Thoughts on the Anzac Centenary

…from a distant historian, Caroline Adams MPHA South Australia

As an opening comment I just want to make it clear that I think that no-one has a monopoly on writing history, nor is it owned by any particular group. I do think trained historians are in a better position, be they inside or outside of the academy, to research and write history. It is what we have been rigorously trained to do. (Even as I write I am conscious that I am going to be read by historians. Have I got it right? Will some-one find an error in my argument – most probably – but that also is not a bad thing.) Most professional historians and those working in the academy have tertiary qualifications in history, at least four years, and a wealth of experience. Many also have a collegial network to call upon. (PHA(SA) meets for lunch on the first Tuesday of the month and it is a great time to catch up with others and discuss our work.)

2015 was always going to be a big year in history in Australia. And it seems that ever since Anzac Girls was shown on TV late last year there has been an increasing number of World War One themed programs and media articles. The authors of much of this material appear to be journalists.  There is nothing wrong with this per se as journalists are in the business of communication. But how many historians were consulted for the articles/programs? Yes I know there have been some (and I’m sure the research librarians have been working overtime), but how many jobs for professional historians have been generated from the Anzac centenary?

The plethora of TV programs (fact and fiction) and media articles on World War One has left many people with what historian Clare Wright has called ‘commemoration fatigue’ (Nick Grimm, ‘The World Today’ ABC website, 22 April 2015). This is evidenced by the poor ratings of ‘Anzac type’ programs.  Wright (2015) went on to say that ‘people are wanting to have a more complex, a more nuanced version of the Anzac story.’ It is here that historians (both professional and academic) can come to the fore. We are able to offer insightful and contextualised accounts of history, more than ‘digger stories’ and ‘nursing angels’. There is a much larger picture of boys enlisting to escape poverty, to have adventure, of a heterogeneous country where not everyone wanted to fight for King and Country. Yet we are not hearing many of these other alternative narratives. Which brings me back to my question – how many professional historians are working on World War 1 projects? And if we are not working on them, why not? Why haven’t more professional historians been engaged to research this material? Is the onus on us to promote our profession more? Does the public need to be more aware of the role of professional historians? More questions than answers … what are your thoughts?


Image: sourced from

Five Minutes with Michael Williams


PHA NSW& ACT member Michael Williams specialises in local Australian history and heritage and in Chinese Australian and diaspora history. Here we see him  in south China, on a conference tour  concerning Australia’s links with villages such as this one, the world-heritage listed Kaiping.

What is your current area of historical interest?

I am researching a history of the Dictation Test using the numerous files in the National Archives related to its administration over more than 50 years. You might think a great deal has been written on this topic. In fact, much has yet to be revealed about the impact on individual lives and about the amazing twists in a test it was literally a crime to fail (and everybody failed).

williamsWhat made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I have had a lifelong love of history and its ability to help us to understand the world a little better. After a variety of careers I felt that a focus on history best allowed me to use my skills to go in-depth into a subject and to spend the time needed to really build up a body of knowledge.

Who is the audience for your history?

I range over two specialities, so guess I have two audiences. Like many in the PHA I do local work (in the Williams River Valley)  for history and heritage studies. Here my audience is anyone with a local interest in history or a love of the heritage that surrounds us and is so often under threat.

My other major area is Chinese Australian history. This field interests all who wish to understand the role of this important group in Australian history, a role that has been somewhat neglected in the past but which is becoming of greater interest all the time.

What’s your favourite historical source, book, website or film?

When I was young I read a fascinating book called The Common Stream, which traced the history of an English village from Roman times. It centred on the stream that ran through its middle. The picture of change over time was one that has stayed with me all my life.

Of course Australian history gives less scope for such lengthy historical work but I was pleased to be able to write Entertaining Dungog, which traces the 100-year role of the James Theatre in the life of the village of Dungog.

If you had a time machine, where would you go?

My favourite historical era has always been classical Greece, the time of Socrates, Thucydides and Plato. To discuss the writing of his history with Thucydides himself would be an amazing use of a time machine – so long as it came with the ability to speak Attic Greek!

Why is history important today?

I would like to say because by learning from the mistakes of the past we can avoid repeating those mistakes. Unfortunately if we learn anything from history it is that very few people seem to have the capacity to learn from it, certainly not those able to affect our societies. The importance of history is very intellectual then, a solace for those who can only stand by as events take a course that seems all too tragically inevitable.