World War I seemed so long ago, so far away.
My feelings changed though when I started reading some history books and trawling through online war archives, researching the Australian Tunnellers of World War I.
I was working on a digital writing project and I had anecdotally heard that many of the World War I Tunnellers came from Ballarat.
I was curious about what they did, who they were, what they went through and I wanted to know more. So I read a book by Damien Finlayson, Crumps and Camouflets: Australian Tunnelling Companies on the Western Front.
I began to realise just how much I didn’t know about the Great War; trench warfare in particular.
I came across accounts about one soldier/engineer from Ballarat, Major Leslie Coulter. He trained as a mining engineer and worked in Tasmania at the Mount Lyell Mine before the war.
He was awarded a bravery medal by the mining company for saving the lives of men trapped in a mine collapse.
In the war, he went on to see significant action on the frontlines to the extent he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for battlefield bravery.
His story intrigued me and I wanted to understand it. I wanted to get closer to that particular moment in history.
So I started exploring the digital archives of the Australian War Memorial, National Library of Australia, State Library of Victoria and WorldWarOne.com.
These resources helped me piece together a fragment of a picture of the Western Front and Ballarat around 1917.
One small, seemingly insignificant fragment was Leslie Coulter’s home address. It was on the same street, two blocks down from where I work, a house now gone, but a place I walk past most lunch times. History suddenly felt a lot closer to me.
I took a tour of the World War I display at the Gold Museum. I looked at artifacts from returned soldiers. I used the soldiers’ cigarette cards and a tobacco tin to ponder and explore questions in my mind.
Questions like, ‘Why would you leave home and loved ones to fight someone else’s war?’
I was trying to imagine how individuals caught up in the war effort might have felt in their own quiet moments of reflection.
I also wanted to explore how I felt about what I was discovering, how I was feeling about the artifacts and archives I was seeing, the thoughts they were inspiring in me.
I sensed a story moving from the bright optimism of cigarette cards to the monochrome of a grave postcard through to the haunting photos of Lake Wendouree in winter.
For the first time, I got a glimpse of what the devastation of war must have been like, must have felt like.
The archives made me see the war afresh, see it in higher resolution. It also made me wonder about the lives of those who were so profoundly impacted and yet whose courage was not captured in the records; the mothers, wives and sisters of the fallen.
Moreover, it brought home the devastation of World War I, both the obvious and the silent.
The devastation of lives lived courageously and then cut short, the devastation of loss reverberating with grief perhaps unending, just moved underground.
I created a webpage to capture this sense of courage and loss through images, first hand accounts and my own personal poems.
Written by James O’Callaghan, professional writing and editing student at Federation University.