My name is Isobel White and I am a work experience student from Alfred Deakin High. As part of my week at the War Memorial I have been asked to research an item, an old Kodak camera used in World War 1 by Wilfrid Selwyn Kent Hughes.

Wilfred Kent-Hughes

The camera is a Kodak Vest Pocket.  It was originally made around 1912 and it was used by the soldiers in WW1 because unlike previous models, it could fit in their pocket and did not need a tripod or other equipment. This meant that in addition to diaries and letters, they could also send home photos to their loved ones.  It was not allowed for soldiers to have cameras at the front, as in addition to the security risks, the government thought that others may see the realtities of war through the photographs which could cause them to not want to sign up. Although they were forbidden, many soldiers, like Kent Hughes, carried their pocket cameras into the front line at Gallipoli and Palestine. However, on the Western Front, the rules were more strictly enforced and it was harder for soldiers to take cameras into the trenches.

One of the photographs taken by Kent-Hughes

Lieutenant Wilfrid ‘Billy’ Kent Hughes, owner of this camera, landed at Gallipoli with the Light Horse in May 1915. Although receiving a bullet wound while at Gallipoli, he stayed in the AIF until 1919, when he was discharged. The next year, he participated in the 400m hurdles event, representing Australia at the Belgium Olympics.

Photograph of Light Horsemen sniping at Rhododendron Ridge, taken by Kent-Hughes

 In 1927, Kent Hughes entered politics and became a member of the Nationalist Party of Australia. In 1928, he was appointed secretary to Sir William McPherson’s cabinet, but by June the next year he had resigned his position.  He later served in the Second World War and became a prisoner of the Japanese.  He came back to Australia by 1948 and was chairman of the Australian Olympic Committee from 1951 planning the Olympic Games in Melbourne for 1956. After a long and distinguished career in politics he died in 1970.

Acclaimed British author and Second World War historian Antony Beevor will deliver the keynote address at the Australian War Memorial’s annual history conference to be held in Canberra in September.

Beevor, the author of international bestsellers Stalingrad, Berlin and D-Day, is the inaugural Boeing Visiting Fellow to the international conference, titled Kokoda: Beyond the Legend, and convened to mark the 70th anniversary of the Kokoda and Papuan campaigns in 1942. He heads a distinguished line-up of historians and emerging scholars from Britain, the United States, and Australia attending the two-day event.

“This conference features some of the leading scholars in the field, with international reputations,” says Australian War Memorial historian Dr Karl James. “Bringing them together in Canberra for the Memorial’s conference is a great coup.”

The aim of the conference is to reassess the principal battles fought in Papua and discuss the campaign from both the Allied and Japanese perspectives. According to James, “this is a unique opportunity to bring together leading historians from around the world to assess Papua’s significance to the global war while also getting into the real tactics – the mud and blood – of the campaign”.

Beevor’s latest book is a single-volume history of the Second World War. In it he weaves together the story of the conflict in its entirety to show how one theatre of war influenced events in other regions, while detailing the fate of ordinary soldiers and civilians in Europe, the North Atlantic, and Northern Africa, as well as in the South Pacific. His appearance at the conference is a rare opportunity for Australian followers to see him speak.

James says Beevor’s keynote address on “The World at War, 1942” will be a highlight for conference attendees seeking to place the story of Kokoda in a broader context. “Kokoda has become a major focus of Second World War commemorations in Australia, and the campaign dominates our popular memory. But it is rarely discussed in terms of its strategic role in the wider war effort. Antony Beevor will enlighten the audience on events occurring concurrently with Kokoda, and the links between them.”

Other guest speakers attending the conference include the acclaimed historian Richard B. Frank, who has written several books on the Pacific War. He will give an address on “South Pacific turning points: Guadalcanal, Kokoda and Milne Bay” at the conference dinner.

