A different kind of heroism
This blog post was written by Anne Landais, a French student from the Ecole Nationale des Chartes (National School of Palaeography and Archival Studies), which is a university level institution that prepares students in the human and social sciences for careers in history related domains. The current priorities of the Ecole Nationale des Chartes include the development of digital technologies applied to historical research and heritage studies, and finally the reinforcement of its international initiatives. In that respect, the Australian War Memorial agreed to welcome Anne Landais as an intern for a month, in order to present its collections and to give her an overview of how an Australian cultural institution operates.
Most people consider history as built by remarkable events, great deeds, heroic victories, shameful defeats, invasions and occupancy. The First World War is intensely rich of all of these examples; and you only have to take a look into the private records of the Australian War Memorial archives to be convinced of that fact and to see these deeds magically coming back to life.
Nevertheless, history is also made of waiting, lulls and boredom. That specific kind of heroism did not end up in big titles in the newspapers and the soldiers, both those who stayed in the trenches and those who camped behind the fighting line, did not insist on that aspect in the letters they sent to their relatives. After all, what is the point of writing on the fact that there is nothing to write on? Diaries on the other hand can be much more revealing of that huge reality of boredom and inaction. First, because of what they describe and also because they constitute in themselves a distraction from this boredom.
This extract of the Corporal Henry Ernest Wyatt’s diary is highly relevant of the fact.
Reading his biography (he was not 20 years old when he was enlisted and assigned to the 2nd Infantry Battalion), one cannot help but think how hectic his life was. He trained in Egypt, participated to the entire operation in Gallipoli, went back to Egypt, and finally got to France where he fought at the Somme battle in 1916.
And yet, there is no doubt his diary shows something else. That “something” could be called emptiness, as lulls were harshly resented in the front and behind the fighting line. Of course, there were not fights every day. Many days, or even weeks, could flow without anything happening, and this inaction can be much more difficult to picture than effective military moves.
As Corporal Wyatt says, he is “2 miles behind the fighting line” and was “on fatigues”, which means that his time was employed on some exhausting tasks and exercises. It proves that officers well understood the danger of inaction and were ready to give their troops drudgeries to make, in order to keep them occupied. But the “nothing doing” coming afterwards, followed by two blank pages, is quite striking and makes us wonder how life was really like for those men. These moments of inaction were hardly a relief, and it could even be dangerous, for it leads the soldiers to ruminate what happened before and what is ahead. Unpleasant memories may rise and fear may grow stronger and stronger. In that respect, it can be interesting to read what George Courtney Benson wrote in a letter he sent on the 6th of July 1915: “we had a good deal of time to think since I finished my especial work and perhaps it’s better not to think”.
Historians and psychiatrists found out that soldiers were likely to be mentally damaged by this odd feeling of being torn apart between knowing of being at war and the boredom that constitutes the reality they experience every day. Forced patience is surely one of the most demanding self-control one can ask to another human-being; and while reading their diaries, one must admit that there lies a different kind but effective piece of heroism.