Conflict + Society Seminar 2
Tuesday, 26 March
12–1:30pm, Navy Room, Adams Auditorium, UNSW Canberra at ADFA.
Uniform and Uniformity: Fashioning Vernacular Medicine in the First World War British and Dominion Forces
During the First World War, trench warfare spurred the onset of various medical conditions. Yet, when soldiers across Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand fell ill, it was not immediately recognised that some maladies stemmed from contamination – soiling, infestation and poisons – in their uniforms. With a new focus on preventive medicine, doctors and medical scientists investigated numerous medical conditions that spread through contaminated uniforms. It is well known that these medical professionals developed a body of knowledge on the prevention of uniform contamination. It is far less known that soldiers also developed a set of medical ideas. Different ‘systems of medical ideas’ developed simultaneously during the Great War, and this is demonstrated through the study of altered uniforms. This paper employs soldiers’ voices and clothing not only to highlight their reliance on vernacular medicine in the trenches, but also to reformulate the ways in which historians view similarity and difference, and the ways in which they understand imperial links.
Georgia McWhinney is a PhD candidate in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University, Sydney. Her current work examines vernacular medicine and altered uniforms among British and Dominion soldiers in the First World War. She is an editor for Humanity Postgraduate Journal, the social media coordinator for the Australian and New Zealand Society of the History of Medicine, and a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales.
“No Australian Need Apply”: British Command in the AIF
The First World War is generally perceived as a tragedy of epic proportions. An important element in that tragedy has always been the callous ineptitude of the British generals that lead to enormous casualties for little to no gain. In Australia that attitude is common, but there is the added hint of colonial resentment. There exists the idea that British officers commanded Australian troops and spent Australian lives to spare those of English men.
This narrative has been a popular one with the Australian public since at least the 1970s and the emergence of popular writers such as John Laffin with his “British Butchers and Bunglers of the World War One” and more lately authors like Peter Fitzsimons. It perhaps reached its peak in Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli, where the officer who demands the suicidal charge at the Nek be carried out is depicted as an aristocratic Englishman. In reality the man responsible, one Colonel Anthill, was thoroughly Australian. The persistence of this narrative is tied to the Anzac mythology and the supposed birth of an Australian identity on the shores of Gallipoli. However, there is a small kernel of truth buried at the heart of this story. There were a number of British officers placed in command of Australian formations on both Gallipoli and the Western Front. They were promoted, often ahead of Australians and against the wishes of the Australian government. But by the end of 1917 and with the formation of the Australian Corps there were precious few British officers left in the AIF. But was there a prejudice against Australian officers and if so, how widespread was it? Why were British officers either promoted or appointed ahead of their Australian counterparts and how long was it carried on for? What had changed by the end of 1917 that meant that AIF could become fully ‘Australianised’?
Damien Zuccarini is a graduate student at UNSW Canberra currently completing his PhD under the supervision of John Connor. He completed his BA(Hons) at Victoria University in Melbourne with the dissertation “Imperial or Australian: Anglo-Australian relations during the First World War”. He moved to Canberra in 2017 to commence his PhD. His thesis is an analysis of British and Dominion divisional commanders on the Western Front. Command during the Great War is his primary interest but he finds all eras and facets of history just as fascinating.