Another military historian attending from the United States is Dr Edward J. Drea, who works with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A former soldier who served in Japan and Vietnam, Drea will deliver an address titled “Making Soldiers: training, doctrine, and culture in the Imperial Japanese Army” during the Second World War. The conference program also includes renowned American naval historian John B. Lundstrom, and James Zobel from the MacArthur Memorial, who will speak about Douglas MacArthur’s controversial command in Papua in 1942.

Esteemed Australian military historian Professor David Horner will give an address on Kokoda and its place in Australian history. Horner is the official historian and general editor for the Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post–Cold War Operations, as well as Professor of Australian Defence History at the Australian National University’s Research School of International, Political and Strategic Studies. Other Australian historians who will speak at the conference include Dr Mark Johnston, of Scotch College Melbourne, who will speak on the air war over Papua; Dr Peter Williams, who will address the question of the strength of the forces engaged on the Kokoda Trail; and Dr James, who will present “A terrible experience: the battle of Eora Creek”.

There will also be speakers from Japan and Papua New Guinea. “Including Japanese and Papuan voices in the conference reflects a more sophisticated and inclusive approach to thinking about Australian military history,” says James.

The Australian War Memorial’s international history conference Kokoda: Beyond the Legend is on Thursday 6 and Friday 7 September, 2012. Tickets to the conference are limited and are selling fast. For program details and to register, go to /events/conference/2012/

While recently at Lone Pine Cemetery, Gallipoli, I took the opportunity to visit the graves of two men, Corporal David 'Yank' McVay and Private Charles Hampson who served with D Company in the 23rd Battalion. A few years ago I researched their stories while cataloguing the metal cross plates that came from their original graves.

 The original grave marker for David McVay 

In 1915, the plates were attached wooden crosses. Both plates have holes around the edges for nails, showing where they were attached. Unfortunately, the crosses were probably used as fire wood by Turkish soldiers or civilians after the evacuation, as wood was scarce in the area and the crosses were easy to access. Stylistically, Hampson's and McVay's cross plates are very similar, and may have been made by the same person, possibly also a member of D Company, 23rd Battalion. Hampson's cross is currently on display in ANZAC Hall and is more damaged than McVay's - with some bullet or shrapnel holes and some sections torn away. 

The plates were found at Gallipoli by Captain Gordon Samuel Keesing in 1919. Keesing was an assistant to the architect, Sir John Burnet and they were visiting Gallipoli to inspect the area as Burnet was designing the permanent cemeteries at Gallipoli for the Imperial War Graves Commission.

 

1243 Private David McVay was a 32 year old miner from Fitzroy in Melbourne and he enlisted in the AIF on 8 April 1915. He was an original member of D Coy, and embarked from Australia aboard HMAT Euripides on 10 May 1915. McVay was born in England, and had previously served with the Field Artillery in South Africa. He had deserted from the army but was pardoned on King Edward VII's death in 1910.

After a period of training in Egypt, he landed with the 23rd Battalion at Gallipoli on the night of 4 September and was marched to Rest Gully. On 5 September the battalion spent their first night in the front line trenches at Lone Pine. The fighting here was so dangerous and exhausting that battalions were relieved every day. The 23rd Battalion manned Lone Pine, alternating with the 24th Battalion, until they left Gallipoli in December 1915. McVay was promoted to corporal on 9 September. Four days later, he was one of three men from the 23rd Battalion killed at Lone Pine on 13 September. The unit war diary for that day notes that McVay was sniped by a Turk from the unit's right flank. McVay had no known surviving relatives.

743 Private Charles George Hubbard Hampson was a 36 year old driver from Richmond, Victoria when he enlisted in the AIF on 1 March 1915. Like McVay, he was also a member of D Company, 23 Battalion and he landed at Gallipoli on the night of 4 September. Hampson had served at Gallipoli for almost a month when he was was killed on 3 October 1915, at Lone Pine. That day, Turkish artillery were firing from the direction of Scrubby Knoll at the Lone Pine trenches, and it is possible he was killed by a shell. Hampson's Mother died in 1917 and his Father had been dead for many years before that. After the war his sisters chose to put an epitaph on his new headstone which reads "OUR BROTHER THE DEAREST AND BEST EVER FONDLY LOVED AND REMEMBERED".

