skip to content

Gathering Australia's war memories

Valuing our veterans cover

Valuing our veterans



Gathering Australia's war memories

Since World War I it has been widely recognised that Australia's war experiences have played a key role in our evolving sense of national identity. During the 1920s this feeling was given public expression through the ceremonies and other events of Anzac Day and Armistice Day (later Remembrance Day). Accompanying these national events was a diverse range of smaller commemorative occasions such as those organised by veterans themselves, perhaps as unit associations, to remember and celebrate their common experience of war.

In shires, towns and suburbs a local sense of involvement in war was remembered and commemorated through the erection of public memorials. These generally had as their centrepiece a list of the names of citizens who had offered themselves in their country's service. In this way Australians indicated that what was worthy of greatest honour was the contribution made by individuals towards meeting the challenge of the defence of democracy and freedom.

Preserving the Legend
Valuing our Veterans

Preserving the Legend

Australia's involvement in World War II reinforced what had become known as the 'Anzac legend'. A new generation - the sons and daughters of the men and women who had taken part in World War I - showed themselves to be as willing as their parents to bear the sacrifices required in fighting a modern international war. After the war their contribution was equally honoured by their participation in Anzac Day marches, in unit association reunions and, in many places, by the addition of their names to the local memorial. Veterans of subsequent conflicts, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Malayan Emergency and UN peacekeeping operations, among others, have also seen themselves as inheritors and upholders of the 'Anzac legend'.

In remembering war, therefore, Australians have tended to emphasise the value and importance of the experiences of individuals. With the passing of those men and women who actually served in war, these experiences will be lost. To prevent this we need to begin actively recording the memories of our veterans. We need to show the veteran community that we value the contribution they have made to our national life.

Valuing Our Veterans provides practical suggestions on how to record veterans' memories. It suggests how today's generation can breathe new meaning into something as seemingly distant and nebulous as the 'Anzac legend'. Undertaking some of the activities will help Australians, especially young Australians, understand why events such as Anzac Day are so important to veterans.

Through contact between the generations and listening to the individual stories of veterans, young people can become aware of the human aspect of past events.

Some might say that Australia's war experience is already well documented in books and articles, in photographs and on film, and in museum displays. Much war related material is now also available on the Internet. However, in twenty-first century, to allow these to be the sole repository of the 'Anzac legend' would be a tragedy. The opportunity still exists for Australians to understand and appreciate the experiences of war from those who lived through them - the veterans themselves.

At present, there are thousands of World War II veterans in Australia. They are a unique generation. Their memories stretch across the century to embrace their parents' participation in World War I, the development of Anzac Day in the 1920s and 1930s, their own service in World War II and their involvement in ex-service and other community organisations since 1945. On Anzac Day these veterans still form the core of the march, and with their passing the event will inevitably lose some of its drama and focus. Now is the time, as we approach the celebration of 100 years of nationhood, to hear from these Australians, their experience of war as well as the role this has played in their lives and that of the nation. To do so will add substance to the claim that their service is our heritage.

Valuing Our Veterans aims to encourage the production of a bank of interviews with veterans throughout Australia. Once stored and catalogued, the interviews will become an invaluable source for those who, in the future, wish to draw on the collective memories of veterans, particularly those from World War II. This interview material could have an impact, not only in schools, but in the wider community and on Australia's culture.

The World Wide Web is increasingly used by school students and others as a source of information. To balance the numerous existing sites dedicated to the war history of veterans from the United States of America and other English-speaking countries, it is essential that primary sources related to the war experiences of Australian veterans also have a place on the Web. They, too, deserve to feel valued, and the process of recording these memories will itself help to convince many veterans that what they have to say is not just being listened to out of politeness, but is recognised for its value well into the future.

Beyond creating historical records, interviews between young people in the community and veterans have importance in their own right. Listening to veterans shows the value we place on their contribution to Australia. For younger primary school students, there may be little need to go beyond that. For community groups, enjoying a pleasant social encounter with veterans may lead to deeper research projects.

Veterans themselves may wish to initiate contact with young people and others in the community. Some of the suggestions in the text are therefore directed toward helping veterans link to the community, especially schools.

Valuing Our Veterans

Many veterans have already recorded their recollections in print, on audio or video tape or in photographs. Ex-service organisations have often assisted in this process. Some have begun to create their own interactive pages for the Internet; others have contributed to rich oral traditions and shared their recollections with family members and friends. For those veterans who wish to continue to share with the wider community, for all those who have yet to do so but have often been told: "you should write a book about that", a Valuing Our Veteransproject would be an ideal opportunity. In telling our stories we not only assist others to learn but often the telling itself serves to clarify our memories and deepen our understanding. It matters not if some of the details have become clouded by time. Communicating what is remembered is what is important.

Younger school-age students, in particular, are often enthralled to hear of events from what to them is an exotic past. Listening helps them visit that past and better understand and appreciate their present. Older students benefit by being able to associate the personal anecdote with the wider events of Australian and world history. Not only is the past brought to life, but as every individual's experience is different, every interview has the potential to give the student a new perspective on past events and to suggest new avenues for research.

Categorising, analysing, evaluating and comparing evidence are important parts of learning for today's students. Interviewing Australia's veterans will not only help develop these skills but also give students a sense of the past which is human, local, and linked to the 'Anzac legend'. Educators, particularly those concerned with the middle years of schooling, will welcome the emphasis on local experiences which develop critical thinking within a community setting.

Community groups, including libraries and local historical and genealogical societies, are eager to record the memories of local people. This interest in oral history stems from a growing desire to understand our past from the perspective of local areas, families and individuals. The way Australians experienced war varied throughout the country but there were common themes. Participating in the Valuing Our Veteransproject will reveal some of those experiences, show how they differed between regions, and how they link to a common national story such as the 'Anzac legend'.

Valuing our veterans cover

Valuing our veterans