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

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Anzac Centenary”

  1. Ye, I think the historians largely have been left out this time around. Of the many programs I have watched (or just glimpsed and rejected), the only one I enjoyed and felt was a reasonable representation of the ANZAC story was the ABC’s “Lest WE Forget What?? Written and directed by Rachel Landers. Narrated by Kate Aubusson.

  2. I am both journalist and historian, but my emphasis has been on the historian role for the past 20 years. One reason for the situation Caroline Adams describes is (I believe) that journalists have to “file” to survive–they have to write stories to fill newspapers, websites and news programs; they have to produce documentaries for radio and TV; they are at the front line of this business of remembering the centenary, as it were. Journalists face the constant pressure of deadlines. Historians tend to be working on bigger projects where deadlines are less frequent and sometimes more elastic. I have just completed writing a 62,000-word ms about my wife’s 25 ancestors who enlisted to serve in World War I (six died over there). It will soon be published as a hard-cover book, *Cobbers and Cousins: A Family at the Great War*. In the midst of the great flood of Anzac centenary newspaper stories and TV programs, I have not sought publicity for my writing. I am hoping that “commemoration fatigue” (largely inspired by the Gallipoli centenary, I suggest) will wane. I hope that when the small readership for my book comes to the stories I tell about our family’s 25 soldiers they will be able to see how the Great War impacted on the lives of one extended family and one small towns such as Gloucester and Laurieton. I believe they will be able to see this much better because of the depth of my research and because I have visited the Western Front battlefields three times and slogged away at finding out about the lives of our family’s soldiers who returned.

  3. I agree with Rod Kirkpatrick (above) that Journalists need to file to survive and also agree that historians usually take a longer period of time to publish their works.
    However, as a former TV Producer of documentaries, including ones with a History focus, I support the efforts of those in the media to popularise history and to give meaning to the present through stories of the past.

    The difference with the stories being told about the current Gallipoli commemorations is that there is “no new News”, and perhaps this is therefore not as dynamic as audiences have come to expect.
    Journalists and ordinary citizens have therefore done, what Historian Jonathan King described on Channel 10 tonight as taking ownership for family history, with the citizen becoming the academic and forensically examining every record that exists about their own family hero/es. This includes journalists who had family who fought at Gallipoli.
    The interesting point is, therefore, the balance between the ownership of history and who tells it. As Dr King said previously in an interview on ABC Radio about his book “Gallipoli Diaries”,, the Anzac Troops on the ground did not trust the propagandists who were reporting on the campaign via the Press, and reported the truth of the bloody campaign in their diaries for their families to read and hold as testamentary evidence for all time that the Press can and does get it wrong.
    Where do Historians sit amongst all of this? Patiently, I’d say. This is a fleeting moment in time, this Centenary celebration. Thank heavens for the journalists who report it, and for the families who have preserved the precious records through several generations and for the Historians who will come to interpret it all for us, turning the light on this moment in time a little further down the track.

Comments are closed.