The Crying Years: Australia’s Great War 

Reviewed By  Janet Mawdesley       October 9, 2017


Author  Peter Stanley

Distributor:       Booktopia/Amazon 
ISBN:                 9780642279057 |
Publisher:         National Library of Australia
Release Date:   August 2017  


As Australia approaches the Century of the end of the First World War on 11 November 1918,  when Germany agreed to an Armistice, a day now known as Armistice Day, if is fitting to take time to step back a little from the emotion which is slowing building, to spare a minute to reflect; not just on the lives lost, frequently so needlessly, but to the cost of  ‘Australia’s first war’, at least on the international front, to the cost to the many, many people who were left to manage somehow, and a society which would remain changed forever.

In compiling and writing The Crying Years, Peter Stanley has over many years, gathered together a volume of work that should be mandatory reading for anyone, whom in anyway, has an interest in War, the fall-out in the broadest possible sense and changes which follow, not just in society but in the shadow that is always there, that somehow, never seems to go away.

Stanley has broken the War years into sections from 1914 to 1919, the year the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28th, 1919 drawing an official conclusion to four horrific years of destruction and death, which helps to place a focus onto some of the many issues the people in Australia had to contend with, as well as the constant demand for more men to send to the front, wherever that may have been at the time.

Stepping back in history, 1914 was a good year in the young country of Australia. It had the highest wages, an excellent standard of living, good health, a good arbitration system and women had been given the vote, showing the world that Australia was a very progressive, prosperous country. There were still some serious downsides to this economy such as rural hardship, the ‘white’ Australia policy was alive and well, and in spite of all the great publicity to the contrary, slum areas existed in the capital cities.

Once War was declared, via a declaration in Australia on the morning of 5 August 1914, world events immediately began to change; to many it was almost a relief, as it had long been anticipated that this would more than likely occur in Europe and that Australia ‘would be ready’ to support King and country. And so it began.

As the years unfold a visual history is unwrapped, thanks to depth of the National Library of Australia’s archives which does more to illustrate what was going on at ‘home’ than thousands of words could possibly achieve.  Peter Stanley has chosen well from this massive resource to illustrate via press cuttings, poetry, cartoons and photographs of the day, to show World War I as captured and told from the ‘home front’.

It is pointed out that the loss of what would be 60,000 men on the battlefields of Gallipoli, Flanders, Fromelles, Passchendaele and Villers –Bretonneux was a tremendous blow, but equally the bitter fight for survival being undertaken in Australia was as devastating.

Men remaining in Australia had to make some incredibly difficult choices; to enlist, get conscripted or do none of these things and be branded a coward. Women had to manage a home, children and cope with severe shortages of a food and money, while all the time mourning the loss of a loved one, a family friend or neighbour.  Bad news was delivered by the Minister or Vicar; too see this man about his business was a common and dreaded daily occurrence.

Drought and bushfires caused more problems as the already struggling country was forced to face ever more stringent rationing. Conscription was a divisive issue, with communities struggling to remain cohesive. A pandemic pneumonic Influenza outbreak in 1918, which became known worldwide as the ‘Spanish Flu’, caused serious quarantine restrictions, but despite best efforts, more than 12,000 Australians died.

And when the ‘War Was Over’, as the old song goes and all the men returned home broken in body, mind and spirit what then! Once again the communities had to change direction, learn to understand, manage and put the pieces back together, yet again.

In this highly visual presentation, as well as extremely enjoyable reminder of our early history, it presents in flamboyance, a time which, without the reminders of what we, Australian, have sacrificed over the years, this period in history, this cameo of the other side of war, will fast fade from everyday memory.

The last of the ‘Diggers’ who served in WWI, Alan Campbell died in 2002, at the age of 103 years and would have been perhaps not best pleased to see the recent adulation of a time and place, that he referred too as ‘the fiasco of Gallipoli’, is receiving.

What was once a household name and grief has once again become almost bigger than the event.

World War I was the beginning of so much societal change and the end of the naivety of a young country, it created the ANZAC legend and the Diggers who fought in their own indomitable way. Thanks to many men taking photographs and sending them home, an archival heritage that will possibly never be equalled as far as a record of world events, has been created.

Overall, this retelling and showing of the days of 1914-1919 underscores that war is a complex piece of machinery, which almost 100 years on still is throwing its shadow over modern Australia.

“Lest we forget”……….