There was movement in the Research Centre yesterday afternoon as news spread about a momentous event in the history of the AWM4 First World War unit war diaries digitisation project. For those who have been involved in this project, space was not an issue as we crammed into the digitisation room to witness the scanning of the final page at 2pm on 5 January 2010.


The final page to be scanned for the AWM4 digitisation project

The final page was taken from the unit war diary of the Australian Base Post Office, Egyptian Expeditionary Force for January 1919, item AWM 4 17/3/8. Titled, "A statement of mail handled at the Australian Base Post Office", this document records the numbers of letters, packets and parcels unloaded from SS Wyreema on 27 January 1919. These figures also include details of the amount of items originating in each Australian state and an estimate of the date they were posted.

Scanning the final page of AWM4

Planning for the AWM4 digitisation project commenced in 2005 with the aim to make digital copies available for research online to preserve the original documents. Following a tender contract process, the first page was scanned by Document Imaging Services (DIS) in December 2006.

Since then, approximately 500 000 pages have been scanned. The scanning of the final page is the latest significant event in a project that has passed many milestones whilst edging closer to completion through the collaboration of Memorial staff and DIS.


Some of the people who worked on the AWM4 project over the past three years

These diaries document the daily activities of military units on active service in the First World War and supplement the war diaries from other conflicts that are already available online. The digital versions of these files are available on the Australian Army War Diaries web page on the Australian War Memorial’s website.

The Australian War Memorial’s Bean diaries digitisation project was short listed for the Manning Clark House National Cultural Awards – 2009. The Award recognises outstanding contributions to the quality of Australian cultural life in 2009.

The digitisation of these fragile bound diaries represented a significant achievement for the Memorial. Personal records are not always presented in a logical or chronological order. The challenge for the Memorial's Research Centre was to digitise all of Charles Bean's 286 volumes of diaries, notebooks and folders without damaging them and to make the digital images of the records accessible and usable in the online environment without interfering with the integrity of the original documents.

Our intention of displaying this valuable collection online means that the original records are now preserved and this  historically significant and unique collection is available to all researchers across Australia and the world.

The records can be viewed on the Memorial’s website here: /collection/war_diaries/cew_bean/

Emma Jones previously mentioned in 60 year old sweat on a wedding dress – a conservation challenge the preparation of Miss Platt-Hepworth’s wedding dress for the exhibition Of Love and War. The decision was made by the curator Rebecca Britt to keep the staining as evidence of use. While the staining is important to keep, the fabric was not as lustrous as it once was. The dress has a pattern of pretty daises made from cream silk woven with numerous silver threads. A lot of the silver plating on the metal threads had tarnished and been damaged; this has exposed the copper substrate of the thread and gives the dress a more golden appearance than it originally had.

Due to the presence of the metal threads, I discounted the use of many of the cleaning methods that a textile conservator might normally use such as washing. As any treatment with water could damage the silk or cause further corrosion of the metal I decided to use a solvent to ‘dry-clean’ the dress. Petroleum spirits was my chosen solvent as it is less toxic than a lot of the other dry-cleaning solvents. My tests also indicated that the lustre and handle of the silk would be improved, while leaving the historical staining intact.

Petroleum Sprits is an unpleasant chemical to use, so to ensure our safety we used gloves and respirators. The bath was set up in a large fume extractor in the Large Technology Conservation Workshop, which is usually used to paint tanks!

When historical textiles are being treated it is important to be very gentle so as not to damage the fabric. So for this wedding dress a large bath was used to prevent creases and folds.  During ‘dry-cleaning’ the dress was very gently sponged by hand to move the solvent through the fabric without moving the fabric too much. Once rinsed with more of the solvent, the dress was lifted out of the bath on a nylon netting supporting sling and placed on a hammock (made of more netting) to dry.

The following photographs show Sarah Clayton, Senior Textile Conservator, and myself, ‘dry-cleaning’ Miss Platt-Hepworth’s wedding dress in Petroleum Spirits and the dress drying.

Sarah Clayton and Jessie Firth ‘dry-cleaning’ Miss Platt-Hepworth’s wedding dressMiss Platt-Hepworth’s wedding dress drying after 'dry-cleaning'

This was a successful treatment; the fabric is fresher and more lustrous after cleaning, whilst the historical stains remain intact. It is now very important that we use gloves when handling this dress, to prevent the natural oils and acids from our skin tarnishing the silver threads again.

