Beyond the battle: Student research brings history to life

St Mary's Cathedral College students Liam Barrett, Sam Haifa and Nicholas Mooney with historian Lambis Englezos. Photo: Kitty Beale

History buffs: St Mary’s Cathedral College students Liam Barrett, Sam Haifa and Nicholas Mooney with historian Lambis Englezos. Photo: Kitty Beale

The Battle of Fromelles claimed the lives of 2,000 Australian soldiers on 19 July 1916, a night that became known as the worst in Australia’s military history.

St Mary’s Cathedral College Sydney students’ research project to honour those whose bodies were recovered from an unmarked grave in Northern France in 2008 has become even more relevant 100 years after the fight began.

Year 9 history students from the College created their first two-minute video profiles of soldiers exhumed from the battle-site in 2010, about 12 months after the bodies of 250 Australian and New Zealand soldiers were recovered.

In pairs they used sources including the Australian War Memorial archives and National Library of Australia online resource Trove to piece together information about the ones identified through DNA testing.

Google Fromelles Ning and about 40 high-quality biographies appear. Each year elective history students add to the site, with Year 10 students taking on the task in 2016.

History teacher Stephen Garry said the task was an excellent example of authentic learning, teaching students both the facts of the conflict and empathy.  “They start to see the futility of war and to recognise that the approximately 60,000 that died in World War I are 60,000 individuals,” he said.

“The task is as authentic as you get because the work goes beyond the school and has an impact on other people. The families of the soldiers get an opportunity to see the students’ work and there’s a tangible link to a relative that died 100 years ago.”

When the National Curriculum for History was introduced in 2014, the World War I topic moved from the Year 9 curriculum to Year 10, as did the research task.  “At the moment there are 144 soldiers identified, but the number grows,” Mr Garry said. “We just keep chipping away.”

When you focus on one man whose age is not far from our own you can empathise with them.

– Liam Barrett

Year 11 student Nicholas Mooney, 16, researched Private John Cyril- Wynne, the great-uncle of former NRL player Peter Wynne two years ago. He discovered the connection through 2012 media reports that Peter and his brother supplied their DNA to help identify John’s remains. Nicholas was given access to personal documents during an interview with Peter.

“He gave us so much information – original war file documents and a lot of diary entries from John’s older brother, because they were in the war together,” he said. “It was enlightening to see someone who was just as excited as you were about the history.

“The day that John Cyril Wynne died at Fromelles, Adolf Hitler was also present at the battle and was shot there. John’s older brother was at the same site where the Red Baron was shot down so they have the running family story that one of the brothers shot Hitler and the other shot the Red Baron down. Those sort of intimate family stories made the research a lot deeper and more meaningful.”

What it does ultimately is tell a soldier’s story.

– Lambis Englezos

Liam Barrett, 15, will complete a soldier’s biography this term.  “The thing that really appeals to me about the task is that it gives you a unique perspective on individual soldiers,” he said. “When you focus on one man whose age is not far from our own you can empathise with them.

“Hopefully with this year being the 100 year anniversary, a bit more attention is paid to the battle and to the research.  A lot of the research the boys here have done over the past seven years will probably surface more.”

Elective history students in Years 9 to 11 also welcomed historian Lambis Englezos to the school on May 2. His research led to the discovery of the grave of the St Mary’s research project’s subjects. Their identified bodies were reinterred at Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery. Lambis continues to advocate for a research-based, active approach to recovering the bodies of missing soldiers and praised the College’s work.

“It’s a wonderful project,” he said. “It encourages research but what it does ultimately is tell a soldier’s story. This is what commemoration and remembrance is all about – that we take away the anonymity. Hopefully if the school gets to make a pilgrimage they can walk the battlefields and see the graves of the soldiers.”

Australians at Fromelles:

 5,533 casualties

2,000 dead

1,336 missing

480 prisoners of war

144 missing dead identified

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