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Introduction to the stories

Bruce Scates introduces four stories on the division in Australian society during the Great War.
BRUCE SCATES: Welcome back to the 100 Stories. We’re standing on the ridge at Villers-Bretonneux. Behind us are the flat fields of the Somme, those flat fields that swallowed up an entire generation. And in front of me, in front of me stands the tower of Australia’s National Memorial. It soars above the Somme, and it shines out white on that horizon. The tower’s impressive enough today, but the original plans called for a structure much, much bigger. Several times larger. And those original plans stipulated that the tower should be built entirely of Australian stone– stone that was going to be freighted thousands of miles across the oceans to plant here a piece of Australia in the soil of France.
In the midst of the Great Depression, that plan for a uniquely Australian memorial never actually eventuated. Nonetheless, there is something of Australia planted here– the graves of so many of our countrymen. They lay alongside the graves of British troops, the graves of Canadians, the graves of New Zealanders. You see, Villers-Bretonneux isn’t just a memorial to the missing– that legion of the lost, men with no known grave. Villers-Bretonneux is also a cemetery, and it contains the bodies of some 800 Australians killed here on the Somme. Billy Rae here lost his life as the Allies advanced on Amiens, right towards the end of the war.
He served alongside his two brothers, and only one of those boys actually made it home to Australia. The Rae family then lived with grief all their lives, and that grief, I think, was made all the harder by their anger. You see, Billy’s next of kin was his father, Arthur Rae. Arthur was a unionist, he was a socialist, and he was a Labor senator. Arthur Rae believed that this war was wrong. He respected his son’s decision to fight, but he himself fought against conscription. He believed that no one, no one had the right to force young men like this one to go to their deaths.
Arthur Rae’s epitaph for young Billy poses a question. It’s a question historians today struggle to answer. Another life lost. Hearts broken for what?
This memorial wasn’t completed until 1938, and just a year later the world went to war again, breaking the hearts of yet another generation. So Billy Rae’s epitaph reminds us of how the Great War divided our country. This week’s module is called The Old Lie, and it looks at the deeply divisive politics of the Great War.

Bruce Scates introduces the stories from Villers-Bretonneux, France.

After you’ve watched the stories, we’ll be asking you to reflect on how each explores aspects of the division in Australian society during the Great War.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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