Isn’t it funny how things come about? While working on the textiles component for the exhibition Of Love and War a painted kitbag came to me for treatment. The lovely pin-up painted on the bag looked an awful lot like Dorothy Lamour, a beautiful actress known as the “Sarong Girl” in the 1940’s.  As the exhibition will be travelling I had to chuckle that Dorothy Lamour made a string of Bing Crosby/ Bob Hope “On the Road” films. The kitbag belonged to Signaller John Conrad Lynam, a timber cutter from Brisbane. Signaller John appears to have had an artistic hand and a taste for beautiful women.  The kitbag was worn and many years of use and storage had caused abrasions and losses. The paint was also flaking from the canvas, leaving the surface very unstable. The conservation challenge was to find a binding agent to stabilise the paint surface that was strong but flexible and would not discolour the paint or underlying canvas. After much testing a traditional conservation material “Isinglass” was chosen. Isinglass is made from the bladder of the Sturgeon fish and has the consistency of wall paper glue. It was applied sparingly with a small paint brush in conjunction with a wicking solvent.

 Applying solvent to "Dorothy" the Kitbag

The kitbag is currently on display and Dorothy is safe to go “On the Road” again.

“’Rock Around the Clock’ took the place by storm,” recalls Doug Lewin. “People in Butterworth and Penang loved it.”

This was 1956 and the global hit by “Bill Haley and the Comets” was broadcast through a small radio station set up by the men of RAAF No. 2 Construction Squadron at Butterworth in Malaysia. The squadron was there to construct an airfield strip in Butterworth for the British during the Malayan Emergency. They were housed in a camp of Attap huts next to the construction site, and rock was sourced from a quarry about 5 miles away.

Corporal Doug Lewin in the No. 2 Construction Squadron workshop in Butterworth. Next to him is a D7 tractor, that he was repairing. (Photo courtesy of D Lewin.)Left: the Attap huts. Right: Inside shot of one of the huts with Corporal Doug Lewin leaning on a table. (Photos courtesy of D Lewin.)

Corporal Doug Lewin was working as an engineer with the Squadron. At the time the American Forces Radio network was broadcasting contemporary music from Guam, but this was restricted to short wave radio and not everyone had this. The idea to broadcast music for the unit came about through a discussion on recreational pursuits to break up the regime of work and sleep.

“We were in the canteen one night and we agreed that background music would be a good idea. As there were 14 sleeping huts each with 6 rooms, we were faced with a potential situation of many different types of music competing from the different huts. After careful consideration and several more beers it was agreed that the Tannoy system would be the best way to provide background music for the Unit.”

The Tannoy system was an internal loudspeaker system working throughout the RAF and RAAF bases at Butterworth, controlled by the British security radio network. When the men linked their turntables and amplifiers into the system, they had no idea they were broadcasting to the whole network. British security tracked down the music and demanded that they cease, but by then the 24 hour music had become a hit.

“Our music broadcasting had become so popular that even the locals came to the security fence to listen. When the music ceased, loud were the complaints from both within and outside the Base and surrounds. Such was the discontent that it was decided to build a low powered radio station and continue with the 24 hour music. This was done and Radio RAAF Butterworth (RRB) was born.”

Anyone not on a work shift could help with the broadcasting.  Jazz was also popular. A range of music was played although a classical programme did not last long. The first records were those donated by the unit personnel.

“Our records came from Australia. We asked the local Penang record store, and they made enquiries through Singapore for us. The latest music from America started coming into Penang and it wasn’t just the Australians buying it. The locals bought the music as well.”

As the work of the squadron continued, RRB acquired a new listener. This was a tiger that wandered into the unit’s quarry site one night and disrupted proceedings. Although his visit was short, the broadcast music obviously proved irresistible and his footprints were occasionally detected in the nearby dust.

Although the latest music was becoming popular with the locals, their community leaders still considered it “decadent western stuff”, and the Australian authorities didn’t want to offend them given the fragile political situation. RRB functioned unofficially. And this probably explains why most histories give a date of around 1960 for the first broadcasts of the station. By then Independence had been declared and the Malaysian government was forming a new relationship with the Australian government. The other reason could be that people have just forgotten this early RRB history.

Back in 1958, No. 2 Construction Squadron completed the airstrip 2 years ahead of time and well under budget to the amazement of the British government.  With their work finished, the unit returned to Australia, and Lewin remembers the smooth sounds of Sinatra then filling the RRB airwaves.

