Tuesday 12 June 2007 by Craig Tibbitts. No comments
To Flanders Fields, 1917, Research material, War records

Australia's records: preserved as sacred things - pictures relics and writings.

By C. E. W. Bean, The Anzac Bulletin, Vol 40, 10 October 1917.

British Headquarters, France,

September 29 [1917].

By C. E. W. BEAN.

Every country after this war will have its war museums and galleries, and its library of records rendered sacred by the millions of gallant, precious lives laid down in their making. In London, Paris, Belgium, the war collections, the war pictures, the war archives will be the goal of millions of visitors and the centre of thousands of students as long as their peoples endure. Some day a magnificent collection in some great Australian city will be the equal of them all; Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, Hobart will contain their war museums of this great war as interesting to visitors from Europe or America and to Australians themselves as are the great London collections, with their relics of Nelson and Wellington, the Crimea, the Mutiny, and the Soudan, to-day.

The Australian record of the war ought to be as interesting as any one of those in Europe or America. At least, the organisation which has been established to collect and preserve it is, as far as is known, the most complete of those which have been gradually established by any British state during the war. Canada gave us great help in starting it, but we have gone beyond her. New Zealand is in some ways joining in with us. Great Britain has given the most generous support in that part of the field which she covers, but she leaves many important parts of it alone. The Australian organisation now at work in London and France provides for every sort of record that has up to the present suggested itself.

The Written Records.

There are three records, the written record—that is to say, official diaries, memoirs. maps, orders, messages sent and received in battle, and official or unofficial correspondence; the record of pictures — official photographs and cinema records, unofficial sketches, and the official artist's pictures painted or drawn on the spot; lastly, the records in material—trophies, the things our men and units have actually used in battle or the German has used against them, with the marks of battle upon them.

When the history of a war comes to be written the main source of it is the diaries which are ordered to be kept by various headquarters from armies down to brigades, by battalions, by brigades of artillery, by independent companies which see almost more of the fighting than any others, such as trench mortar batteries and machine-gun companies; by field ambulances, which are responsible for the only records which can do justice to their magnificent stretcher-bearers; by engineers, pioneers, and especially by any detached units, such as a tunnelling company or a detached heavy battery, whose work, often the very best worth hearing about, will go completely unrecorded unless some officer can be found with the time at intervals to make its diary complete.

We Start to Keep Our Own.

At the beginning of the war and until long after the Australians came from France, the British Records Office had the responsibility of receiving all our records for us, with all the orders, maps, air photographs, messages, and other details attached, while the Australian Records received only the bare duplicate of diaries of such units as sent a duplicate in. It was felt that her records were a sacred possession to Australia, and early this year a section of the Australian Imperial Force was formed to receive and classify them—the Australian War Records Section. The Canadians had formed such a section before and gave us the help of their experience; and the British authorities helped magnificently by every means they could—gave the Australian Section two rooms in their own fine magnificent office, and entrusted to us at once the records they had kept for us, on one condition only—that we should give them a duplicate of all diaries and appendices received.

As soon as it controlled its own diaries the Australian Force set out immediately to make the records complete in every way it could think of. Every sort of additional memoir of fighting, the original reports sent in by officers and men fighting out ahead to their headquarters during battle—a most precious and valuable form of relic—accounts written by various officers afterwards, when they had the leisure to think of what they saw and knew, records of incidents that ought not to be lost to history—even those humorous incidents which are a flashlight on the character of the Australian soldier and invaluable for the writing of the history of the regiment—maps, photographs, sketches were all asked for to be sent direct to the War Records Section. An Australian officer, formerly a well-known war correspondent, who is to organise the historical system in Egypt, was first sent over to France to visit and explain to units what the Section would do for them, and arrange if possible for the keeping of those precious records of individual detail the histories of regiments and batteries, and for the collection of material for future Australian Museums.

Our Photographs: the Rigid Truth.

Australia has now two official photographers and a small staff, with an exceedingly well provided dark-room close to the front. It is the duty of one photographer to see that there is obtained for Australia a photograph of every subject that will be important in Australian history—the scene of every tough struggle, the trench corner or blockhouse that proved a knotty point, the hills that overlooked us, and pictures taken from them showing what the German could see. The record photographer is responsible for all these in times of action; in times of rest his duty is to visit the battalions and brigades and obtain as far as possible a record of each famous unit, its men and its staff. The other official photographer is responsible for the pictures for the Press and for future Australian galleries —his eyes has [sic] to be open for everything which makes a picture. He is also responsible for the cinematograph record.

It is doubtful if these two offices could he better filled than they are lilted for Australia at present. The senior photographer is one who was for five years in the Antarctic as photographer for two consecutive expeditions. The record photographer is an Australian who had just returned from Stefannson's Expedition to the Arctic, of which he finished as second in command. Throughout the recent fighting they have been daily in the front line, and amongst the batteries. Australians may know this, that whatever is found amongst the Australian official photographs is genuine, taken where and as its title indicates. The first principle laid down for the Australian official photographs is that they are a sacred record—standing for future generations, to see for ever the plain, simple truth.

