Study offers new insight into WWI

September 4, 2012

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A Murdoch University academic is undertaking an ambitious project chronicling the lives, deaths and memorialisation of 1700 British officers killed on the Western Front in the Great War of 1914-1918.

History Professor Michael Durey’s ‘collective biography’ is the first of its kind and aims to use a wealth of statistical information to examine long-held beliefs about the war while illuminating the grieving processes of those left behind.

Part of his ‘whole of life’ approach will involve an exploration of In Memoriam notices from post-war newspapers.

“Following the war, In Memoriam notices were a daily reminder of individual deaths, and thus sustained memories of a personal, rather than a collective sacrifice,” Professor Durey said.

“Unlike histories of battles and leaders, these offer insight into how those left behind dealt emotionally with grief and how they reinterpreted the meaning of the war over time.”

Initial research is challenging widely held beliefs, such as the war being unpopular and the British Army badly led.

“The British Army in WWI has a pretty poor reputation in popular folklore. There’s a view that the general officers were useless, sitting in chateaux miles behind the lines, and the junior officers were twits, but the reality is much more complex,” Professor Durey said.

“Part of my research is looking at how and where officers died to get a sense of what they did on the battlefields. Most were killed in large attacks, leading from the front.

“In fact, 224 British general officers were killed or wounded in the conflict, which shows they weren’t cloistered away. By 1916, a regulation came down from high command that no general was to go to the front line.

“All of this supports the view most historians now hold – that the British Expeditionary Force advanced along a learning curve that enabled it to play the major role in winning the war in 1918.”

Professor Durey’s project has received Australian Research Council funding for three years and will inform two books. He said his methodology provided pathways for anyone looking to research relatives who had served in the First World War.

“This project is possible because so much information is now available on-line, including the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, ancestry.com and newspaper archives,” he said.

“It’s time consuming – and no one else has been reckless enough to investigate 1700 officers – but the resources are there for everyone.”

Professor Durey is a member of the World Wars Research Group at Murdoch University.

To read a longer version of this article, go here.

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