Brown's Dip Cemetery 1919

Both McVay and Hampson were originally buried at Brown's Dip Cemetery, which was near Lone Pine.  After the war the cemetery was found to be at major risk from erosion, so in 1923 the bodies were exhumed and reinterred in what became known as the Brown's Dip plot in Lone Pine Cemetery. This is located at the opposite end of the cemetery from the Lone Pine Memorial.

If you have the chance to visit Lone Pine Cemetery and are interested in visiting their graves, McVay and Hampson are both located in Plot 1 of the Brown's Dip Plot, Mc Vay is in Row B grave 15 and Hampson in Row E grave 6.

The Pacific war campaign fought by the Australians on Bougainville in 1944–45 has long suffered from a poor reputation: during its first few months, the operation was disparaged by politicians and the media as “mopping-up”; for decades afterwards, it was criticised as “unnecessary”.

But in his new book The Hard Slog, Australian War Memorial historian Dr Karl James argues that the arduous fight that involved more than 30,000 Australians – 500 of whom were killed – against the Japanese on the South Pacific island was both important and successful.

“Bougainville was one of the largest campaigns the Australians fought during the Second World War, and it’s certainly the most controversial in terms of the debate over its necessity,” says James. “But they did the job they were meant to do, and they did it with minimal casualties.”

Private Gordon Atwell of the 42nd Battaltion checks over the mechanism of his Vickers gun, at Mawaraka, 20 January 1945.

The Japanese invaded the Australian Mandated Territory of Bougainville in 1942 as part of their sweep across the South Pacific. They remained there unchallenged until November 1943, when the Americans landed on Bougainville as part of the Allied counter-offensive to regain domination of the South West Pacific Area. 

The Australians were brought in to relieve the Americans a year later. The war was expected to continue until at least 1946, and so aggressive operations were planned for Bougainville and New Guinea with the aim of freeing up Australian manpower for future operations against Japan, or for employment on the home front. However, critics claimed that Australian forces were being “whittled away” on a more or less “face-saving” task in New Guinea and Bougainville.

“By 1945 the Americans in the central Pacific were pushing toward Japan, having landed in Iwo Jima and Okinawa, whereas the Australians were still in the jungle in New Guinea, Bougainville and Borneo, and seem to have been sidelined from the main game rather than being at the forefront of Allied operations,” James says. “There was a lot of resentment and frustration within Australia during 1944-45, with critics wondering why we weren’t in a more prominent role.”

It was a slow and gruelling effort, fought with limited resources and in difficult tropical conditions. Over nine months Lieutenant General Stanley Savige’s Australian II Corps made tedious advances; actions were fierce, but on a small-scale, and the patrolling was constant.

“The war the infantry knew was one of patrolling along stinking, humid jungle tracks and putrid swamps in an intimate, personal war of section patrols and the occasional company-size attack,” James writes. “The strain of constant clashes with the Japanese and harassing artillery fire eroded the men’s morale.”

But it was even worse for the Japanese. “The Japanese experience of the campaign was one of deprivation, desperation and defeat. In the most extreme instances, a few even resorted to cannibalism.”

A patrol from the 42nd Battalion crosses a log bridge as it works its way through the oppressive jungle.

The Australians suffered just one defeat during the Bougainville campaign, at the Porton Plantation in the island’s northern sector. An amphibious landing on the night of 8–9 June 1945 went awry: the landing was in the wrong place, an essential supply barge was grounded on the rough coral that surrounded the beach, and the Japanese were able to get in reinforcements that gave them control over the area. Dozens of Australian troops were stranded on the beach, and when rescue craft were sent in to get the men, they also became stuck on reefs. Men tried to swim through the shark-infested water to safe ground. When the ordeal was over, 27 men had been killed or were missing, and 69 were wounded.