Those old 33 1/3 records bought in Penang are now stored on a farm in the Lismore area together with tractor equipment.

We would like to thank Doug for sharing this history with us. If you have any memories of RAAF Radio Butterworth in the 1950s we would like to hear from you. 

Once we determined that the remaining three wedding dresses, requested for the exhibtion Of Love and War, were able to be safely put on display, the textile conservators worked in collaboration with curators and exhibition staff to determine the dimensions of showcase and, the types and styles of mannequins. To get the most accurate dimensions the dresses were placed on temporary mannequins and the trains were arranged as they will fall on display.  In the picture the two wedding dresses in the foreground have undergone no conservation treatment and are on ill-fitting temporary mannequins, the wedding dress in the back is on a mannequin previously custom made for it. 

Wedding dresses for Of Love and War on temporary mannequins

As part of the process of conservation we will ensure that mannequins are custom made for all the wedding dresses and uniforms on display in Of Love and War.  This will ensure that the garments are correctly supported and shaped and that all materials used in the construction of the mannequins are of archival quality.

 As previously explained four wedding dresses were initially selected for "Of Love and War". One of the wedding dresses, originally owned by Mrs N S Bissaker, required hundreds of hours of painstaking work before it would be strong enough for display, so unfortunately it will not be ready for display in “Of Love and War”.  Instead this dress with go on our Vulnerable Textiles conservation list and be conserved with all the care it deserves to preserve it for the future. In cases like this, it is the vulnerability of the dress that determined its exclusion from this exhibition. However, the Memorial plans to make images of this dress available on its website in the near future.

 Detail of the front bodice of Mrs N S Bissaker wedding dress.   

Detail of the front bodice of Mrs N S Bissaker wedding dress.

 Detail of the upper back bodice of Mrs N S Bissaker wedding dress.   

Detail of the upper back bodice of Mrs N S Bissaker wedding dress.

You can see in the pictures the fragile state of the lace, which has many holes visible as black areas.  For full conservation of this dress, sheer silk panels will be inserted behind each piece of the dress and then the lace will be carefully stitched to these panels, giving the dress the structural support it requires.

Officers of the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade.

Officers of the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade.  C952572

One year ago today, the Australian War Memorial joined the Commons on Flickr.  We put up a set of 30 photos of soldiers, sailors, nurses, airmen, wives, mothers, sisters, sweethearts, a prime minister, and a koala. The photos are part of our photo collection of well over a million images which covers the experience of Australians at war and Australian military history from the 1860s to the present.  We have uploaded other sets on the Commons since then, each with its own theme: Christmas, children, animals, Anzac Day, and First World War aviation.  The 103 images have been viewed almost 180,000 times; there have been over 530 comments, 2,000 favorites, 340 tags and 830 contacts. 23 images have been used in 37 galleries.  94 photos have been favorited, 87 have been commented on; almost all have had tags added.  There have also been notes added to many images.

Today we have uploaded a new set to the Commons, on the theme of love and war.  The earliest images are from the First World War, and the most recent is dated 2003: sadly, there seems to be no end to war. There are photos of weddings, war brides learning about their new countries, and welcome home kisses. One photo shows the wedding of Norma and Frank Bissaker: her wedding dress is one of four from the Memorial's collection being considered for inclusion in our exhibition Of love and war.   Sister  H. Woodhead and Lieutenant M. Timbs got married in the Northern Territory in 1943: there is a photo taken after the wedding in the set, and there is also film footage of it from our collection posted on our YouTube channel.

A victory kiss, 1945

A victory kiss, 1945.   C198264

Related information We joined the Commons of Flickr on 11 November 2008 and posted about it in this blog.   Fabric preservation and the application of fake sweat - one of our curators explains why 60 year old sweat on a wedding dress can be a problem in this video on our YouTube channel.

The notebooks, diaries and folders created by Charles Bean during and after the First World War have immense historic value and are considered to be one of the most significant records created by a single Australian. The collection includes 286 volumes of diaries and historical notebooks recorded by Bean at the time and often at the front line. The diaries are firsthand accounts of the war and offer a unique perspective due to Bean’s status as official correspondent.

At the outbreak of the First World War Charles Bean was appointed by the Australian Government to be the official correspondent who would send back in depth news stories from the Front.  Bean was an experienced journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald and was selected for the position via a ballot run by members of the Australian Journalists Association.