Besides the official photographs, portraits of all Australians who distinguished themselves here and in Gallipoli are being sought for from every unit; and every photograph of Gallipoli that can be found or heard of.

The Australian Artists.

Every original Australian negative and one copy of every Australian cinema film goes to the Australian War Records Section, to be kept with the greatest care, as the national record. Duplicates are taken and kept by the High Commissioner's Office, which manages their publication. The interests of publicity and of preservation for record are quite distinct—publicity needs quick, masterful handling, record needs careful, tender, methodical preservation. Therefore, all publicity—of photographs in "Australia and the Great War," of cables and articles in the British Press and "Anzac Bulletin"—is managed by an affiliated but separate section, the National War Records, in the High Commissioner's Office.

A national record of the Australian Imperial Force is also in process of being obtained from the Australian artists, of whom two are continuously at work on the Australian front. By a recent arrangement, besides the official black and white artist, who has been working for Australia at the front ever since the Somme winter, two of the Australian divisions have with them artists who will each paint at least one big historical picture for Australia, and whose stretches at the front will go to the nation. When the present two artists have been here for three mouths, two others will take their place, who will be succeeded by a further two. The whole management of the artistic record is undertaken by the authority which is responsible for publicity—the National Records Section in the High Commissioner's Office.

Australia's Sacred Relics.

Every relic that can possibly be saved for Australia—from rifles with fixed bayonets dropped in the old No-man's Land during the first charge at Pozières, and the last tiny Union Jack that flew over a signal dug-out at Anzac down to signal lamps blown up in the last fight around Polygon Wood, or the splintered reel which our signallers carried with them in the third wave at Messines, and the shattered breech-block of a Lagnicourt gun—all these are now sent in by those units who wish to place them on record to a War Museums Collecting Depot. Officers and men whose trophies are too heavy or cumbersome for themselves, or who choose to let the future people of Australia see them rather than the small circle of the home, send them in to this collection station with their name, unit and the description of the relic written on labels, which are sent to every commanding officer. The relics are received, whether in the field, at the base, in London, or presently in Egypt. They are there carefully numbered and listed, and packed to a further depot, from which they will be removed as soon as transport becomes secure and easy to provide. This work of collection has the greatest goodwill in the Force - patriotic Australian Salvage and Ordnance officers are helping to send in scores of interesting small relics which would otherwise be used for scrap-iron.

Australia's Full Support Needed.

These trophies are entirely those which, if not so collected, would either be given away to landladies in France or be rusting on battlefields or as scrap iron in ordnance yards. They do not touch the province of those trophies taken by the troops in battle which are officially claimed by the units and kept for them by the British Government. For those greater trophies there is a procedure laid down by the British authorities, and the trophies will apparently he controlled by the Committee of the British National War Museum, which works under the War Office, and which is attended by an Australian officer when subjects connected with trophies captured by Australian troops are under discussion. By far the greater part of Australian war material passes into purely British hands, and the British, perhaps, because of their nearness to the spot, attach far less importance to the record of the war—either in photographs, trophies, or pictures, than the Australian nation does. For this reason the effort being made by the Australian Imperial Force to preserve for the, country every record that is capable of preservation calls for the full support of the Australian nation.

The most necessary step is the establishment of the three great centres of Australian national study—the National Australian Museum, the National Australian Gallery, and the National Australian Library; or at any rate the highly competent central authority which, when the war is over and it its safe to send these precious and sacred records oversea, will be all ready established to receive and house them with the most extreme care, distribute to the States to whose battalions they belong those trophies intimately connected with the troops of those States—provided, first, that State authorities are properly constituted to receive them with equal care; and arrange for the careful duplication of the original collection of photographs for the State galleries. Gallipoli relics and photographs can chiefly be collected in Australia to-day. With our great Australian force oversea, the Australian War Records Section has been given an important and growing status. It is under the most capable officers available; its system is intensely careful. Until a centre of all great future national research exists in Australia, the Australian War Records Section which the Australian Imperial Force has established will preserve and tenderly care for the sacred things which will some day constitute the greatest public possesion [sic] Australia will have.

The Field that is Sacred.

There is one material record which we, who have had these records at heart in Europe, would urge with all the power that we have. The field of Pozières and Mouquet Farm, which is more consecrated by Australian fighting and more hallowed by Australian blood than any field which has ever existed or is likely to exist in Europe, is a bare, bleak moor and hilltop to-day. There is not a house left in it, nor yet the cellar of a house. Every trench is marked with the white crosses of Australian graves. It overlooks the whole Somme battlefield, and it contains the sacred memorials of Australian regiment after regiment, division after division. The whole field is not a square mile in size.

In 1914, ninety-nine years after the Battle of Waterloo, the British nation was about to purchase the field of Waterloo, when its chances of doing so became lost, perhaps, for ever. The trenches of Pozières—its roads and even the broken German wire, are still traceable. Its graves, named and nameless, stand still where some Australian fell. We have had no cemetery like it, and probably never will have. Might not the Australian democracy ask the French people for the right to purchase that small square mile for the sake of those Australians whose sons and fathers lie there?