The War that Changed Us (2014)

The War that Changed Us is one of the major productions to have emerged from the centenary wave. A four-part series made by the independent Electric Pictures, the documentary is directed by Don Featherstone and co-written by Featherstone and historian Clare Wright, who is credited with the original concept for the series. Along with Bruce Scates and Peter Stanley, she is also one of the historical consultants who anchor the talking head contributions. Their role is supplemented by input from a number of others, prominent among them Bill Gammage (author of the 1974 classic, The Broken Years and historical consultant to Weir’s Gallipoli), Janet Butler (author of Kitty’s War [2013] based on the diaries of army nurse, Kit McNaughton), Ross McMullin (biographer of First World War military leader, Pompey Elliott), and JeffSparrow, former editor of Overland journal and co-author of Radical Melbourne.41 The traditional role of the expert talking head is, however, very much subordinated to dramatised reconstruction using professional actors, limiting expert sound bites with few exceptions to less than thirty seconds at a time. Featherstone and his co-director, James Bogle (a specialist in drama), have explained that their intention was to make a hybrid form that drew on many documentary conventions but nevertheless had a feature film look that would bring emotion to the surface through character.42 Original black and white archival material is colourised for the production, and the filmmakers have tapped into a diverse range of local and international sources.

Australia’s experience of the First World War unfolds chronologically and is told through the lens of six diverse lives: Archie Barwick, the recruit; Pompey Elliott, a senior officer; Vida Goldstein, pacifist; Tom Barker, radical unionist and anti-war activist; Eva Hughes, head of the patriotic, pro-imperial Australian Women’s National League; and nurse, Catherine (Kit) McNaughton. The choice of subjects enables the viewer to experience a genuine cross-section of First World War Australian society: male and female; service personnel and civilians; battle front and home front; combatants and non-combatants; political conservatives and radicals; patriotic and anti-war. This inclusiveness has its limits; there is, for instance, no Indigenous service member or civilian on the home front. However, the representation has sufficient breadth to provide its audience with some insight into the complexities of the First World War experience and its manifold impacts.

Availability of written sources was an important consideration in the choice of subjects. Pompey Elliott, for instance, exchanged “frank and illuminating” letters with his wife, which allows the home front to be an important focus of Elliott’s First World War experience, frequently told through flashback sequences. Elliott also has the advantage of providing the audience with the perspective of an Australian military leader who gives a frank assessment of the horror and carnage of war. Similarly, twenty-four-year-old Tasmanian farm manager Archie Barwick penned an extremely detailed diary that tells us what he actually felt: for example, the fear that he wrestled with during the Gallipoli campaign beginning with the psychological effect of an approaching shell, and the shock and grief experienced following the death of his mate, Wagga.43

Character was also an important element in the selection process. Catherine (Kit) McNaughton, a twenty-nine-year-old Irish Catholic nurse from Little River in Victoria, was one of several nurses considered by the producers. Her expressive character is revealed through her diaries, including an emotional attachment to some of the soldiers she nursed. As with Barwick, we get some sense of her human feelings and emotions through her flings and romances, an aspect of wartime lives that is harder to access for a nurse than a digger in view of prevailing gendered expectations and the constrained lives of wartime nurses (see Haskins’ chapter). The regimented work role of nurses is brought into sharp focus by homing in on the case study of a hospital in France under British management where Australian nurses were treated censoriously. This technique of transporting the viewer behind surface impressions so they can access directly the strengths, foibles and quirks of the subjects examined is a major emphasis in the evolving documentary form that, in the words of Graeme Davison “confirms the quest for identity as a characteristic preoccupation of our age.”44

The inclusion ofVida Goldstein, Tom Barker and Eva Hughes helps to convey a strong sense of the turbulence that prevailed on the home front, a seminal part of the war experience until recently often neglected in both written accounts and documentary productions of the war. These contrasting subjectivities—a pacifist woman considered “the pin up girl for Australian progressivism,” a prominent Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) who provided a class analysis of the war, and a patriotic woman who saw the war through a pro-imperial lens—offer us a valuable means of grasping the bitterly contested, sectarian nature of wartime domestic politics and the moral courage required to oppose the war. The link is made with Irish politics, notably the 1916 Easter Rising, and the tumult of the first conscription referendum in Australia. But here the focus is not on the sharply conflicting politics and personalities of Prime Minister Hughes and Archbishop Mannix, a factor that had an enormous influence on the course of the conscription campaign.45

Unearthing exclusions to the Anzac legend can only take us so far, however, given the nature of the six subjects explored. In Episode 3 “Coming Apart (1916-17),” for instance, there is a cursory discussion of Aboriginal men and their service in the context of a desperate need for manpower and relaxation of the restrictions on Indigenous enlistment. But this is as far as the narrative takes us: a little odd given that Gary Oakley, formerly Indigenous Liaison Officer at the Australian War Memorial, is listed in the credits as a participating historian. Alas, he does not appear once in the four hours of screen time. This also seems a missed opportunity given the important link between Aboriginal service, the protection regime and the removal of Aboriginal children. As Wesley Enoch, the director of the powerful stage production Black Diggers, has said, their research for the play revealed many stories of children removed from their mother while the father was away serving the country at war. The ‘Protector’ would also commonly withhold the wages of Aboriginal diggers from their families (see Furphy’s chapter).46

A further disappointment is that Marina Larsson, an authority on ‘shattered’ Anzacs, is underutilised.47 To be fair, the issue of repatriation of physically and mentally scarred Anzacs is given a brief airing in the final episode set to the music of Eric Bogle’s classic 1971 anti-war song, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” Most of the six subjects are impacted profoundly by the loss of loved ones during the course of the cataclysm, an issue documented periodically throughout the series. Only Pompey Elliott, a strong advocate of returned men, is a war-related death. He suicided in 1931, aged 52. Otherwise the effects of the war are discussed at a generic level, mostly through other historian talking heads. And yet the impact was so profound that it left Australia, to use Joan Beaumont’s words, a broken nation. Bruce Scates’ most recent book, World War One: A History in 100 Stories (2015) highlights the many lives blighted by the war that do not sit comfortably with the traditional paradigm of heroism and mateship, many of which for that very reason were excluded from the broader commemorative program.48 This only serves to highlight the ongoing tensions between commemoration and remembering. Commemoration is given cursory treatment in The War that Changed Us and arguably deserved an episode in its own right—or a separate documentary feature to challenge the heroic-romantic myth of war, a dominant strand in Australian historiography of Anzac, and one so firmly embedded in popular consciousness that it still seems almost unassailable.

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