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Reviewing First World War studies with Australian colleagues

Image of one of the disinterred soldiers from the Pheasant Wood mass grave being carried for burial in the new CWGC Cemetery at Fromelles, 22nd February 2010' - IWM: Damon Cleary

One of the disinterred soldiers from the Pheasant Wood mass grave being carried for burial in the new CWGC Cemetery at Fromelles, 22 February 2010' IWM: Damon Cleary

As a Collaborative Doctoral Award student working on IWM’s depiction of the First World War, I had the opportunity to attend a one-off collaborative research symposium, hosted by the IWM, on 10 February 2012.  Titled ‘Fromelles and Beyond: History, Heritage, Archaeology and Memory of the Great War’, it was organised by Dr Keir Reeves (Monash University, Australia & Kings College, London) and Professor Carl Bridge (Director of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, KCL).  It brought together some of Australia’s leading First World War historians with leading academics and historians from France and the UK – a thought-provoking  forum for new research on current understanding of the War.

Opening papers from Dr Jenny Macleod (Hull), reappraising the iconic Gallipoli battle from an international perspective, and IWM’s Nigel Steel, who shared the ‘Regeneration’ plans for the new First World War galleries, set up a forward-looking approach to the day.

Professor Bruce Scates (National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash) told everyone about the international project ‘Anzac Day at Home and Abroad – The Centenary History’. This ground-breaking project will investigate the history of Anzac Day, within both Australia and New Zealand, as well as its largely undocumented role within Turkey, France and the UK. Dr Catherine Moriarty (Brighton) expanded on this theme, looking at the Australian War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, and how this ties in with our respective national understandings of the conflict. Peter Francis (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) then explained recent changes in the CWGC’s mission, brought about principally by the Fromelles project.

The third session brought together Dr Iain Banks (Glasgow) and Peter Barton (La Boisselle Study Group), both involved in early stages of the Fromelles project. Dr Banks gave a moving account of the ethical issues at stake involved with battlefield archaeology – a theme which was extended by Dr Paola Filippucci, who recalled her own involvement in a project that witnessed the recovery of a soldier’s remains. Peter Barton, currently involved in the tunnels excavation at La Boisselle on the Somme, talked about his role as the historian for the Glasgow University Archaeology Team during Fromelles, highlighting the information he had found in an archive in Munich.

A final panel from Professor Annette Becker (Historial de la Grande Guerre Museum, Peronne) and Dr Duncan Anderson (RMA Sandhurst) concluded that we are heading in a new direction in how we look at the First World War. The digitisation of archival material means that the First World War has been inherited by this generation differently – less as ‘an empty tragedy’, and more as a subject with infinite possibilities for new understanding. The grief that has passed down through later generations has taken on new meanings – in some cases  allowing for a sense of closure, and in others, opening the door for future research.

Delegates agreed it could quite easily have been a two-day conference – such was the level of interest. There was a real sense of recognising the magnitude of the War’s centenary, and the opportunity it allows academics and historians from differing nations to cooperatively re-evaluate what the conflict means to people today.

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