Caring for the past
To Flanders Fields, 1917, Research material, War records
It is not enough to expect the evidence of the past to be preserved as a matter of chance or accident. Someone has to care.
Evidence of the past comes to us by many means: documents, photographs, books, newspapers, objects, works of art, films, buildings, landscapes, eyewitness accounts. Not everything is kept, however. Time, neglect, destruction and sometimes –perversely – a desire to forget, mean that only a fraction of the evidence of the past survives and still less finds its way into libraries, galleries, museums and archives. Someone has to make a choice, to take deliberate steps to preserve (or rescue) the means by which our histories can be passed on.With the story of Australians at war, everything starts with Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent and official historian of the First World War. Many people know that Bean edited the 12 volume history of Australia’s involvement in the war, and wrote six of the volumes himself. But before such a history could be contemplated, Bean knew that he would need adequate records from which to work. He also believed that it would be owed to the Australian people that the relics and records of their part in the war should be taken home to Australia, not swallowed up in some vast museum or library in Britain. Something would have to be done.Late in 1916, two years into the war, Bean became aware that the Canadian military forces had secured an agreement from the British government that Canada could keep its documentary records, not hand them over to the British Government. It was obvious that what had been granted to Canada could not be denied to Australia. Bean successfully persuaded senior commanders within the Australian forces to likewise push for a “war records section” on the Canadian model. The Australian War Records Section came into being on 16 May 1917, when a young Australian officer, Lieutenant John Treloar, crossed from France to London to take up his duty as officer-in-charge.That day might not seem so special, but between the Commonwealth of Australia coming into being on 1 January 1901 and 1917, little had been done to preserve the records of the new commonwealth government. There had been some talk, but little result. There was no national archives or public record office. The tiny Australian War Records Section was the first organisation whose sole task was to gather and preserve any records of the Commonwealth.
John Treloar set to work at once. He was a hard-working, steadfast and idealistic young man, aged 22, who had made his way through the ranks as a clerk, for armies need people who wield pens as well as fire guns. Perhaps it didn’t occur to him that he was Australia’s first national archivist, but this was effectively the case. He began with a staff of four. Two rooms were made available to him within the British Public Record Office (PRO) in Chancery Lane. This magnificent gothic pile was built in the 1850s to bring together the 800 years worth of British public records that until then had languished in many parts of London. The contrast between this grand statement about the importance of public records and Australia’s first efforts was stark, but Treloar was not to be put off.
By July 1917 he had surveyed the records of the Australian Imperial Force and was ready to issue instructions to ensure that they could be improved. The most basic record being kept was the “war diary”: a day-to-day record kept by each military unit. It was a record not just of lessons to be learned but of history in the making. Treloar found that at first they had been kept rather sketchily, but the best way to improve them was to convince their keepers that the diaries were being valued as historical records. Treloar read, commented upon and criticised the war diaries, spoke to their keepers, had special stationery printed, and even encouraged a sense of competition among units to keep the best diary. “REMEMBER!” he exhorted his diarists, “a well kept diary is the surest pledge to future recognition.”
A sense of competition also worked wonders in persuading individual soldiers to collect battlefield relics on behalf of the War Records Section. To encourage enthusiasm for collecting, Treloar had monthly tables distributed which showed the top 25 best collecting units in the AIF. He made sure that rank and file soldiers understood that contributions from them were as welcome as those from officers and that the material they collected would one day be shown in the “nation’s memorial” in Australia as a tribute to their fallen comrades. Years later, in an interview with the Argus newspaper, he recalled these wartime experiences and claimed that “every soldier went into action with a pocketful of museum labels”. Of course, this was not literally true but the War Records Section did have museum labels printed and supplied to units so that objects would come back with their origins and significance properly described. “A good description transforms a piece of salvage into an interesting relic,” Treloar observed, and no museum curator, then or now, would disagree with that.
In late 1917 Bean went from France to see Treloar and found him doing “splendidly”. He had “the whole scheme of work systematised in his head and the branches admirably divided”. But he was hopelessly congested for want of room. Those two gracious rooms in the PRO were now much too small. Treloar had “not a square inch in which to put an additional chair”, not even a chair for Bean, who had to content himself with an office atop a building in Great Peter Street in Westminster. Bean and Treloar shared lodgings, however, at 1 Lexham Gardens in Kensington, and there they talked and planned “night after night” about the war records and what should happen to them after the war. Treloar was working ten-hour days six days a week, Bean found, as were some of his staff, and Bean was worried for their health. “In the whole of these great public records offices of Great Britain, the majority of the British staff come about 9.30 am and finishes at 5 pm, and the only section that is always at work after them, is our little Australian section.”
But the “little Australian section” did not remain little. In February 1918 it moved into larger quarters at AIF Headquarters in Horseferry Road, Westminster. It collected records, photographs, maps, works of art, films, objects, books and other printed material. It established offices in France and Egypt, and by November 1918 had about 600 staff, civilians and soldiers. Complex arrangements were in place for salvaging, storing and transporting tens of thousands of objects – everything from documents to water bottles, tanks and aircraft –to Australia.
Bean, Treloar and others had been working to establish an Australian war museum and by 1919 a committee was formed to guide into existence the organisation we now know as the Australian War Memorial. The vast collection built by the Australian War Records Section was transferred to the new Memorial, to form the nucleus of a collection that now includes material of every conceivable type from all wars in which Australia has been involved. Treloar was appointed director in 1920 and remained in the position until his early death in 1952. Bean said then that Treloar had given his life for the great work that he had conceived. Pondering that, we might easily think that Treloar’s was heroism of a special kind.
This article, ‘Caring for the past’, by Anne-Marie Condé, was originally published in Wartime: the Official Magazine of the Australian War Memorial, Vol 32, 2005, pp. 40-43.