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Carpe Librum

Bookish conversation with author Samantha Wilcoxson.


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Historical Novel Society

World War I: History in 100 Stories (Week 1)

I have started this free course through FutureLearn and learned that it is based upon a book of the same name. This first week included an introduction to the stories and a discussion of the role of memorials for grieving families. Since this course is provided by Monash University, the focus is on the war from an Australian point of view. It is interesting to look at events from a new angle, that of people who were so far removed from the theaters of war that most were never able to visit the graves of loved ones.


The course opens with the Museum Victoria, which was built for the 1880 International Exposition. The ingenuity celebrated here soon after led to the first industrialized war with weapons of mass destruction and widespread devastation of people and landscape. 


We quickly moved on to individual stories of Australians involved in the war effort. These were told in short, silent films. Many stories mentioned mothers searching for sons long after they had departed Australia's shores, searching for news and begging for help. In one case, a mother was never told that her son had been executed for murdering an MP. In another, a boy's family refused to accept the news of his death, and the father included him in his 1928 will, certain that he would one day return. One is reminded of the difficulties caused by time, distance, and lack of technology 100 years ago in the stories of these everyday soldiers and families.


One father dedicated his life to peace and the World Disarmament Movement after the death of his son. "Now it is time to act. Now lest we forget. Now before the generation passes which felt what modern war means." Sadly, his efforts were in vain.


Another soldier spent his last moments before dying dictating a letter to his wife. "You must be prepared for the worst to happen." After describing the excruciating pain he was in as gangrene settled into his wounds, he tells her, "I am very sorry dear."


Some subjects were only lightly touched upon: letters written home, families begging for subsidies in order to visit loved one's graves, the unprecedented challenge that the war created for accounting and bookkeeping. The War Graves Commission was both praised and criticized. Though they were devoted to equal treatment of all servicemen, providing identical tombstones regardless of rank and nationality, the Commission also charged per character for epitaphs and rejected those they felt were inappropriate. They also removed many privately funded memorials in the interest of equality. The booklet, "Where Australians Rest" was published as a substitute for the graveside visit that families could never afford to make, travel to Europe costing approximately 1 years wages to the average Australian at the time.


Through individual stories, the poignant truths of the War to End All Wars is being revealed. I am enjoying this so far, though I wonder if the idea is to give a teaser that will encourage me to buy the book. (Is that so bad? It is a free course.)


Our assignment by week 4 is to create an epitaph for one of the individual stories that we learn. As the grieving families experienced at the time, we are limited to 66 characters, though we will not have to pay the 3 pence halfpenny per character that they were charged.