Channelling my inner Bean?

9780195576801The final volume of the Centenary History of Australia and the Great War series is about to appear, bringing with it sensations of both satisfaction and relief. It’s always a relief when a lengthy project comes to fruition successfully and this one began in the planning and funding stages in 2007. It is immensely satisfying to have had a hand in a significant historical project and to have enabled a talented team of historians to give expression to their scholarship for a wider audience.

I was centrally involved in an earlier centennial project, also published through Oxford University Press, at the time of the centenary anniversary of Federation in 2001. That series, The Australian Centenary History of Defence, was a larger and more complex project than the more recent one but both share features in common. The first is the lead time involved. Multi-volume, multiple-author projects take time to put together and time to produce their outcomes: books. The pool of available and suitably-qualified talent is not large and most working historians already have a full slate of immediate and long-term commitments. Funding the research involves reasonably-sized outlays and must be secured from somewhere, while at the same time it is recognised that the project cannot meet salary bills for the authors if the budget is to remain within feasible limits. The necessary corollary of this is that work on the books will have to be part-time in most cases. All of these factors mandate lengthy lead times from inception to completion.

This pretty much describes the shape of the project that unfolded. Funding was secured from the Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General Peter Leahy, on the basis that the series would constitute the Army’s major enduring activity during the Great War centenary. The timing here was fortuitous since it led to signed contracts before the Global Financial Crisis broke – which would most likely have entirely changed the outcome. Having agreed to support the project, successive Chiefs of Army were unwavering in their financial commitment in the face of some acute budget pressures over the next several years.

A subsequent Chief of Army used to joke that he was funding the project in order that I could ‘channel my inner [CEW] Bean’, a reference to the Australian official historian of the Great War whose 12 massive volumes (15 if you include the medical histories) are a memorial both to their author and the events with which he dealt. Our own series weighs in at a modest five volumes for a total of approximately 600,000 words, so in no meaningful sense were we attempting to imitate or otherwise compete directly with Bean’s history.

Not only have reading tastes (and attention spans) changed over the last century, but historians now have a wider range of contemporary sources available to them and can ask new or at least different questions of the evidence. As the work which underpins volume 5 in the series demonstrates, we are able to manipulate large data sets to gain definitive answers to questions about, for example, the composition and make-up of the AIF, enlistment rates across the war, or a host of things that previous generations of scholars simply could not. It’s not that we have set out to tell a different story (the Germans still lose the war) so much as tried to tell the story differently.

To this end we structured the series semi-thematically, driven by my belief that the interconnectedness of various aspects of the war and Australia’s experience of it are often lost sight of within traditional approaches that treat Gallipoli as separate from the defence of Egypt or the conquest of Sinai or which sees the Western Front in isolation from the rest of the war effort against the German empire. Equally, Australia’s military efforts are best understood in the context of the much greater Imperial and Allied projects of which they were a part. A quite different picture of the development and experiences of the Australian Flying Corps is imparted when it is seen as contributing to and benefitting from developments in British military aviation across the course of the war rather than as the story of four discrete squadrons operating in France and the Middle East. Finally, the politics of Australia’s war, its impact on the domestic economy, and the social cleavages and tensions that arose as the war dragged on did not exist in a vacuum, many of these issues had counterparts in Britain and the other Dominions, and such comparisons deliver a more nuanced understanding of their Australian manifestations.

The Great War constitutes one of the seminal formative events in the making and shaping of modern Australia. The men and women who fought in it are now gone and its events are confined to History with a capital ‘H’. A century on, our perspectives and understanding are and should be different from theirs. Our need to make sense of it all is no less great and we hope that the series contributes in a significant way to that process.

(Dr) Jeffrey Grey
Professor of History, UNSW Canberra
Series Editor, The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War

ww1-centenary
To learn more about the series, please visit our World War 1 Centenary page

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