Counting the cost of grief
In popular culture, the personification of the Anzac legend is the young, fearless soldier facing relentless resistance and wholesale injury and death at Gallipoli. Recent Australian scholarship, however, looks beyond the battlefield, to position women at the very centre of the First World War.
As we mark the centenary of Gallipoli this year, the Anzac legend is typically personified as a young male soldier bravely and honourably defending his country and ensuring its future freedom.
But equally, in the official WWI centenary commemoration held at the Gallipoli dawn service last year on Anzac Day, and in several media commentaries before and after, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s address to grieving mothers of Anzac soldiers killed at Gallipoli was given prominence.
“You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears,” Turkey’s first president and commander of the Turkish troops at Gallipoli wrote in 1934, the inscription of which appears on the Kemal Atatürk Memorial in ANZAC Parade, Canberra. “Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.”
Joy Damousi, Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, has – through several monographs, articles and book chapters – researched the short and long-term impact of the two world wars, highlighting in particular the categories of grief, loss, sacrifice, trauma and identity within the context of war.
“In my research I have highlighted the way in which the experience and expression of grief, loss and trauma is shaped by particular historical circumstances,” Professor Damousi says. “During the Great War the unprecedented numbers of dead soldiers meant elaborate mourning rituals were necessarily modified.
Twice as many men died in action or of their wounds in the First World War as were killed in all the major wars between 1790 and 1914.
“Twice as many men died in action or of their wounds in the First World War as were killed in all the major wars between 1790 and 1914. The unprecedented scale of the trauma of loss and sorrow left an enduring legacy on those who remained to absorb the impact of individual and national tragedy.”
In the chapter titled ‘Mourning Practices’ which she contributed to the third volume of The Cambridge History of the First World War published last year, Professor Damousi posits that it was women who assumed the burden of the mourning work in many communities, not least because they made up the bulk of the survivors.
“This focus on mourning has positioned women at the very centre of the history of the First World War,” says Professor Damousi. “It was women who were responsible for adopting ritual practices to the challenge of mourning the war dead.”
As such, according to Professor Damousi, there was a belief that mothers across all nations had a particular and special part to play in mourning their dead sons. “The enduring loss of those who continued to live in the shadow cast by war has allowed women, and mothers in particular, to find a place in the history of the First World War, which has traditionally prioritised men’s experience.
“In Britain, the estimation is that by 1918, every household and most other countries had lost a relative or friend. This circle of mourners – which might include siblings, aunts, cousins, neighbours on the home front and nurses who mourned on the battle front – remains unexamined,” she says.
Much of the historical scholarship to date has examined national contexts of mourning and gender and, while in Professor Damousi’s estimation this should continue, she considers that there are fruitful lines of transnational inquiry which could provide further layering and complexity and lead to capturing the diversity of mourning across cultures.
“Survivors grieve for their dead in complex and varied ways across cultures, nations and religions,” says Professor Damousi. “The shifting sands of how and where they sought refuge, and the way they mourned, reflects individuals and communities in trauma and turmoil and cannot be captured with glib generalisations.
“It is to the web of complex cultural shifts and range of individual and collective reactions that our attention needs now to turn.”