Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Introduction and exploration of historical artefacts

Professor Mike Roper explores historical artefacts related to bereavement and commemoration: a photo album of a Gallipoli pilgrimage in the 1920s.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Welcome back to the “One Hundred Stories.” Today, here at Monash University, we’re joined by Proffesor Mike Roper. Mike’s a historian at the University of Essex in Britain. And he’s worked extensively in memory and generational change. His most recent book, The Secret Battle, reconstructs the relationships between soldiers at the front and the mothers they left behind, bridging those two worlds through an intimate examination of letters and diaries. His current work builds on this interesting tide of war, the emotions, and family relationships. Mike’s conducting interviews with children who grew up in the interwar period, tracing the transmission of trauma across the generations.
LAURA JAMES: In the course of his work, Mike has looked at the potential of history to grip our emotions. In his book, “The Secret Battle,” he spent over four years immersed in soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs. Mike believes he can find past traces of emotion in historical artefacts, and that parchment, leather, and dust that historians encounter in the archives can trigger powerful emotive responses. Mike’s been looking at some of those traces of the past today– true testimonies captured in the archives. What can you tell us about those sources today, Mike?
MIKE ROPER: We’ve got a couple of photograph albums here, I think, from the one family. And they’re very interesting in that era at that time, the mid-1920s, it would have cost probably a year’s wage to send someone across to the battlefields. And so we’ve got clearly a very wealthy family who don’t just go once. They go twice to visit– to Turkey. And they’re there for the opening of a memorial in 1925, I think it is. And you can see there that the visit to the cemetery is just part of a whole tourist experience. They’re also visiting Greece. They’re going to the Acropolis. It’s a European tour with a little bit of war tourism tacked onto it.
It’s very interesting to think, for example, we have pictures here of them going by horseback up to the memorial. And they’re being led by what looks like a Turkish guide. And they’re in very fashionable mid-1920s gear, with sunglasses and on with the Flapper about them. And you’ve got a couple pages here where they’re visiting the memorials. And then you turn the page, and they’re back on board the boat. And they’re taking pictures of their leisure on the boat and bowling in both the photograph albums. So you can see that it’s just a part of their life. One can think that these visits would be the main point of their tour. But we don’t know that.
It’s very hard to tell from the fragments we have here in these photograph albums. But what is clear is that they’re clearly very wealthy family. They can go in large numbers to visit these sites. And it’s very early form of First World War battlefield tourism that we’re seeing here. And you can see the memorial’s just being opened. We can see that they’re still travelling– some by car, some by horse and cart. And we also get a terrific sense of the distance that they’re travelling because we see the whole of their journey on board ship documented in the photographs. We see that it’s quite risky because we see there’s been a collision between two of the boats.
And the damage to the boat is photographed endlessly. So we see it as part of a whole experience, which takes a long time. Today, we travel by jet, and we’re there in 24 hours. In those days, we’re talking about travel which went for weeks and weeks to get to these sites. And they feel like they’re pioneers. And indeed, they are in a way because, for them, the ground is very rough. It takes a long time. They’re very privileged, but they also would see themselves as pioneers undertaking this kind of journey.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Do you think that there would be a huge difference, I mean, these highlight the Irwin family. And Henry Higgins got to travel to where his son lay. And then we also have a huge difference with the families, like Emily Luttrell who wrote, begging and begging the Government for any kind of subsidy to actually go and see her son’s grave. The stories highlight the disparity between the classes and the mourning.
MIKE ROPER: When you look at this material, you can see that the War Graves Commission, on the one hand, had an idea that it was equal service. Everybody served. They should be given the same sort of headstone. There should be a uniformity about it, which was quite radical for the time. We’re talking about a class society where division and division, in particular, between rank-and-file and officers was set in stone. But here, we have actually, on the whole, burial where everybody has the same entitlement. So on the one hand, the war gives rise to this very kind of egalitarian impulse because a sacrifice is the same for everybody. For every parent who loses a child, it’s an equal sacrifice.
