Remember remembering : Oral Histories of the First World War

09 November 2011 by Stephanie Boyle

Well, we got wind in the morning that the Armistice was either signed or about to be signed... And the word finally came through and of course there was great excitement... I was only sorry I hadn't arrived there Armistice night because the chaps that got off the train, the girls just formed a ring around them.. and they wouldn't let them out of the ring till they'd kissed every one of them. - Former Corporal Ted Smout, a member of the 3rd Sanitation Section,  Australian Imperial Forces, 1915-1919 ( S03424)

Remembrance Day was once known as Armistice Day,  the day when World War I ended. It is a day to reflect on the losses incurred by the “Great War”, as it was known at the time. The Memorial holds many stories of the Great War; these are the oral histories of survivors, veterans who recorded their stories of the war years leading up to Armistice, and in some cases beyond.    These stories are a fascinating insight into the minds of a previous generation, revealing not only the history of how campaigns were fought – essential information for researchers -  but also the realities of war at the individual level, deeply personalising the Australian history of war. The WWI oral history collection has a character all its own; the idle browser may find their expectations confounded.  Although the scale of death and destruction during the Great War was unprecedented for the time, and certainly many a horror and hardship of war is alluded to, graphic descriptions of killing or dying do not typify the collection:

Oh, the trouble is it's so long ago that, you know, any unpleasant memory seems to sink away to the bottom. You only think about anything that was funny or pleasant, actually. -Former Private George Cooper, of the Gordon Highlanders, recorded in 1994 for the Department Veterans’ Affairs “Diggers and Mates” project (S02036)

Traumatic events are in the main obscured, possibly by polite discretion, possibly also by the mellowing of memory -  for few recordings predate the 1970s,  and  interviewees were well advanced in years by the time they recorded their stories.  Conversely, the passage of time produced revelations for some.  John McNeil, as Brigadier,  5thLight Horse Regiment, demonstrates this in his  recollection of being shelled at Gallipoli:

One afternoon I was writing a letter at the table and a shell came in and hit the corner of the table, turned it up, threw me into a corner of the dugout and the shell went into the other corner and exploded. I was dug out and taken down to the casualty clearing station.. Subsequently at a reunion in Brisbane some years later, I met one of my sergeants and he said, 'Oh... Skipper, did they ever tell you how we dug you, came to dig you out that time you were buried?' And I said, 'No'. ‘ Well..Sergeant so-and-so', he said,  ‘we went along to the dugouts when the shell exploded and we said, oh well the skipper's in there...We tossed up to see whether we'd dig you out or leave you where you were.’  And he said, ' We got turned out heads...' Interviewer: What, that meant heads to dig you out? Brigadier McNeil: Yeah. Heads they'd dig me out and tails they didn't bother. Interviewer: And they finally got you out alright. McNeil: Oh, yes, well I'm here. -  Interview conducted in 1980 by Major Aylmer Campbell Robertson (S00186)

An interested listener will always find the numerous, humorous anecdotes of war; our WW1 veterans always made time to tell a funny story, seldom missing a chance to turn a near death experience into a light hearted tale. Sheer chance  - whether pure or perverse - was credited with saving many a life; seldom does heroism get a guernsey. And while their inherent resilience saw them through to old age, it's also worth noting that these veterans went to war at a time when a majority of people at home in Australia supported the war, despite the losses suffered.   Whether at war or at home , this was a generation for the most part accepting of global events beyond their control :

Interviewer : Did you realise they’d lost a lot of people? Veteran, Norman Chapman: oh yes. Interviewer : Had that changed your attitude to the war? Norman Chapman : No. Interviewer : What was your feeling then? Were you a bit apprehensive or... Norman Chapman : No, I was never that way. The only thing is, you know, had to carry on. - Former Lieutenant Norman Chapman, interviewed in 1994 by Bryan Butler of the Memorial about his service in 3 Field Company, France (S00466)

When asked to reflect upon their lives, the veterans characteristically respond modestly:

Well, I think the only thing that I actually feel that I'm justified in feeling slightly proud of is that I gave my word, I never broke it or anything like that..I just take things as they come, and don’t worry. –  George Cooper

The total number of WW1 audio recordings held by the Memorial is 269. At least 32 are with Gallipoli veterans, many  of whom were also at the Western Front in France, and five Western Front veterans  recall witnessing the fall of the famous German flying ace, The Red Baron (Baron Manfred von Richthofen) .  Many recordings are interviews conducted on site at the Memorial, or as part of special projects, while a few are memoirs, where the veteran spoke their stories to a recorder,  rather than being interviewed. Examples of other interesting stories include Private Eric Abraham’s self recorded tape,  ( S04443) in which he recounts his time in the 5th Division Signal Company, in Gallipoli and France, during the period 1915-1919.  He recalls stumbling across corpses of the enemy, narrow escapes from shrapnel and shells, while resting at Hooge Crater on the Menin Road, and a time in France so fatiguing,  that he actually slept through the night while rats ate his hair.  Listen to Eric recall how he lost a friend in a shell attack, and later how he celebrated his birthday in France: Download MP3 (deadly shell story)

Download MP3 (birthday story)

Australian soldiers bringing in the wounded to the dressing station at Hooge Crater near Ypres in Belgium during the battle on 20 September 1917.

