The power of writing during the Great War

Soldiers harnessed the power of writing, language and humour to make sense of their experience of the Great War.

Photo of soldiers writing in the Great War
The image shows 6167 Private (Pte) E. E. Webster, printer (left), and 4479 Pte Alfred Henry Ladd, composition, and the printing press of the 22nd Battalion ‘Echo’. The editor of the fortnightly journal, 4983 Sergeant C. Blatchford MM is seen sitting at the table. Picture: Australian War Memorial, Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Using sources such as soldier’s diaries, trench journals, and wartime magazines, this research by our Fellows moves beyond the panoramic view of the War and its economic, social, and political consequences, to a more detailed consideration of the personal and intimate experiences of soldiers.

Dr Peter Cochrane FAHA’s article ‘Diamonds of the Dustheap: Diaries from the First World War’ (PDF, 1,629KB)’ first appeared in the 6th edition of the Academy’s flagship journal Humanities Australia. Drawing on the vast collection of soldier’s diaries housed in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of NSW, Cochrane argues that the pre-eminent quality of these texts is their ‘unpretentious authenticity and immediacy, a realism matched by no other literary form in the records of wartime experience.’ This, he says, gives us access to the inside perspective, plain and unvarnished, of those caught in the chaos of daily life in the trenches.

A fitting companion piece, the article ‘Comedy in the trenches’ appeared in the University of Melbourne’s online magazine The Pursuit in late 2017 and features the research of Professor Véronique Duché Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques FAHA. Duché shows how Australian soldiers found relief from the relentlessness of the First World War by using the language of the German enemy to entertain each other in journals written whilst stuck in the trenches. As she argues, twisting words in the German vernacular to create ‘slanguage’ helped soldiers regain a sense of community and provided relief and distance from the enemy.

Finally, Professor Emeritus Colin Nettelbeck Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur; Officier des Palmes Académiques FAHA looks at how the Dernière Heure (PDF, 684KB), a stand-alone magazine or booklet of some 60 pages produced by members of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) awaiting repatriation after the Armistice, brought a sobering assessment of the war’s costs; and, more positively, an awareness that a deepening friendship had been born between Australia and France.

Download the papers

Peter Cochrane, ‘Diamonds of the Dustheap: Diaries from the First World War (PDF, 1,629KB)’, Humanities Australia, 6 (2015), 22-34.

Linda McSweeney (featuring Véronique Duché), ‘Comedy in the Trenches’, The Pursuit, 17 November 2017.

Colin Nettelbeck, ‘Not Just a Nostalgic Farewell: The “Derniere Heure” as a Landmark Document in Franco-Australian Friendship (PDF, 684KB)’, The French Australian Review: World War 1 Special Issue, No. 59, 2015-16, 55-78.

With kind permission by the Institute for the Study of French Australian Relations, you can download the complete The French Australian Review: World War 1 Special Issue (PDF, 7.1MB).

Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.