The Broken Years
Image source: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P04604.016
Dr Bill Gammage AM, FASSA is an academic historian who wrote The Broken Years based on his PhD thesis at the ANU. First published in 1974 it tells the story of Australia’s involvement in the First World War through the private records created by a thousand Australian soldiers in their diaries and letters home.
At that time Bill was still able to correspond with some veterans of the Great War and he also skilfully selected records that were mostly collected by the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in the 1920s and 1930s and ties them together to form a chronological story from 1914-1918, covering campaigns in Gallipoli (ANZAC), Egypt, Palestine and France.
I first read this book back in the late 1970s whilst training at RMC Duntroon and studying military history. It had an enormous impact on my attitude to war and made me fully aware of the awful realities, well beyond what I had heard from veterans, or seen in movies or on TV. I think the power of this book comes from the voices of those who served, who tell their own stories so powerfully. As the cover of the book notes, it is both a horrifying and emotionally moving account. What Bill Gammage does in The Broken Years is demonstrate the enormous importance and power of those archival collections at the AWM and he also highlights the vision of the historians, librarians, and archivists who created them so many years ago.
It is also worth noting that Bill Gammage is a highly respected historian and that he revived the tradition of Dr C.E.W. Bean, the official Australian historian of the First World War who focussed his story on the experiences of those who served rather than the battlefield strategies. Bean was also the founder of the AWM. Bill was later employed by Peter Weir as the military advisor for the film Gallipoli.
Bill’s book also seems to have had a not insignificant influence on at least part of my working life. I did not spend that long in the Army after graduating from Duntroon. I had a number of career changes and then somehow managed to wind up at the AWM as Head of their Research Centre (library and archive) in 2001. I was privileged to be responsible for the collections that this book was based upon and also for managing the addition of names to our Roll of Honour as we were again at war in the Middle East.
The critical thing with archival collections is that one must not just concentrate on preserving, cataloguing and exhibiting or providing access to what is already there. Those collections need to be developed as time marches on. With my curatorial colleagues at the AWM in the early 2000s, we soon realised that we faced new challenges in order to do what the AWM had done in the 1920s and 1930s to collect contemporary records of war – in the form of both official accounts (like unit war diaries) and private records in the digital age. We soon began asking to make curatorial visits to war zones to see what was being created for ourselves and to tag or collect what the AWM would need for future exhibitions and research into the conflicts that were still being waged. This started to happen from about 2007-2008. A colleague visited Iraq to mark and collect military technology and paraphernalia and then in late 2008 I was sent to Iraq (Baghdad) and out to sea with the RAN in the Northern Arabian Gulf to collect war records before our forces withdrew from Iraq. I was able to mark or tag some items such as map collections and official records, find out how people were corresponding or keeping diaries, made many photographs and recorded oral histories for the AWM collections. I left the AWM for UTS Library in 2009, but those AWM curatorial visits to war zones have continued in places such as Afghanistan ever since.
The Broken Years will be part of our featured book display at UTS Library for ANZAC Day 2017. I am not aware of any volume like this that has been written about any conflict after the First World War, so it is still unique. As a librarian, curator and collection manager I think it reminds us of the important and continuing role of archives and collecting institutions to preserve public knowledge, even as formats change.