The Bougainville campaign came to an end when the Japanese surrendered on 15 August 1945. The objective set by senior Australian commanders for “destruction” of the Japanese had not been fulfilled, but II Corps could claim to have controlled about two-thirds of Bougainville. About 65,000 Japanese occupied the island when the Americans arrived in 1943; at surrender, there were just over 23,800. The Australians had killed 8,789 Japanese during the nine-month campaign, and the Americans estimated they had killed about 9,890. Many thousands of Japanese had died from sickness and disease. Australian deaths on Bougainville numbered 516, and another 1,572 were wounded.

While the Bougainville campaign did not change the outcome of the war, nor help it end any sooner, James says its importance lay in fulfilling the Australian government’s political and strategic agenda “of having Australian forces actively involved in the liberation of Australian territory”. It also ensured a favourable postwar position for Australia among its allies, and in the distribution of the spoils of war.

“The war ends, fortunately, just before the Australians make that last attack on the big Japanese base at Buin. I think that had that happened, we would have seen the outcome of the campaign as being quite different. We would have had heavy casualties for little gains. Because the war ended when it did, I think you can judge it to be a successful campaign.”

The Hard Slog: Australians in the Bougainville Campaign, 1944–45, by Karl James, is published by Cambridge and available at the Australian War Memorial bookshop or online at /shop/

 Jeeps and trailers loaded with members of the 58th/59th Battalion make their way along the muddy, corduroyed Buin Road near the Ogorata River, 18 July 1945.

The ongoing project to digitise AWM78 Reports of Proceedings, HMA Ships and Establishments has now reached 46 341 images. The reports of proceedings for seventy-nine ships are now available on the Memorial’s website. This includes all of the destroyers employed in the Tobruk Ferry.  Some of the ships that were later involved with the Tobruk Ferry, HMAS Parramatta and HMAS Yarra, have also been digitised. These files can be viewed online here.

May 1941 saw the commencement of the Tobruk Ferry Service to transport troops, supplies and ammunition between Alexandria and Tobruk. The Tobruk Ferry employed the destroyers of the 10th Flotilla (HMAS Stuart, HMAS Vampire, HMAS Vendetta, HMAS Voyager and HMAS Waterhen). Other Mediterranean ships also became involved from August 1941.

Running to a regular routine, the service began on 5th May 1941 with a successful round trip completed by HMAS Waterhen and HMAS Voyager. This voyage was described in Waterhen’s report of proceedings for May 1941. This report illustrates the function of the service as well as the speed of turnarounds:

5th Proceeded in company with “Voyager” to Tobruk with military personnel and stores.   

6th Arrived Tobruk at 0230. Sailed for Alexandria at 0430 with military wounded and details being relieved. Arrived Alexandria 1900.

 

Whilst the ships navigated the distance between points of arrival and departure, it was expected that they would be attacked by the enemy. Sadly, it was these attacks which brought an end to the career of HMAS Waterhen.

HMAS Waterhen

Waterhen sailed from Mersa Matruh on her 13th run to Tobruk during the afternoon of 29 June 1941. Weighed down by 50 tons of stores and carrying 70 troops, she was accompanied by HMS Defender who bore a similar cargo. Both ships were attacked by a squadron of 15 dive bombers off the coast near Salum at 7.45pm. The Defender was attacked first but emerged from the encounter unscathed. The first bomb aimed at Waterhen exploded in the water behind her but resulted in the ship becoming unresponsive to the helm. Three more bombs resulted in the flooding of the engine and boiler rooms. The final attack brought damage to the engine room, the engineer’s cabin and the central store. Defender responded to Lieutenant Commander Swain’s decision to abandon ship and came alongside the stricken ship to remove everyone on board.

The Australian W Class Destroyer HMAS Waterhen takes water over her bow after she has been crippled by German dive bombers off the port of Salum, Egypt, while en route to Tobruk.

