The discovery of a war memoir
Dr Claire Woods
The discovery of a manuscript forgotten for 80 years means two alumni now share a deep connection.
In 1922 Russell Colman graduated from the University of Adelaide with a Bachelor of Engineering and 51 years later, Dr Claire Woods graduated with honours in history. It was the discovery in 2010 of Russell’s memoirs of the First World War that brought them together.
While researching the 27th Battalion at the Australian War Memorial, Claire had what she describes as a eureka moment. She called up a document in the archives labelled ‘private record’ thinking it would lead to something small like a diary entry or a postcard. What she discovered was much more exciting – an unpublished novel. Penned by W.R.G. Colman, it was an account of his experience in the 27th Battalion during World War One.
"The story itself is a remarkable and honest account of Colman’s time at war. It was sheer luck that I found this little gem," she said.
The manuscript had been written in 1933 as a competition entry for the Victorian RSL. The book didn’t win and the manuscript ended up in the Australian War Memorial.
Claire spent the next day reading the novel and was hooked. With the help of a colleague and fellow alumnus, Dr Paul Skrebels (PhD 1992), she started a three-year journey to get the manuscript published.
One of the first challenges was contacting the family to obtain copyright. The only contact details Claire had were next-of-kin from Colman’s army record, his mother’s address from 1915.
Claire trawled through newspaper records and found an engagement notice and obituary for Colman’s son which eventually led her to his grandsons. She contacted them and they were happy to help, providing photographs, the original handwritten manuscript, his field notebook and a personal diary carried by him on the Western Front.
To get the book ready for publication, Claire and Paul edited the text and included annotations. They also tracked the people and soldiers Colman had mentioned to create a series of biographical notes. An introductory and final chapter were added to place the book within the historical context of other novels and literature about the First World War.
The memoir, There and Back with a Dinkum, follows Colman and his best friend, Graham Leaver, enlisting for war at the age of 18 after they had completed one term at university. Colman describes what it is like to be a soldier at war, the loss of friends and comrades, coping with a severe facial wound and his subsequent return to study.
"One of the most interesting aspects of the book are Colman’s descriptions of what it is like to go back to university after he had been away at war for almost five years. He felt like an old man with the other undergraduates and had to work hard to pick up his study skills again," Claire said.
Claire’s interest in history was sparked by her father who was a member of the 27th Battalion himself and is mentioned in the book. She started her career as a teacher before completing a Masters at Harvard University and her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. Claire’s research focuses on connections between literature and military issues. She recently retired from the University of South Australia where she was Professor, Communication and Writing and is currently Leader of Narratives of War Research Group.
There and Back with a Dinkum is available to buy from Australian Scholarly publishing www.scholarly.info/book/365
Story by Renée Capps