As the official correspondent Bean was employed to observe and report on events but also with the view of eventually writing the Official History of the First World War. He kept detailed diaries and notebooks throughout the war which he always planned to use in the production of the Official History. He embarked with the first contingent on 22 October 1914 and his first dispatch on Australians in battle was from Gallipoli where he had landed on the 25 April 1915. Bean took up the position of Official Historian in July, 1919.

Bean was very proud that every one of his diaries made it back to Australia; despite him carrying them regularly into the front line. He does write of one incident where one of his diaries was caught in an explosion and buried at Bapaume in 1917. The diary miraculously survived the explosion and was found by a Digger who recognised it and returned to him.

This large and valuable collection of personal diaries, notebooks and folders by Australia’s official war correspondent is now more readily available to the public following a major digitisation project undertaken by the Australian War Memorial. The collection represents over 23,000 pages and has been published on the Memorial’s website in their entirety.

The notebooks and diaries of C.E.W. Bean provide valuable insight into the last days of the First World War. Bean was Australia’s sole official correspondent and he worked assiduously throughout the four years of the war recording events, often from the front line.

Charles Bean was staying in Lille, France during November, 1918. He was an experienced investigator and interviewer and his diaries of the weeks before Armistice detail the emotions and concerns of those who knew the war was coming to an end. Bean, who generally had access to all levels of command, writes of conversations with Generals John Monash and William Birdwood and discusses the opinions of members of the international press and political leaders including Australia’s Prime Minister Billy Hughes on the peace process. Bean spent much of his time throughout the war interviewing Australian soldiers and recording their stories. During the last months of the war he takes the time to observe and record the feelings of average French civilians noting their opinions and feelings towards Germany.

The weeks leading up to Armistice are described by Bean in his diary as subdued. He wrote “I think it is the dead who rise up between the survivors” that prevents “any sort of Bacchanalian rejoicing”. Journalists and those in command that Bean talked to were initially sceptical about Germany’s intentions. After the Kaiser and his son had abdicated and fled on the 10 November, scepticism turned to a concern about what position Germany would be in to negotiate peace and who was in command. He noted conversations that he had with military commanders, politicians and journalists and recorded their concerns about the potential break up of Germany. Many feared that the country would slide into Bolshevism. Bean wrote that if Germany split there may not be money to compensate Belgium and France. By November Bean did not support the demands on Germany strongly expressed by Billy Hughes. Australia’s Prime Minister was in France lobbying through the press and political channels for extensive reparations for all the Allied countries including Australia. Bean described the speech that Hughes gave to the French War Cabinet as unrealistic.  

Bean observed and recorded the feelings of some of the French citizens that he encountered. The French people were calling for broad compensation from Germany for the destruction and devastation of their country. Bean was billeted with an elderly French civilian woman in Lille and was meeting her in the morning for coffee on the 11th of November. He describes in his diary some of her experiences during the war including the destruction of her home. On the morning of the 11th he was getting ready before meeting her and heard a “few hoarse cheers from the street”. He notes the cheers were by men from a British labour company and mentions “a few of the Lille people strung out on either side of their road through the square”. He “could hear a child’s tin trumpet bleating” in the distance and guessed that the war had ended but wrote that this was only confirmed to him later.

Bean had planned to spend most of 11November visiting the battlefield of Fromelles. He intended to photograph and record details of the site before it became altered after the war. At 11 o’clock he was near Fromelles and mentioned being photographed by Casserly who was accompanying him from the Official Photograph Records Section in front of an old estaminet aptly called “Fin de la Guerre”. Bean described the battlefield of Fromelles as “full of our dead”. He describes Australian kit strewn everywhere and a cluster of Australian water bottles near a water channel. He speculated that the injured may have made their way there to get water.Fromelles, France. 11 November 1918

As Bean made his way home from the Fromelles battlefield he noticed as he passed through the villages’ a few French youths walking about mainly with the tricolour draped on their shoulders – not waiving them. And as it got dark he noticed lights in the villages for the first time and an old lighthouse that hadn’t worked for four years. “There has been little shouting – not so much as on a Saturday night at home. It is quiet now – 11: 45 pm. And so it is Peace.”

 The AIF was not fighting at war’s end. Heavy casualties and the 1914 enlistees being given long term leave had reduced many of the battalions to as little as 150 men. Most of the AIF were on recreation leave behind the lines from early October 1918. Bean records that although the men were designated to be on three months leave, after one month, many of the units were brought back into the line. It was proposed that some would be going into battle in early November. These battles were postponed and thankfully the war ended.

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