The stories are often poignant and sometimes heartbreaking. Most are of individuals: combatants, pacifists, patriotic fundraisers and anti-war activists. Other, larger, stories speak to broader national narratives relating to ideas of patriotism and expressions of jingoism. Still others touch on the aftermath of war and the memorialisation of those who had enlisted for active service, including those who made the supreme sacrifice.
Our starting point in building the site was to use actual material culture relating to World War I from our collections – photographs, printed ephemera, objects – as the framework for the stories that we would tell.
These ‘traces’ in the collections are akin to forensic evidence that can tell authentic stories about how World War I was actually experienced by people connected to our historic houses and places. We teased out meanings from objects that were particular to these people and used this evidence to create an overarching narrative.
A less ambitious – and less historically honest - approach would have been to try to squeeze these objects into a prefabricated, predigested national Anzac story.
We chose to work new ground.
The calmly measured tone of the language belies the deeply moving stories, beautifully recounted, of the individuals from SLM properties – and the linking of the places we are familiar with to the battlefields ... is incredibly powerful.
Ian Innes, Director, Heritage & Collections, SLM
As we searched the collections, we found many photographs of men in WW1 uniform. We barely knew who some of them were, but at one of our places – Meroogal – their photographs were found sitting on a mantelpiece, or on the piano, or on the wall. At Rouse Hill House they were in albums and drawers, others framed and hanging on a bedroom wall. We also found letters and postcards from further ‘unknown’ soldiers, souvenirs and newspaper clippings.
In addition to these more personal, individual stories, we found ephemera that spoke to broader national narratives related to World War I.
We knew from the outset that we wanted to tell a broad story: not only a of war service overseas but also of the home front, particularly the role of women.
The World War I traces in our collections were our starting point; however, as we delved deeper into the history of people and families associated with our places, we found other people who were important to one or other of our places but whose ‘traces’ were in other public collections or only in private collections. We extended our scope to encompass those strays, to give a story back to those individuals.
We also had some World War I material in the collections in the Justice & Police Museum and the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection – material that has been borrowed or used by other institutions to tell World War I stories.
That material, in particular, allowed us to address the contested idea of the ‘enemy within’ Australian society during World War I.
And lastly, we found material relating to the poignant aftermath of war, such as the design and manufacture of the wooden honour rolls located in many places across Australia, including The Mint, where the names of employees of the Royal Mint who served in World War I are displayed (including some who died). Photographs of grave markers and other mementos of fallen soldiers sent to grieving families show us how the material commemoration of the war dead began during the war and continued beyond the end of the conflict itself. One particularly moving story of a mother and her three soldier sons, one of whom did not return, comes from Susannah Place in The Rocks.
The site comprises more than a dozen long-form stories (900-1500 words each, with multiple images) supported by more than 30 short-form stories (c400 words each) attached to a single image. More material will be added to the site in coming months – around another 9000 words.
We arrived at a structure that could accommodate all of these different stories, grouping them into four themes:
For these stories of war service we have taken a fresh look at the people connected to our historic houses and places. Stories from Meroogal animate the faded photographs of uniformed men that can still be seen on walls and mantelpieces in that house. Those from Rouse Hill reveal a complex network of friends and extended family associated with the Rouse and Terry families. Susannah Place is represented by a suite of stories centred on Ada Gallagher, who saw all three of her beloved sons go to war.
Several stories relate to men who worked at the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint in Macquarie Street. From the collections of the Justice & Police Museum comes a rich story about a policeman who was a veteran of the South African War as well as World War I and later served as a drill instructor at the Bourke Street police depot in Sydney. His story is offset by short profiles from the other side of the law: returned servicemen whose mugshots appear in the NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive.
The Home Front stories describe the tireless voluntary work by women during World War I: an endless series of fundraising campaigns to supply ‘comforts’ for soldiers fighting at the front, to provide relief for some of the millions of Allied refugees in Europe, and to help maimed soldiers on their return home and support soldiers’ dependants. Smaller stories introduce individual creators of patriotic poetry, music and silent movies and the indefatigable activity of the sock-knitter, while a counter narrative examines the anti-war activism of a member of the Women’s Peace Army.
The Australian Government passed a War Precautions Act in 1914 that gave it the power to introduce almost any regulations judged necessary for Australian security. Military censors monitored newspaper coverage of the war, anti-war activists were subject to police surveillance and people of German or Austrian birth were declared enemy aliens.
The stories here, drawn mostly from the collections of the Justice & Police Museum, illuminate both official and popular understandings of the threat to Australia from within. They cover the organised expression of jingoism against ‘enemy aliens’ through the formation of an Anti-German League; the ideology and activities of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labour organisation; and the story of an isolated violent attack on a picnic train in Broken Hill.
These stories of commemoration are about grave markers and honour rolls. Battlefield grave markers carry the most poignant stories. Workplace honour rolls are the most common form of war memorial in Australia, and were often the first type to be put up to commemorate those who had enlisted or who had paid the supreme sacrifice. However, they are usually seldom seen, located somewhere in a government office, a bank, town hall, church or school, and are sometimes lost when a building is demolished or changes its use. The stories attached to the names on the roll are also often lost.
The research and writing by the individual creators has been finessed by the SLM editorial team, particularly Clara Finlay.
The project has been brought to realisation – as something greater than the sum of its parts - through the collaborative achievement of the marketing design team and the web and screen team, including Pamela Amores, Jay Smith, and Ondine Evans.