“The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
Above are the final four lines of the famous war poem In Flanders Fields, written by Canadian World War One physician John McCrae. It is probably one of the most iconic and widely quoted war poems from the period. Having been first written in 1915, only one year into the con ict, it lacks any bitterness or cynicism that the soldiers experienced in the final years of the war. Instead, it mires and distorts a bludgeoned pastiche of terrified underage soldiers throwing themselves into volleys of machine gun re and replaces the gruesome experience with a romanticised portrait of heroism. Soldiers making the ultimate sacrifice for their country knowing they will be repaid with a false sense of patriotism and a potential fatality.
As it has just turned 2014, the 28th of July will mark the hundredth anniversary of the conflict’s onset. Preparations of events to commemorate the conflict are already underway; meaning the memorial calendar for the next four years will be peppered with poppy reefs on tombs of unknown soldiers and bitter war poems being read by Veterans, solemnly standing guard whilst recalling their sombre moments on the Western front. Only, there is no Veteran standing in line amongst remembrance crowd anymore, as the last combat veteran who served in the trenches died in 2009, nearly five years ago. The slow disappearance of the World War One veteran only results in a lost connection between the generation that was affected by the turmoil and the modern generation who’s own awareness of World War One is just a faded memory in history. This brings into question the significance of remembrance, without any Veterans to re-affirm the details and conditions of the war, as a generation we must instead rely on second-hand accounts from historians and cultural products such as films and books to get our own historical insight.
But that is the problem associated with looking at past cultural depictions of World War One to help commemorate those who lost their lives to the conflict. Many of the cultural depictions of World War One seem to establish and reinforce a masculine narrative, an echo of history emerging from only one voice. This can be seen in the 1980 film Gallipoli; directed by Peter Weir, where it follows two young Australian men from rural Western Australia who enlist in the Australian army to fight in the Gallipoli Campaign. Although the film does depict the throes of trench warfare quite accurately, it presents World War One as a completely male effort and adds credence to the ANZAC myth. Yes, the film takes a jab at the inability and incompetence of the commanding elite as displayed at the end (apologies for spoilers) when the soldiers charge towards the Turkish trenches never actually knowing that the very charge they were partaking in was to be called off. But the film and many other films like it support a cultural mythology that in fact fails to acknowledge the war effort contributions of other Australians.
These other Australians consist of the people who did not fit into the ANZAC stereotype, which characterised the classic Australian soldier as being the surly male bushranger who fed the chooks in the morning and drank copious amounts of beer in front of the bush fire at night, fighting for the universal Australian value of a fair go. But the ANZAC myth fails to acknowledge the contributions from other Australians who do not fit the criteria of being a rural robin hood. One of the large groups of contributors that the ANZAC myth seems to ignore is the overall female contribution to the war effort. Due to the attitudes towards gender at the time, Australian women were not allowed to conscript, but they were allowed to fill other much vital roles needed for the war effort.
One important role that is often overlooked is the role the Red Cross Nurses played in the overall war effort. 2139 Australian Nurses served during the First World War, although they didn’t experience the grim inhospitable conditions of trench warfare, they were still placed under great pressure from disease, shell re and lack of equipment. For every soldier that was wounded, a nurse was waiting in the infirmary ready to undertake the duty of cleaning wounds and performing minor surgery. Understaffed and lacking supplies, they were serving a myth that would ignore them and hail the soldiers that they healed as heroes. The nurses also received a great deal of admiration from their patients, whom they would often befriend. The compassion and bravery these nurses displayed in the face of conflict culminated into a tribute song called “The rose of no man’s land” which lyrically portrays the Red Cross nurse’s values of compassion and bravery. I say when the one hundredth anniversary emerges in June to commemorate the onset of World War One; I will not be referring to “In Flanders Fields”, a poem celebrating the struggle of war and the reward of peace within death. Instead, I will be referring to the Roses of no man’s land tributing the nurses and other medical personnel who showed that peace was not found within the embrace of death, but in fact in the human values of compassion and humility.