The British destroyer HMS Defender (left) alongside the Australian destroyer HMAS Waterhen, after the latter had been attacked and crippled by German dive bombers off the port of Salum in Egypt.

It was decided Defender would take advantage of nightfall and tow Waterhen into Mersa Matruh before dawn. During the ensuing preparations, the rising moon highlighted a submarine lying nearby. Shells were fired and the submarine crash dived with Defender in pursuit. After losing contact, Defender returned to where Waterhen was waiting and the tow commenced.

By 11pm it was evident that the listing to port was increasing and Swain decided to abandon the tow. Some men had re-boarded the Waterhen for the tow and they were all brought back to Defender where they watched and waited for the ship to sink. At 1.50am on 30 June 1941, the Waterhen, or “Chook” as she was warmly referred to by her crew, rolled over and sank. She was the first ship of the Royal Australian Navy to be lost by enemy action in the Second World War.

Although the official report of proceedings for June 1941 was never filed for Waterhen, having gone down with the ship, anecdotal stories and eye-witness accounts of the event do exist. The sadness of the event is very much evident in the ten pages devoted to the loss of the Waterhen in the diary of Andrew Robert Nation. Lieutenant Commander Ean Lawrence McDonald recalls how he was so engrossed in photographing the incident that he forgot his belongings were going down with the ship. He recounts his experience of retrieving his case of photographs from below deck and laments that he never found the fancy French cakes that he had taken on board. Remarkably, there was only one other casualty – a rating who was struck by a tin of peaches.

More information

Lind, L.J. and Payne, A., Scrap Iron Destroyers: The Story of HMA Ships Stuart, Waterhen, Vampire, Vendetta and Voyager, Garden Island, 1993.

HMAS Waterhen Reports of Proceedings September 1939 – May 1941, Australian War Memorial, AWM78 362/1. Retrieved from: /collection/records/awm78/362/awm78-362-1.pdf

Papers of McDonald, Ean Lawrence, (Lieutenant Commander, b: 1918), Australian War Memorial, MSS1081.

Papers of Nation, Andrew Robert (Stoker Petty Officer Mechanic b: 1920), Australian War Memorial, PR00186.

Gill, G Herman, Royal Australian Navy, 1939-1942, Australia in the war of 1939-1945, Series 2 (Navy), vol. 1, Canberra, 1957. Retrieved from: /cms_images/histories/24/chapters/11.pdf

This presentation of WW1 film, together with voices of WW1 veterans, was produced by the Australian War Memorial's film and sound curators. The footage and original oral history recordings are part of the rich film and sound collections of the Australian War Memorial.

The Memorial holds many oral history stories of the Great War; these are stories of veterans who survived to record their stories of the war years leading up to Armistice and beyond. These stories are a fascinating insight into the minds of a previous generation, revealing not only how campaigns were fought, but also the realities of war at an individual level, deeply personalising the Australian history of war with humour and with tears.

Some recordings were conducted by Memorial staff, while a few are memoirs, recorded by the veterans themselves.

Most of Australia's WW1 Western Front footage was shot by official photographers, such as Sir Hubert Wilkins, Herbert Baldwin and Captain Frank Hurley. It was their role to capture an authentic record of Australians in WW1. However, it was virtually impossible for a cameraman of the early 20th Century to take his camera, (large and unwieldy by today's standards), into the active front line. Some footage -- men leaping from a trench and across the wire, for example - had to be staged by arrangement of the cameraman. Nevertheless, it is to these talented and courageous cameramen we owe this captivating glimpse of Australians long gone, and the conditions under which they lived and fought.

A major milestone was reached late last week with the trial fit of the Boulton Paul upper turret into the Hudson rear fuselage.  The installation was carried out to check the fit with the re-constructed support structure, which required only minor adjusting before the turret was bolted into postion.  The turret will now be removed to allow fabrication of fuselage skins to be completed, and routing of the empennage flight control cables.  

