Resurgent memories and the ANZAC story

From the Director of Humanities

First term studies in History for Year 10 students were devoted to a unit concerning Australia’s involvement in World War I. This unit which was new to the Junior Humanities Curriculum aroused such interest that one class, 10C, asked their teacher Ms Boyle if they could present a special ANZAC Day commemoration on the last full School Assembly of the term. Using the example of Australia’s youngest soldier Private James Martin from Melbourne, the class focused on very personal and individual narratives to tell the story of Australia’s involvement in the Great War. James, we were told, was 14 years and 3 months when he defied his parents and signed up to go on what he expected to be an exciting adventure. This boy, who was the same age as the average Year 10 student, perhaps mercifully didn’t make it to the battlefield but died of typhoid fever on board a hospital ship in the Mediterranean. The impact of James’s story,  the ripples it created amongst his family and friends was powerfully evoked through the surviving letters and other primary sources that survived and were read out by our girls. As I listened to the personal accounts of those impacted by the loss of the young boy I was struck by the way in which the past resonates and how those who engage with it bring with them their own inflections.

Although this individual story was unique for the fact that its main protagonist held the dubious honour of being the country’s youngest soldier, there was also a sense of familiarity about it; the urgency of the teenager’s compulsion which would win out over all reason and common sense, in this case, with catastrophic consequences. The grand geo-political narrative that is World War I was made meaningful through the particular story of an obscure individual, one whose short life had no bearing on the course of events and yet for our students, became a point of entry into another era. It seems that engagement with the past, or perhaps any aspect of the human story is made meaningful when we “walk in the shoes” of those whose lives we seek to recreate. The reason the Year 10 students felt inspired to share their understanding of the topic with their peers was that they had gained some kind of affective understanding of the topic through their immersion in the historical sources with which they were presented.

Contrary to the stereotype that Australian students find their own history boring, the initiative that this class showed indicates that young people are in fact interested in Australia’s past and in particular, in their country’s involvement in war. The growing number of young Australians who make the pilgrimage to Gallipoli each year attests to the increasingly sacred nature of this event in our collective consciousness. While the memory of Gallipoli and World War I in general has always been central to Australia’s national identity, it has arguably not always held the hallowed and, some would say, quasi-religious status that it seems to now possess. According to Mark Dapin, ANZAC Day has gone from being essentially a funeral procession in the 1930s for those who lost their lives in World War I to being our national day,  a “weightier more dignified alternative to Australia Day in a post-Mabo nation where the ambiguity of celebrating the triumph of British sovereignty has been smothered with barbeque grease and drowned in beer” (2011, p.27). Certainly when I was school-aged and diggers from the Great War were still among the ranks of those marching, ANZAC Day did not hold the kind of widespread appeal that it now possesses; it seemed to be the almost exclusive domain of the RSL while a large segment of the rest of population was ambivalent about the event. Maybe this was partly due to the influence of the baby boomer generation whose disapproval of Vietnam led them to dismiss all commemoration as celebratory. This particular historical baggage has perhaps now waned in favour of a certain yearning for the sacred in our post-religious society; a yearning which seeks to ritualise the memory of those who have served us in war.  Whatever the case may be, the different meanings that we attach to war speak of the way in which the historical narrative that shapes our national identity is constantly redefined according to those who choose to tell the story.

10C’s presentation was neither celebratory nor dismissive of the very high price of war. They powerfully demonstrated that even the most cataclysmic events such as the Great War will continue to resonate through the stories of individual lives just like our own.

Miss A Dare


Dapin, M. (2011, April 22-24). Guts and Glory. The Sydney Morning Herald. Good Weekend, p.27-28.

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