4. The début
Just as European holidays are only truly appreciated in hindsight from within the grind of daily routine, so too had the emerging centenary of the end of World War I and those remarkable days spent on the Somme, Flanders and Stanthorpe tenaciously refused to leave my imagination.
However, I do not want to add to the statistics of war; I am seeking voices to bring the Diggers to life. I decided to explore how the memories of World War I are commemorated across cultures: Australia, France and Belgium.
I want my photos to examine cultural juxtapositions to highlight similarities between these cultures’ experiences of war – the concept of cultural identity linking photographs captured in locations of the French and Belgian Western Front battles with similar works created in the Granite Belt, Australia, where Diggers were ‘resettled’ after the war.
But this story is not about a place or a war, but of the people found there.
The story of the Diggers at war is too well known, too well documented and too often written about. A general library catalogue search on the term ‘Diggers Western Front’ returns a staggering 20 000 results.
It did not take long to become overwhelmed by the dry, statistical material found within the incredible number of books boasting their historical relevance to this part of our history. I associate most war books with summaries of battle strategies, numbers of deaths, ranks and battalions.
There are the heavy tomes of data from the likes of the prolific John Laffin, who authored 130 books.
They are often seen snuggly propped under the arms of Australian tourists as they march around the memorials in France and Belgium, giving context to what they are witnessing.
Many of Laffin’s books deal with military history and give a sense of great pride in the sacrifice of the Diggers. The many years he spent following their steps on the Western Front impart a sense of impressive knowledge and realism to his work.
Then there is the more populist Peter FitzSimons with his personal army of researchers following up at the rear. His offering, Fromelles and Pozières: In the Trenches of Hell, relies strongly on stereotypical images of how he sees ‘Australian blokes’ and makes no apology for his being nowhere near a qualified historian. Rather, he revels in thumbing his nose at those serious ‘academic’ types and instead relies on his ‘Australian banter’ style of writing.
In between these popular authors lies the plethora of projects from universities and government departments, family histories proudly self-published, and much, much more. There are the books about the Anzac pilgrimages exploring the travels of ‘young and old, soldier and civilian’ – and even an Australia’s Military History for Dummies, which promises a ‘simple and easy way to get your mind around Australia’s military history’.
There are books featuring primary records of war, including diaries and photographs; books examining the development of the Digger legend; books on Digger nurses at the Western Front; books on the role of Indigenous Australians in the war; and the list goes on.
After my initial foray into this immense array of literature, I stopped reading the history books. I decided to leave that for afterwards.
I want to find the voices of people self-assigned to keep these legends alive and have them tell this story.
I want to discover the facts as told by them as I go.
Many of us spend a day or two exploring and experiencing those war histories; then battlefield fatigue sets in and we wearily return to our everyday lives – a little more enriched for the new knowledge and greatly saddened by it.
I want to write something different – as an outsider looking in.
I want to tell the story of those who are in the inner circle, passion shining from their eyes as they tell what they know about the Australians on the Western Front and their struggles to resettle post war.
Those who want to share it with others like me; those dabbling their toes in, wiggling them about at the edges.
TO BE CONTINUED
 Scates, Bruce (2006). Return to Gallipoli: walking the battlefields of the Great War. Cambridge University Press.
 Horner, David (2010). Australia’s Military History For Dummies. Wiley Publishing Australia Pty Ltd.