Born in 1916, Perditta Marjorie McCarthy’s life spanned almost a century. “Ditta” McCarthy, of Wagga Wagga, NSW, died peacefully in her sleep last weekend on 10 March after a long battle with failing health. She was 96. The Royal Australian Army Nursing Service has lost its highest ranking officer.

McCarthy trained at the Sydney Hospital, graduating in 1939. She served with the Second AIF as a member of the Australian Army Nursing Service which later became the Royal Australian Army Nursing Service, and then the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC). She saw considerable overseas service spanning several conflicts, initially in Papua New Guinea during the Second World War, then with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan, on to Korea, then Malaya, and finally Vietnam.

Captain McCarthy takes a break in the grounds of the British Commonwealth General Hospital during her service with BCOF in Kure, Japan in 1950.

McCarthy later wrote of her time spent nursing the wounded at the BCOF General Hospital at Kure in Japan during the Korean War in 1950:

The real horrors of the Korean War were "brought home" to me when I was allocated for duty in the Burns Ward of the BRITCOM Hospital ... Many were bandaged from head to foot, with only slits for their eyes and mouths, and obviously in great pain, which we attempted to alleviate with what "pain killers" were available at the time. Rarely - if ever - did they complain. Their youthful eyes would "light up" as we bent over them to dress their wounds or to apply medication. Their eyes also revealed their suffering and pain, their stoicism under such traumas had to be witnessed to be believed. As we approached the Burns Ward, to report for duty, the stench from putrefying flesh was overpowering, the memory of which remains with me to this day.

Patient Private B.G 'Knobby' Tranter of 3RAR, chats with the matron, Captain McCarthy at the BCCZMU in Seoul in 1953.

In 1953, McCarthy was posted to the British Commonwealth Communications Zone Medical Unit (BCCZMU) which was located in a suburb on the outskirts of Seoul in Korea. The hospital was in a bombed out, two storey school building, and the nurses lived and worked under Spartan conditions, with no fresh running water and few personal comforts. McCarthy recalled the initial opposition and resentment the women experienced in what had formerly been perceived as a male domain so close to “the front”.

There were some very heated verbal confrontations and even the "pulling of rank", which is virtually unknown in Nursing Corps. Drastic situations demand drastic action. All we wanted to do was to nurse and care for our wounded. All problems were eventually resolved and we slowly became accepted as an integral part of the “team".

Despite the lack of facilities and equipment, Matron McCarthy and her nurses determined that their “hospital” would be “the cleanest, most hygienic, germ and bacteria free establishment in Korea. This entailed the continual scrubbing and washing down of floors, walls, beds etc with what soap, detergents and antiseptics we could beg, borrow or steal.”

McCarthy believed that “humour was the element that allowed us to retain our sanity. It came from the staff and from our patients, who despite serious wounds, would continually tell jokes and take "the mickey" out of their fellow diggers and officers.”

With a long and distinguished career as a military nurse, McCarthy held many appointments, her last being as Matron-in-Chief of the RAANC. Before her retirement she was promoted to brigadier, the only nursing officer to reach such a rank. She was awarded the Associate Royal Red Cross in 1954 and the Royal Red Cross in 1972 for her dedication and service to nursing.

Never one to remain idle for long, McCarthy kept busy for many years in her retirement working as a volunteer at the Army Museum in Victoria Barracks, Sydney. She was also responsible for the research and writing of several biographies of colleagues and predecessors from the Army nursing fraternity.

Of the late Brigadier Perditta McCarthy it can genuinely be said that “she served the Army with distinction.”

