Australian soldiers were discouraged from keeping personal records during the First World War, yet many disregarded official advice and their works now form a rare and valuable archive.
After the war, the National Library of Australia and several state libraries appealed for returned soldiers to donate their memorabilia to be preserved for future generations.
The State Library of New South Wales launched its public appeal a month after the Armistice, in December 1918.
The European War Collecting Project was instituted by the principal librarian William Ifould who recognised the importance of such unfiltered accounts.
A notice in newspapers read: ‘Some priceless information may be unearthed from these documents, especially if they are left uncensored. ‘The Digger’, as we know him, should be a picturesque historian, and certainly a vigorous one.’
By 1920, the library had purchased 224 war diaries, but throughout the 1920s the campaign tapered.
The library now holds more than 1,200 volumes of diaries and letters written by 550 diarists, including soldiers, nurses, journalists and artists.
Their observations are telling and personal, sometimes stark–not softened by the passage of time.
Some priceless information may be unearthed from these documents, especially if they are left uncensored. ‘The Digger’ … should be a picturesque historian, and certainly a vigorous one. – Public advertisement for diaries, 1918
Historian Bill Gammage observed: ‘Some [soldiers] were writing home, others deliberately recording the climax of their lives. Some hardly mentioned the war, others rarely ignored it. Some minimised their discomforts, a few exaggerated them. Many, when it came to the point, described just what they saw and felt, because the tumult of the hour denied them an alternative, because they wanted an exact account for themselves if they lived or for their relatives if they died, or sometimes because they realised that the thoughts they wrote down might be their last on earth.’
Soldiers’ photographs also provide further insight into the Western Front.
Kodak released its Vest Pocket camera just two years before the First World War began. It was small enough to fit in a man’s waistcoat or woman’s purse, and soon became a popular gift for Australians heading overseas.
Advertisements claimed the ‘Soldier’s Kodak’ was ‘as small as a diary – and tells the story better’.
Australian soldiers were initially permitted to have cameras but, on the Western Front, as casualty numbers rose and ongoing enlistments became critical to victory, the British commander Lord Kitchener banned personal photography.
The penalty was hard labour, but Lord Kitchener’s censorship did not stop soldiers taking photos.
British newspapers offered £20,000 for unofficial news pictures, the most famous snapshots being those of the Christmas Truce of 1914, which were published in London a month later.
Today, personal photographs provide a record of otherwise unseen aspects of soldiers’ daily life on the front line – their mates, where they served, what they saw, and some of their experiences.
Bill Gammage. The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War. Melbourne: Penguin, 1975.
Jon Cooksey. The Vest Pocket Camera and the First World War. Ammonite Press, 2017.
Jay Winter. War Beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance from the Great War to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.