But on the other hand, social class sneaks back in, in so many ways. And it sneaks back in not just in terms of who can visit. It sneaks back in in terms of inscriptions and who can pay for inscriptions, and how and what kind of inscription they can have. But for Australia, those differences are particularly acute. Now, if you were in Britain in the mid-1920s and you were a factory worker, it would have taken you a week of your salary to go and visit the Western Front, which was the closest front to Britain. But that’s still a week’s wage. And that’s an awful lot of money. Now, as I say, you take Australia, and you have a year’s salary.
So Justice Higgins and the Irwins are part of the elite of the elite, the fact that they were able to make this journey, it’s an extraordinary thing. It will be hard to think now. It would be like flying Concorde, which you can’t do now. But the cost of Concorde in the 1980s and ’90s to get to America or whatever was extortionate for most people. It’s something like that. Or by rocket, you know. That’s how rarefied that kind of tourism would have been for people. And, of course, the big difference is that, for the vast majority of Australians, it was impossible to make that journey.
Indeed, it was impossible for the vast majority of British parents and wives who were left bereaved. They couldn’t make that journey either. It would have been a week’s salary. But in Australia, it’s particularly a problem that you cannot make that visit. So what happens is there are all sorts of ways in which Australians try to make a connection. And the other document which we have here is a booklet called “Where the Australians Rest.” And this is produced in the mid-1920s. 1926, I think it is. And this is a booklet precisely produced for the purpose that people can’t visit the graves which are being constructed across all the theatres of war.
And in the knowledge of that, the Australian Government know this, creates a booklet so that people can have some knowledge of the cemetery in which their loved one might be buried. And if you turn from the cover to the first page of this booklet, it says “With the compliments and deepest sympathy of the Minister of State for Defence, Senator Pearce.” Now, it is a personal kind of– it looks like it’s not handwritten, but it’s in cursive writing. It’s got that kind of personal touch. And this is to supply information when it’s not possible for people to visit the site.
So, you know, and it’s produced in that moment where the War Graves Commission started to consolidate the dead and put them into cemeteries. And this often involves disinterring. It often involves clustering together graves that were scattered throughout the battlefields. And on the first page, you see there is a sketch of a wooden cross. These were quite often found around the cemetery sites. And across it, it says, “from mother.” Now, what that tells me is that they’re in a moment of transition where the graves are becoming much more substantial, and they’re being made uniform. And these private memorials, which were scattered around the battlefields, are gradually being got rid of.
And there’s a sort of rationalisation process going on and bodies being brought into formal cemeteries. And this booklet, really, is documenting that transition. So it starts with an image of the wooden cross– something impermanent and informal. And it moves in to explain how the dead are going to be buried and where they’re buried. So it documents exactly that process of transmission. Very interesting for that. Another thing which I found very interesting about the booklet is that the War Graves Commission is really trying to be as universal as it can in the way it’s thinking about the burial practises. And let me just read a little bit of the booklet ad.
It says, “In these cemeteries, the soldiers of the British Empire lie. Those who came from all over the world to give their lives for the same cause and by whose deeds and sacrifices we now live free. No difference could be made between the graves of officers and other ranks in a war where the full strengths of nations was used without respect of persons.” Now, what this is saying to me is that they recognise that the sacrifice is equal for everybody. And by that equality, they don’t just mean rank-and-file and officers. They’re also talking about the whole of the British Empire and the equality of sacrifice across all the nations that contributed to the Allies’ war effort.
And what they’re saying is there has to be a level of universality about the way in which we commemorate all those dead despite all those differences that exist across countries and the colony and across social class and across military rank.

Watch Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James introduce Professor Mike Roper and then ask him to explore historical artefacts related to the topic of bereavement and commemoration: a photo album of a Gallipoli pilgrimage in the 1920s.

This article is from the free online

World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now