While Director of the RAANC, Colonel McCarthy visited several hospitals in Vietnam in 1971.  Major J.S. Vercoe, Officer Commanding 8th Field Ambulance escorted her around the Baria Hospital in Phuoc Tuy Province, where she visited local patients.The maternity ward at Baria Hospital, Phuoc Tuy Province.More information

Our current exhibition is Nurses: from Zululand to Afghanistan

Assistant Curator Alexandra Wiber and artist Carla Wherby 9th January 2012. Image courtesy of Carla Wherby and Arts Access

In January, Sydney artist Carla Wherby visited the Australian War Memorial to explore the collection. Wherby was awarded an Accessible Arts’ AART.BOXX scholarship, funded by Arts NSW in 2011. She is using the scholarship to attend the National Art School in Sydney and to visit institutions such as the Australian War Memorial. This new scholarship is designed to ‘improve access to arts and cultural funding for artists with disability.’ Wherby viewed collection items from the Art Section and the Military, Heraldy and Technology Section. The experience of seeing these collection items had a powerful affect on her. “When I arrived at the AWM I became very emotional and felt deep respect and sadness for all the men and women whose lives were forever changed and sometimes lost by serving in the armed forces” she said.

Through her art, Wherby seeks to explore “the psychological effects of war on those who served their country.” She said that “by putting certain images together that excite me, I hope [to] provoke people to think about certain things going on in the world that they might normally ignore or avoid.” Wherby’s bright collages are manipulated, altering their meaning and creating new and original narratives. Her series Women and War, celebrates women’s contributions to wars and peacekeeping operations throughout history. Wherby was particularly interested in art and items related to the Australian Women’s Land Army including recruitment posters, uniforms and ephemera. She ‘was amazed to see the work of Jon Cattapan, eX de Medici and Wendy Sharpe in person.’

Carla hopes that her scholarship, and visit to the Memorial will result in a large body of artwork inspired by Australia’s military history, past and present. "I came away so inspired and ready to create important, stimulating work” she said.

Thank you to Curator, Diane Rutherford, for helping facilitate Carla Wherby’s visit.

Alexandra Wiber, Assistant Curator, Art

http://www.aarts.net.au/

This Sunday night, the stars of cinema will come together in Hollywood to celebrate the year’s best films at the 84th Academy Awards. Among the nine movies vying for best picture is Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, about a young Englishman who enlists to serve in the First World War after his beloved horse is sold to the cavalry.

Whether or not War Horse wins, it’s no surprise that a war film has made the best picture list. The Academy’s very first best picture was a war film – Wings, in 1927–28 – and in its third year of issuing awards All Quiet on the Western Front (1929–30) took the gong. Other war films to have won best picture include The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Patton (1970), Platoon (1986) and, most recently, The Hurt Locker in 2009.

So when war historians look to the cinema for a fresh interpretation of a conflict – or just for good old-fashioned entertainment – they have a glut of films to choose from. The action, glory and tragedy of war make it a popular choice for filmmakers the world over, and thousands of movies on the topic have been made since the birth of cinema in 1895.

Defining a war film is not simple: it generally features a battle at sea, on land or in the air, but it is not confined to depicting combat alone. War films may focus on other aspects of war, such as covert operations, prisoners of war or the civilian experience. Action and drama are typically involved, but a war movie may be a comedy or romance. War films are used as propaganda, to mobilise forces, encourage patriotism or remind a nation of its power and glory. But they are also often anti-war films, concentrating on suffering and horror and designed to make a political or ideological statement about the futility of the endeavour.

Historians at the Australian War Memorial are as enamoured of war films as the broader movie-going public, but they view them through a different lens. They do not expect fictional war films to broaden their knowledge of war, but they do expect filmmakers to get the facts right.

“Historical accuracy is important, even within a fictional retelling of an event,” says Second World War historian Lachlan Grant. “Memory is often shaped by popular mediums such as literature, film, television, and even computer games in more recent times. There are many historical myths that have been fuelled or are reinforced by popular fictional works that are mistakenly accepted as historical fact.”

First World War expert Aaron Pegram agrees. “As historians, we have to turn to the real, tangential fragments of the past kept in archives, museums and from our veterans to get a real understanding of what the nature of conflict was like. War films can provide a frame of reference which we can use to imagine what war might have been like. Everything from the badges to buttons, the sights and sounds has to be as close to reality as possible. There’s nothing more irritating than a misrepresentation of the past.”

