While the majority of the action in Australia’s Great War: 1915 takes place at Gallipoli, a really important part of the book is the communication between Stanley and his twin sister, Elizabeth, who is back at home in Bunbury. Stanley writes to Elizabeth and shares his experiences and, importantly, his feelings about them. Elizabeth, in turn, tells Stanley about the things that are happening – big and small – at home, as well as her concerns about Stanley’s wellbeing.
About 420 000 Australian men and women served in World War I. Almost every one of those people had loved ones at home – wives, parents, children, siblings. They came from communities in which they each played their own roles before the war – in employment, in sporting teams, in social life, as volunteers.
So, while the war was raging overseas, in Australia life was different too. Parents worried. Wives fretted. Siblings tried to filled gaps. Employers tried to carry on their business without their workers, and had to train new staff. Communities changed. Perhaps most significantly, children grew up without their fathers. And all of these people, of course, mourned when lives were lost.
When I hit upon the idea of making Stanley, my main character, a young teacher, I knew this could give me an opportunity to show what life was like on the home front, through his classroom. Because of course while Stan was away at the war, his pupils would still be at school. Wondering who his replacement teacher might be, I hit upon the idea of a twin sister, also a teacher, taking over his class.
Then as I started to write I realised that it wouldn’t just be Stanley who Elizabeth and their students would be linked to, because it would be likely that the students themselves would also have family members, friends or neighbours off at the war. So I created the characters of Miles Parker – who fights alongside Stan – and his sons, back home in Elizabeth’s classroom. This was to provide some of the most emotionally difficult material for me to write as I considered the impact of the war on two young boys.
Of course lots of the details about the home front that are part of the book are seemingly small things – dances, engagements, changing seasons – because life at home did go on, but also because when you are far away from home you like to know what’s happening there. Elizabeth keeps Stanley informed about these things as much, or more, than she does about major happenings. But Elizabeth’s role is not incidental or trivial: it is a key part of the story. Without a home to miss, a country to be fighting for, the war would be meaningless to those who were there.