Private George Cooper of the Gordon Highlanders, sent to France in 1918, humorously relates how he trained in trousers, but “fought in a skirt”.  As a member of the Highlanders, he was required to wear a kilt as part of his uniform – without underwear!  Listen to George talk about Armistice, and the art of wearing a kilt, here:

Download MP3 (George's Kilt)

English born Queenie Sunderland, almost our only female interviewee for the WW1 period, was a “Pommy Bride”.  Queenie’s interview recalls her early life in Salisbury, England, and, whilst working at the Salisbury Train Station, meeting her tall, broad- shouldered Australian  husband-to-be ;  seeing Lord Kitchener on the train platform ; accompanying her husband to Australia on the troop ship Osterly, and while en route, staying up at 4am to see the Southern Cross for the first time, an experience moving for both her and the Australians aboard. She also mentions befriending a woman aboard ship who transpired to be one of the many "abandoned brides",  British women who, expecting to be met in Sydney by Australian fiancés, waited in vain – only to be repatriated by ship to Britain.   Queenie went  on to recall several anecdotes of her husband’s time in Gallipoli, including  briefly assisting an injured man onto the back of Simpson's donkey, and another time, whilst on guard duty, encountering a Turkish soldier doing the same ;  they came face to face, about turned without pause, and paced away from each other again!  ( S03442) Researchers often ask about the Memorial’s holdings relating to Victoria Cross Winners.    Our oral history holdings, in this regard, are small, and sadly there are no interviews with WW1 VC winners.  However, we have a couple of interviews with David Edward (Ted) Smout, one of the last WW1 veterans to live into the 21century, and one of those who saw the famous German flying ace, The Red Baron, shot down.   Ted’s 1997 interview, (conducted  by Peter Rubenstein for Department of Veterans’ Affairs 1990s oral history project, "Voices From The Great War"),  is of outstanding clarity and quality, particularly when its realised he was 99 at the time of his interview.   In an hour-long interview with Ted, Ted  discusses enlisting in 1915 , meeting Frank (later Sir Frank) Beaurepaire in the YMCA Hut at Le Havre, and how Frank's bread rolls disappeared during a period of harsh rationing; experiencing the harsh front- line conditions of winter in France, 1916 :  shelling, trench-foot, lice and "frozen blankets". Ted also reflects on Armistice, and what he was doing when it occurred; life after the war including the after- effects of shell shock, working with other veterans, and the success of his marriage.  We don't have permission at this time to post a clip online,  but the Memorial conducted its own interview with Ted in 2002, in which he discussed being a stretcher bearer and how, when the wooden duckboard paths (which provided safe passage over the bogs) were shelled to pieces, there was no way to get to the  wounded men lying in and around the shell holes. 

EPIP tents pitched in the grounds of a convalescent camp near the Australian General Base Depot at Le Havre. Note the Australian flag flying from the pole on the right, and the large YMCA buiding in the background (centre).

(a photograph from the collection showing a YMCA hut at Le Havre, quite possibly the same hut where Frank Beaurepaire’s bread rolls disappeared) . Reports of Baron Manfred von Richthofen's death vary according to source (for example, several people have claimed responsbility for his fall. )  But here is an excerpt from the Memorial's filmed interview with Ted ( F08487 ) , wherein Ted tells his story of the death of  "The Red Baron" :

When the Red Baron was shot down, we were only a couple of hundred yards away, in a rest camp, there was a group of six of us.  We were first there, that was before any guard was posted... and one report said, he was dead. He wasn't, he was alive, he lived long enough to be cleaned up, his face and body and clothing were covered in blood, he was cleaned up, taken out of the plane, and put beside the plane on the grass. And he recovered consciousness, and uttered one word : 'Kaput'.   K-A-P-U-T. And died. And that was it.

These are but a sample of the wealth of stories held by the Memorial’s Sound Section.  Recordings may be accessed in the Memorial’s Research Centre, or copies purchased via our ESales Section.  For information about a particular recording, contact the Sound Section.   We’ll let Ted have the last word, about the Great War:

..that was the war to end all wars. No wars ever ended a war. I don't think there's any place for war. The history of wars has never been for any peace. I wouldn't do it again.