancestors are those we can make.

Greek tragedy echoes through ‘The Broken Years’. The thesis has a Prologue and Epilogue. It begins ‘There never was a greater tragedy than World War I’, and I hope there is a sense of men’s ideals leading them inescapably to misery. The picture of men going so cheerfully or so resolutely to such catastrophe is terrible, as Homer shows in writing of Troy, on the other side of the Dardanelles from Anzac.

Yet the model was inapt in three ways. First, it suggested how Australian soldiers might reflect the universal and eternal, but I was also interested in the local and particular—the Anzac tradition, in what ways Australians became different from their forebears, how being Australian was expressed in war. Second, these men fell less far than did the Greek heroes, because they began less high, and perhaps less proud. Third, for the AIF not all was ruin. Some ideals survived: notions of manhood, of mateship, of the toughness of life and how little you can expect from it, and so on. These adapted certainly, but they were not ruined. On the contrary the war offered them resurrection, as for example when the post-war Returned Servicemen’s League so firmly supported that Empire for which its members suffered so much. The signs are there in 1914 that Imperial sentiment might have waned in Australian much sooner but for the war.

This kind of adaptation, of resurrection, is Christian, not Greek. Greek gods would never have let mortals off the hook like that. Sooner or later, usually at the moment of ruin, they made people see the consequences of their own inadequacies. For Greek historians, it is true, life did not always come to that: whereas the dramatists wanted to say how people should suffer for folly, the historians were constrained to say how they did suffer.

So my thesis parted from a Greek model, to tell of a reluctant but inexorable adaptation by men to circumstances of their own creating, which they lost the power and will to control (if they ever had it), but from which, like Bean, they took at least consolation, and sometimes new purpose and affirmation.

The Greek historians were also dramatists. All historians have a view of what has happened. Thus they cannot know what it is like not to know. Yet a historian’s primary task is to say what it was like. This paradox is one reason why art and the past can never be the same, and why for historians art must above all convey a true sense of what was. The greatest Greek historian, Thucydides, achieved this by having a hero, Pericles, who typified and spoke the great virtues, but whose fatal flaws explained the ruin of Athens without diminishing his moral stature. This was a device, but it met the immense responsibility Thucydides had to tell the future what those times were like, and what kind of people lived them. I described what men endured, quoted what they wrote, and from this tried to trace what changed in their hearts. By doing so I hoped first to understand them, then to depict their lives and times, and what they left the future.

On style, Greek drama explains some of my quirks. For example, the book is written to be spoken aloud. You see this in frequent commas which serve didactic and dramatic purposes in slowing readers down, in readiness to begin sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’ to keep momentum, in the use of alliteration, and in puns, as where I write of Pozieres that ‘the merciless shells rained’ (reigned) (163).

But other factors shaped my style more. Growing up in rural Australia encouraged economy of words. People like Eric Fry in the History Department encouraged clarity and simplicity, although I think I used too many adjectives and adverbs. I tried to follow Bean’s example, which he maintained over more words than any other Australian, of never writing a word which could not be understood by a fourteen-year-old. Three words in the thesis, I think, failed Bean’s example, and two remain in the book: ‘maelstrom’ (xvii) and ‘miasma’ (72). I could not think of simpler alternatives.

Stylistically my main aim is not to intrude into the story. Intrusion is there, of course, in every word, chosen or written, unavoidably. I mean that I tried not to make intrusion obvious, to let the story unfold as seemingly as it did at the time. Narrative is history’s highest art. At least once I did not succeed, in discussing discipline (236–38). This is the weakest part of the book, not because of the topic or the conclusion, but because I shoulder aside those who matter and talk from centre stage. A sense of how things seemed at the time is broken.

A thesis depends on its sources. Mine inspired and shaped my thinking, and after all I did to them they remain its core and its most memorable quality. Never forget the primacy of sources. I have a poignant memory of their power. After the thesis was published as a book, in 1974, an old lady wrote from Adelaide about a letter a man wrote to his pregnant wife from the slaughter of Pozieres. The letter concluded:

The place is like Hell darling but … it is better to die for you and country than to be a cheat of the empire … God be with you Love for all Time … Remember me to baby when she is Born—if a boy don’t make him a tin soldier but should war break out, let him enlist and do his bit if not he’ll be no son of mine (168).

The man was killed soon after; the old lady was his wife. She had never heard of his letter until she saw the book, and she wrote to say that her son became a squadron leader in World War II, and that she was thankful to learn after so long that her husband would have approved, and what his parting thoughts were. That made it all worthwhile. But there was more to the story, which I did not tell her, or anyone. Sometimes life is too big for art.

A writer must choose a voice. You have many voices; it is never possible to be a mere conduit of your evidence. You are part of your work. Be conscious of this, choose a voice, work to develop it. Which voice you choose will depend on what you want to say. That will be informed by what your evidence directs, by what the times suggest, and by the art of combining these. Do not take lightly the tremendous opportunity a thesis gives you; make sure you say something worthwhile.


1     B. Gammage, ‘The Broken Years: A Study of the Diaries and Letters of Australian Soldiers in the Great War, 1914–18’, PhD thesis, Australian National University, 1970. The thesis was later published as a book, The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1974. References in the text are to the book.

Cite this chapter as: Gammage, Bill. 2009. ‘The Broken Years: Australian soldiers in the Great War 1914-18’. Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration, edited by Curthoys, Ann; McGrath, Ann. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 2.1–2.5.

© Copyright 2009 Bill Gammage All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission of the copyright owners. The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University ePress:

Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration

   by Ann Curthoys and Ann Mcgrath