Action should be intense. To this end, our historians’ list of favourite war films includes many from the 1950s and 1960s, a period when combat-heavy films were all the rage: The Dam Busters, The Guns of Navarone and Battle of Britain are just some examples. More recent action-based war films that make the list are Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, Master and Commander and Saving Private Ryan – the first 30 minutes, anyway.

“It’s action and drama that I want to watch,” says Pacific war specialist Karl James. “I grew up watching John Wayne movies and I love the nostalgia and sentimentality of 1940s British war films.”

However, there is definitely a need for a meaningful, even romantic, story to propel a war film – just don’t get too soppy.

“As a historian, I’m looking for a movie that evokes something genuine about the experience and events of war without false sentimentality,” says Jean Bou, an authority on the Australian Light Horse. “Regardless of whether the sentimentality arises from an absurd romance, from shallow characters or from blatant nationalism, or whatever, it is the big killer, in my opinion.”

While American and British films dominate our historians’ list of favourite war flicks, films made by other nations are considered equally – if not more—important.

“The Germans make great war movies,” says Pegram. “Rarely do we see war from the other side of the hill; most are made from the Allies’ perspective.” Among his favourites are Downfall, which tells of Adolf Hitler’s final days in his Berlin bunker, and is based on a memoir by his last private secretary, Traudl Junge; and Stalingrad, a depiction of the brutal Russian battle as seen through the eyes of a German officer and his battalion.

It may have been made by an American, but Letters from Iwo Jima is important for telling the Japanese perspective of war, says Grant. Clint Eastwood’s Second World War film “re-humanises for Western audiences the Japanese experience of the war against the grain of often dehumanising depictions that have persisted since 1945. It therefore highlights the point that Japanese militarism, as an ideology, rather than the Japanese as a people, was the real enemy in this bitter conflict.”

Vietnam war and Gallipoli expert Ashley Ekins favours French films. “La grande illusion by Jean Renoir ranks as one of the greatest war/anti-war films of all time; and A Very Long Engagement is a brilliant re-creation of post–First World War France.” Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson, also makes his list. “Despite its historical inaccuracies, it is an enduring evocation of period and place.”

Despite a profusion of war films, there is room for more – particularly about Australians at war.

“Popular movies like The Lighthorsemen and Gallipoli have helped place the ‘sideshow’ campaigns in recent popular memory, but it’s the Western Front – the main theatre of the First World War – where Australian troops fought and suffered the most,” Pegram says. “It’s also where they performed their greatest achievements. I thoroughly enjoyed the recent Beneath Hill 60, which I think is an extraordinary story [about Australian tunnellers on the Western Front], but I think it’s time for a movie about the ‘ordinary’ soldier’s experience, and one much more representative of an Australian infantryman’s war.”

James would like to see a film about one of the final campaigns the Australians fought on Bougainville in 1945.

“The story has everything; heroes and villains, pitched battles and irregular warfare, mutinies, black market profiteers, three weddings – even cannibalism,” he says. A box-office hit, for sure.

 

Memorial historians’ best ever war movies (in no particular order)

 The Dam Busters (1955)

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Das Boot (The Boat) (1981)

Der Untergang (Downfall) (2004)

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Henry V (1989)

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

In Which We Serve (1942)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Paths of Glory (1957)

Patton (1970)

Westfront 1918 (1930)

Stalingrad (1993)

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Battle of Britain (1969)

The Longest Day (1962)

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

La grande illusion (Grand Illusion) (1937)

The Thin Red Line (1998)

La vie et rien d’autre (Life and Nothing But) (1989)

Un long dimanche de fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement) (2004)

Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) (2005)

Gallipoli (1981)

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983)

The Dawn Patrol (1930)

Wings (1927)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

The Quiet American (2002)

Cross of Iron (1977)

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930 and 1979)

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Glory (1989)

Master and Commander (2003)

Beneath Hill 60 (2010)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

 

TV Series or Mini-Series

Band of Brothers (2001)

Generation Kill (2008)

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