- We remember, lest we forget -
Remembrance Day provides a real chance to bring history alive,
writes Christopher Bantick.
Remembrance Day presents a prime opportunity to examine the digger legend - and with a broader perspective than the landing at Gallipoli in 1915.
One of the most influential figures in the way the digger legend has been understood is Bill Gammage, professor of history at the Australian National University Humanities Research Centre.
His 1974 book, The Broken Years, is regarded as a benchmark study on how Australian soldiers in World War I reflected on their experiences. Professor Gammage says that teaching about the digger legend may be locked in Gallipoli and often does not include the Western Front.
"The digger myth took off as soon as the troops landed at ANZAC Cove. With ANZAC Day, the ritual had already been set before the Western Front."
Professor Gammage says that the dark side of the diggers, where some took great joy in killing, should also be taught as part of the legend.
"One of the striking things I discovered about the old soldiers was that they were concerned that the legend was not exaggerated. They wanted a balanced account of war and, in particular, awareness that it was something terrible. I was working on the research for The Broken Years during the Vietnam War. There were more old World War I diggers opposed to war than there were university students."
So what should children be taught concerning the digger legend, and how much can they comprehend?
"I hope children are taught about just how cruel war can be," Professor Gammage says. "They need to be aware of the qualities of the soldiers who fought. I think the digger legend has become greater than the reality.
"I regret this in one sense. ANZAC Day, in particular, places emphasis on the digger legend. But it is a national day which does not look forward . . . does not offer a hope for the future. Instead, we look back in grief."
Jacqualine Hollingworth, chief executive and education officer of the History Teachers Association of Victoria, and a former teacher of Australian history, endorses the importance of the digger legend in the classroom.
She does not, however, support the professor`s view. "I think how the digger legend is taught is up to the individual teachers. Some do not like teaching about the violent impact of war. If you have the passion, it will come across to the kids."
Dr Hollingworth, who is involved in conferences for history teachers, says the digger legend is an important and emotive part of Australian history, but doubts whether it should be compulsory essential knowledge.
"When you start mandating material in a curriculum, you take away the spontaneity of it. I used in class A. B. Facey`s A Fortunate Life. This was a powerful and poignant memoir. Facey talks about the manning of a machine-gun and the horror of this. It is the personal stories which come out of the digger legend which connect with kids."
Remembrance Day is a key event at Wantirna Secondary College, according to assistant principal, David Tyson.
"At years 7 and 8 level, we have a special assembly where the kids prepare stories and poems to present to their year groups. We also use the returned servicemen and women from neighbouring Salford Park retirement home to share their stories. This has become part of the school culture," Mr Tyson says.
"We`ve had students in the school from Iraq, and they too have shared their stories on the horror and suffering of war."
At Nagel College, Bairnsdale, head of history Oldrich Sadilek organises with year 9 and 10 students a school service for Anzac Day and a smaller service on Remembrance Day.
He says the ANZAC Day event coalesces the teaching in class and gets the whole school involved in one large history lesson each year. The students, he says, run the day.
"It is important that students are aware of the digger legend. Each year at the school assembly, we have a different theme. It may be Gallipoli, the Western Front, indigenous soldiers or maybe New Zealand`s involvement," he says.
"We have our own memorial in the school designed by year 9 students. It was built with fund-raising money and was a gift from year 9 to the school. This becomes a feature in our remembrance."
Dr Hollingworth`s belief that personal narratives have more meaning for students is borne out in the work of Julie Reece, a history teacher at Mount Barker College in South Australia.
"We undertook in 2001 a project where we searched for World War I soldiers connected to the school," Ms Reece says.
"We found 99 names. I took my year 12 students to Turkey and Belgium and found all but six graves. Out of the journals we kept, we wrote a book, Journey of Remembrance."
Ms Reece says she starts with the personal stories.
"I get kids interviewing their relations with connections to either World War I or II They become detectives of the past. The old World War II soldiers just want to talk. The mythology of ANZAC Day is still out there. We should tell kids about the brutality of war. When the kids go to Belgium, it`s a life lesson. They talk to people who remember family and friends and they begin to understand the brutality that goes on in war."
Christopher Bantick is a Melbourne writer and education commentator.
READING ABOUT WAR
· A Fortunate Life, A. B. Facey
· An ANZAC`s Story, Roy Kyle, AIF
· The Middle Parts of Fortune, Frederic Manning
· The Battle of Hamel, John Laffin
· The Gallipoli Story, Patrick Carlyon
· Passchendaele: the Untold Story, Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson
· From Gallipoli to Gaza: the Desert Poets of World War One, Jill Hamilton
· Gallipoli: the Turkish Story, Kevin Fewster, Vecihi Basarin, Hatice Hurmuz Basarin
· Gallipoli, Les Carlyon
· Inventing Anzac: the Digger Myth and National Mythology, Graham Seal
· The Broken Years, Bill Gammage
· The ANZACs, Patsy Adam-Smith
· Australia and the Great War, L. L. Robson
by The Age
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