Untold stories of Australian sailors and airmen revealed
Two postgraduate history students have unearthed new findings from within the Australian War Memorial’s collection of wartime diaries and letters.
Anna Wilkinson and Hannah Billington, from Deakin University and the University of Melbourne respectively, will share their research into First World War sailors and Second World War airmen as they complete the Memorial’s prestigious Summer Scholars Program.
‘The most surprising thing I found is the everyday joys, frustrations and anxieties felt by these boys and men,’ Anna says. ‘Something as mundane as waiting for a letter could consume someone’s thoughts for weeks, even months. We have plenty of research focusing on ships, engagements and officers but I wanted to look at individual emotions.’
Hannah has investigated the experience of members of the Empire Air Training Scheme during the Second World War and the enduring legacy of their training in Canada.
‘There is a gap in existing scholarship,’ says Hannah. ‘By exploring how their Canadian training impacted RAAF recruits’ transformation from civilians to service personnel, I hope to highlight the significance of training to an individual’s service history.’
Both scholars are focusing on the reflections of the young men during these formative experiences and how they conveyed and recorded them.
‘It has been hard to whittle down the Memorial’s vast collection of writings to focus on a few stories,’ says Hannah. ‘The diaries and correspondence aren’t those of seasoned veterans, but of young men grappling with foreign countries, climates and cultures. They are all important.’
Memorial historians assigned the scholars’ topics, which are distinct from what they are pursuing in their academic careers. Anna said the chance to use the Memorial’s collections and work with experts was a great advantage.
‘I had the chance to interrogate the National Collection, the Research Centre and the Sea Power Centre. Accessing these records took me to the source of the history I am writing.’
Hannah is augmenting the scholarship of the Empire Air Training Scheme already undertaken by the Memorial.
‘The opportunity to bolster the Memorial’s work around this chapter of our military history, by understanding the personal links and wartime bonds between Australia and Canada, is something I am very proud of.’
Since 1985, the Summer Scholarship Scheme has given more than 90 young historians practical experience of working in a major historical institution. Each scholar produces a research paper related to their topic, be it an aspect of Australian military history, the Memorial’s collection, or developing an exhibition.
The summer scholars will present their research at a webinar, available on the Memorial’s website from 24 February. A longer written version will appear on our website later in the year.
‘Having gained a more nuanced understanding of history as a craft, we can’t wait to share what we have found,’ Hannah says.
More information on the program, including application dates, can be found on the AWM website.
Photo caption: Summer scholars Anna Wilkinson and Hannah Billington in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial