“In Australia, there is no single literary version of the First World War”

Dr. Christina Spittel is a lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Canberra. Currently, she is completing a book on the First World War in Austrialian novels which is based in her PhD from the University of Freiburg. 

Dr. Christina Spittel (foto: privat)

Dr. Christina Spittel (photo: private)

The most prominent battles of the First World War were fought in Europe and destroyed whole regions. Australia was on the other side of the earth, so to speak.  How was the First World War approached in Australian literature written on the home front during the war?

Novelists brought the war home to Australian readers. The war was scarcely four months old, and Australian troops had not even left Australian shores (let alone heard of Gallipoli), when Ambrose Pratt, a prolific writer and journalist of the time, had already packaged the conflict between shiny blue covers: War in the Pacific takes its readers across the South Seas, as a small group of British men is chased by the German navy, who is threatening to invade Sydney! German spies threatening to sabotage railway lines and troopships feature in Arthur Wright’s The Hate of A Hun (1916), one of my favourites.

Other novelists take their reader overseas: Mabel Balcombe Brookes, for example, travelled with her husband, who was working for the Australian Red Cross, first to Egypt and then to France, and the female, upper-class protagonists in her novels are equally mobile. One of them, Ernestine, even sits at her soldier husband’s death-bed when he dies in a French hospital, an experiences out of bounds for her Australian readers. What all these early novels do, regardless of where they locate the conflict is to show an entire community involved in the war effort: once Ernestine has recovered from her shock, she helps the wounded in London, for example.

How did Australian authors who witnessed the war deal with their trauma? Was their work received well or were most readers perhaps unable to relate to them since they had a very different experience on the home front?

Can I just say that trauma was not limited to those who witnessed the war first hand? Australian historians like Tanja Luckins, Bruce Scates, and Bart Ziino have told us how traumatic the experience of loss could be, especially for those next-of-kin whose loved ones were declared “missing” – and that was one third of Australia’s war dead in the First World War. Australia’s earliest war novels take the issue of grief and mourning very seriously: John Butler Cooper, himself a father with two sons in the war, has one mother die when she hears of her son’s death on Gallipoli.

Soldier's Gravestone (photo: Dr. Spittel)

Soldier’s Gravestone in Gallipoli (photo: Dr. Spittel)

Australians were inundated with war books in the interwar period, and they read and debated novels like Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, in great numbers. By then there was a new generation of readers who had been too young to fight, who were curious to read about the conflict; and the war novel had become the soldiers’ genre. Remarque’s translator was an Australian soldier, Arthur Wheen, a student from Sydney University. Wheen dealt with his trauma by translating the novels of the former enemy. He’d had literary ambitions himself, but only wrote one short novella. Leonard Mann, from Melbourne, was haunted by memories of being buried alive in Passchendaele for the rest of his life. In his novel, Flesh in Armour (1932), this happens to one of his protagonists who is so traumatised that he takes his life.

How is the war remembered in contemporary Australian literature?

Contemporary Australian novels take a range of shapes – a useful reminder that in Australia, there is no single literary version of the First World War, unlike in Britain, where disillusioned men in the muddy trenches of the Western Front are de rigueur.

Cover of "Lights & Shadows in War Time" by S. N. Hogg (photo: Dr. Spittel)

Cover of “Lights & Shadows in War Time” by S. N. Hogg (photo: Dr. Spittel)

And yet those recent Australian novels share one common feature: written against the backdrop of Australia’s costly involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re deeply concerned with the cost of war, and with war’s aftermath. In Daughters of War, Thomas Keneally, one of Australia’s most prolific literary chroniclers of conflict, depicts the hardships of Australian nurses, first on Lemnos, then in France, and through them, of course, some of the horrific wounds sustained by the soldiers. Keneally has spoken powerfully against some of the public rhetoric surrounding Australia’s memory of the First World War, and his novel plays with his readers’ expectations, often subtly pulling the rug from under their feet.

Other novelists sound out the blind-spots of Australia’s cultural memory, and write about deserters; about grief back home; or about the difficulties of return. Many of these novels feature a cast of contemporary characters in the late 20th and early 21st century, who wonder how it is possible to reimagine this conflict, to connect with it, across such a huge distance in time.


Want to know more about the depiction of the First World War in Australian literature? Join Dr. Spittel at the WeberWorldCafé “Narrating the First World War – Experiences and Reports from Transregional Perspectives”!

Helen May

Helen May was a research assistant at Max Weber Foundation, 2015-2016.

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