Saturday, 1 June 2013

Battling historical ignorance

It seems appropriate to mark my 100th post with some observations on the teaching and learning of history. As a child was enthralled by ancient history but at secondary school (utterly illogical) timetabling restrictions meant that I did not study any history beyond Year 8. As a result, my working life was spent in the fields of science and mathematics. That is how careers were shaped.

Nevertheless, I do consider myself to be reasonably well-informed about many areas of history. At least, until I come to investigate them as background for some aspect of my research into our ancestors.

The looming centenary of the Great War will focus public attention on the 1914-18 period as never before. And if my relative ignorance is any indication, then it will be much needed.

Two members of our family were among the fallen in what we now term World War I. Robert BURTON died at Gallipoli in 1915 and Charles COLEY on the Somme in 1918. I thought that I knew quite a lot about one campaign and a little about the other. I was wrong.

Like most Australian kids, I "did" Gallipoli in school every April. The dawn landing, Simpson and his donkey, the stupidity (or perfidy) of British command, Lone Pine, mateship, and bully beef tins attached to rifles for the evacuation combined to build a comprehensive picture of the ultimate ANZAC conflict.

So why was I surprised to learn that Robert died fighting in an Irish regiment a decade before anyone in that branch of the family ever contemplated moving to Australia?

I freely conceded that I knew less about the Somme — mud and weeks spent in trenches pretty much encompassed my view. The modern fascination with Villers-Bretonneux as an alternative site for Anzac Day commemoration had some association with the general area but I could not explain how.

That the momentous Battle for Mont St Quentin might rival Gallipoli for its significance in shaping Australian military lore and certainly surpasses it in terms of its impact on the course of the war did not cross my mind.

Learning that the battle in which Charles died was almost exactly the opposite of my naive preconceptions of the Western Front — short sharp skirmishes in which small groups operated almost autonomously moving rapidly over open ground — causes me to doubt many of the truths that I have always known(sic) about other historical events.

It is never too late to learn and there is no doubt that today I have a different (if not necessarily, a stronger) motivation. Yet, I cannot help but wonder what I would be missing if I were to regard genealogy as a form of philately and was happy simply to collect names and dates, while remaining blissfully ignorant of the fact that the past in which our ancestors lived and died is far more complicated that we imagine.

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