Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 January 2015
William Philpott has argued that, by the time the last survivors of those who fought at Pozières and Mouquet Farm marched away, they were shattered men, who had ‘endured rather than conquered’. Yet, he argued,
…paradoxically they were emerging heroes, the Dominion’s worthy sons. Thereafter myth would do duty for experience as the Battle of the Somme started to reshape, and be remade by, those who passed through it. Pozières would become the sacred ground where Australian divergence from her English heritage took root; the Somme’s all smothering clay would cement the colony’s developing sense of national identity.
For experience to be turned into history, or mythology, it needs to be recorded. In the modern world the experience of battle has to become a part of the written story that can be told and retold, with each retelling becoming more encrusted with mythology, so that lived experience becomes yet another story in a search for national identity. In that way the death of each soldier, which had meaning only to those he left behind to mourn, becomes ennobled and part of an overarching story that those remote from the event can use to create a sense of unity in adversity that can be called upon in times of national commemoration.
But first, words are needed to describe experiences and events before any national mythology can be created. The first writings about Pozières often came from the men who took part in the battle. Sergeant Joseph Trotman believed that the men who fought at Pozières would experience ‘life long memories indelibly permeating their very being’. Many of those men sought to express the memories in diary entries and letters to family and friends but, in doing so, they faced a fundamental difficulty. How can any person explain what it is like to engage in battle to another who has not undergone that experience?