Values

Are we forgetting our history?

By Todd Snowden February 18, 2020


In 2014 I travelled to Europe on a delayed honeymoon and while in England I visited the tower of London. Based there is the regimental headquarters of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. According to their history, this unit and its ancestor regiments have been awarded fifty five Victoria Crosses. The Fusiliers have a museum to acknowledge their proud history and to demonstrate to everyone who visits they have not, and will not, forget their lineage.

On my return to Australia and back at my posted unit, at the time the 1st Combat Engineer Regiment (1CER), it dawned on me that we didn’t have this. Despite the fact the unit has a history that dates to the landing at Gallipoli, and has been involved in most major conflicts since, there was nothing except a memorial with some names on it. As important as this memorial is, the names on the wall outside of living history are simply that: names on a wall. They tell an important part of a unit's story, but not the story itself. In my final year there, the unit café displayed photographs and memorabilia that had previously been stored away and I felt privileged to see this part of the unit's history.

I have since posted from that unit to another and was disappointed to discover this unit lacked even the wall to put names up. Though this unit’s history is not as deep as my previous unit’s, it was still involved in conflicts since the Indonesian Confrontation and has lost members while deployed. A memorial had been established but due to the high operational tempo and its recent amalgamation of squadrons to a new location, the unit hadn’t yet put the names of their fallen up.

So what does this all mean? My concern is, are we forgetting our history? Why is the line ‘Lest we forget’ stated every Anzac Day if we don’t make the effort to remember the history connected with those who paid the ultimate sacrifice?

Could it be that while we remain in living memory of the events that have occurred in recent conflicts, we do not feel that such sacrifices could possibly be forgotten? Or perhaps we do not feel we have the right to deem items and stories from our deployments memorable, considering we made it back. From my own service history, how do I compare to the sacrifices of our fallen brothers or those brave men and women who served in the great conflicts of the 20th century? Do I have the right to tell the stories of long but mostly uneventful trips to East Timor, or my thankfully fatality-free stint in the Middle East, or even the times in remote Australia completing the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program (AACAP)? Is it up to the next generation to make the call on what is worthy of being remembered?

The obvious problem with this thinking is that items that may one day help tell our story such as a flag, or a street sign, or a number plate from a rolled vehicle will not be kept, and when they are lost, so are our stories.

The photographs and memories of the humid days pouring concrete in Timor, or months on exercise in Shoalwater Bay, may seem unimportant to some but they help paint a backdrop to the stories – our history and sacrifices – that we must never forget.

These little bits of everyday army life will help future generations connect with the soldiers of today and the soldiers of yesterday. It will give young Australians a chance to know the lives of their ancestors and the history of their units. So how do we achieve this?

For a start, don’t lock up memorabilia in a room or container: hang the signs or pin up the flags. Display the souvenirs at the unit boozer. If the names of a unit’s fallen are not displayed, put them up and research at least one person from that list. Discover their stories and pass them on; give truth to the phrase when we say it, Lest We Forget.

To conclude, I had typed this article up and saved it for almost a year, contemplating if it was worth submitting. One thing that I have seen change during that time is that my unit now has the names of their fallen displayed on their memorial. I saw soldiers willing to make an effort to make that memorial better then what it was.

I thought to end with a historical quote on the importance of not forgetting one's past, but I don’t believe it’s needed. I hope this article possibly inspires even just one person to look into their unit’s history, and that it helps lead another generation of soldiers to know and remember their past.


Portrait

Biography

Todd Snowden

Todd Snowden joined the Army in 2005, his most recent appointment is an instructor at the School of Military Engineering. Todd is currently studying for a Bachelor of Construction Management and has a keen interest in military history.

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



Comments

Tim, well done on an interesting and pertinent submission. Ownership of the legacy to promote, support and commemorate military history is one for all of us. I have recently departed Unit Command and along with several colleagues, we sought to again progress representation of our efforts as a unit and telling the story of our People. on arrival at the unit I noticed a room full of important memorabilia and references to the past. The Australian War Memorial research centre and multiple historical associations add a rich tapestry and support to the narrative. Connections with veterans and opportunities to maintain connections is highly valuable. Several Corps have been fortunate in raising funds to support museums and annexes around Australia. Units hold regular engagement with associations and veterans. The ideas are endless and just need support and effort.  My sense is that the Aussie Digger is creative, innovative, interested and if empowered, can assist to support new ideas to maintain the legacy. Small steps can make a big difference. Just look at the fantastic commemoration of departed colleagues in Gymnasiums around Australian bases, small grants supported by the RSL for Unit facilities, education and training. Another example is people giving of their time to talk about veterans, people, leadership and lessons. Mr Doug Baird (father of Cameron Baird, VC, MG) recently presented to health personnel in Townsville while visiting. Sergeant (Retd) 'Coco' Quirke gives his time to talk to newly minted Army and ADF medical technicians at the Army School of Health. Options like this are worthy pursuing. I note that the Corps Cells are moving to a reserve or 'extra-regimental' function. I genuinely hope that this does not dilute the links to Corps history.  Unit, command and organisational support is also required. Take away would be to chat to mates and the community, have an idea, pose it for consideration and support. Don't give up.  Ongoing effort, mateship, education and creative thinking will see the legacy live on. Good Soldiering.

Well written, Todd. There is another dimension, a complementary one, as well. I wrote a book about Australia's tank operations in Vietnam and remarked to a RAEME friend that it was evident that military history is primarily about strategy and tactics, there is very little about the innovative skills and techniques which have evolved and proven invaluable at different times. He agreed and quickly established a website titled 'RAEME Know How' which tries to capture and preserve practical knowledge for future generations. Of course, the other side of this is the lessons learnt on the battlefield which should be documented so that they don't have to be relearnt over and over again. The sapper mine warfare room at Nui Dat was a great example of this. Sadly, during Vietnam, the feedback of lessons to reinforcements in other Corps was not nearly as good.

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