Today I completed the second and final installment of the FutureLearn Agincourt course. The first class covered Henry V's preparation for battle and transporting his vast entourage across the Channel. This one described the actions of the English forces once they arrived in France.
Anne Curry, who has published several books that cover different aspects of the Hundred Years War, was the lead instructor for this course. This week she described the movement of the troops near Agincourt, discussing myth, reality, and details that can never be known for sure.
The use of gunpowder in the 15th century was discussed, as well as the forging of medieval guns and when and where they were used. We don't hear much about guns, more like cannons in this case, in wars of this era because their use was limited to sieges where it made sense to bring in the unwieldy weapons. They were not used on the battlefield.
The English effectively used these siege weapons at the Harfleur in Henry's first victory of the campaign. From there they followed an indirect route that would take them to their own territory at Calais. After a lengthy detour at the River Somme to avoid French resistance, the English faced a large French force near Agincourt.
Curry described the battle movements with interactive maps that enable one to envision the action. She points out issues that historians are not able to solve for, a major one being doubts regarding the exact location of the battlefield.
Many factors are attributed with credit for Henry's victory at Agincourt. Of course, there is the famous English longbow & mud, but there is also the French troops lack of organization, pay, and leadership on the field. Englishmen were fighting for their monarch, the French troops may have been on home ground but their king was not present.
After the victory, many French prisoners were executed, a move that was not unprecedented in medieval warfare but seems unnecessarily harsh to modern readers. He followed this up with a triumphant entry into London, specially designed to give the veneer of glory to a campaign that had fizzled out early despite the Agincourt victory.
And that is that. Anyone who would like to learn more was unsurprisingly directed toward Curry's books and several other resources.
This week's class focused on the plight of Australia's indigenous people and other minorities during WWI. Though they sacrificed every bit as much as their white counterparts, these soldiers experienced discrimination in life and in death.
Their story is told through the lives of nine men, each of whom enlisted in 1915 or later. Before then, ANZAC would not accept them as volunteers, but the bloody fields of war forced authorities to lower standards. Each of the men's stories shared ended in tragedy, even for those who made it home.
Cornelius Danswan was one man blessed to survive the war, but was plagued by chronic respiratory problems that began with bronchitis in the trenches of France. His half Chinese, half English descent left him the subject of discrimination that left him with an inadequate pension that was eventually eliminated altogether, despite his ongoing suffering from PTSD and other health problems. His wife, who was forced to write on his behalf due to his disabilities, finally had his pension reinstated in 1926 shortly before his death. Then she was denied a surviving spouse pension to support her and their four children.
The story of Peter Chirvin demonstrates the power of racist bullying. Originally from Russia, he was one of the earliest to sign up (once he would be accepted) in May 1915. He proudly served, was wounded twice, and was commented for his work to save the wounded from the battlefield. However, on the ship headed back to Australia news of the Bolshevik activities turned his fellow soldiers against him. He was tormented to the extent that Chirvin became depressed to the extent that he committed suicide during the trip.
The Rigney family lost two men, the youngest only 16 years old when he insisted upon accompanying his older brother. Another man never saw action but contracted meningitis in camp and suffered from it for the rest of his life. Eva Maynard watched her husband and two sons leave, and only one returned.
When Alex McKinnon was dying, he asked that his belongings be sent to his mother. Authorities determined that his medals were better sent to the stepmother who did not know he existed. She was the white woman that his father had left his mother for.
I enjoy reading these stories, but as this class progresses I've realized that I probably would have preferred to simply read the book. The stories are told through silent presentations anyway, and I would have preferred videos. Other segments are taught through videos, such as this week's instructions on how to access digitized WWI diaries at www.ww1.sl.nsw.gov.au.
'There is nothing uniform about the way the war is remembered.'
The second week of this free FutureLearn class featured the stories of women involved in the war effort. Not able to enlist with their fathers, sweethearts, and sons, women found creative ways to do their part as nurses, Red Cross workers, or those at home sending packages of hand knitted socks to the front. Again, snippets of individual women's stories were taken from the book that guides this course.
The women's stories felt more personal than the stories from the first week. I think this is because we were told about the women directly, whereas in the first week we learned about the families of men who had gone to war. Women are the unsung heroes of war, often enduring many of the same hardships as the men but without the recognition. In no stories was this more clear than in those of the brave volunteer nurses.
Again focusing on Australian individuals, the stories demonstrated the strain on WWI nurses, an emotional toil that some would never recover from. Leaving their homeland for the fighting thousands of miles away, women believed, much like their male counterparts, that they were not only doing their duty but would find adventure and explore the world. Some, like Tev Davies, were able to focus on the beauty they witnessed alongside the disease, injuries, and violence.
'Life is tiring but full of interest and we get plenty of air, and the glorious sunsets would alone compensate for everything, mum.'
Davies emitted from her letter that air was easy to get in her ramshackle 'hospital' made up of tents scattered on a stony beach at Lemnos. Lack of supplies left the nurses tearing at their own clothes to make bandages, and wounded men were left lying in the sun swarmed by insects. Even the nurses suffered from dysentery from bad food and lice infestations. Yet Davies maintained her optimism until the end of the war when she wrote:
'So many beautiful lives being lost and so little to show for it.'
Another nurse, Rachel Pratt, worked tirelessly throughout the war, serving in Turkey, Egypt, England, and France after claiming to be younger than her 40+ years in order to sign up. When German bombing devastated the casualty clearing station she was working in, Pratt continued working. She was seriously wounded, yet only quit serving her patients when she collapsed. The shrapnel lodged in her lung would cause chronic bronchitis for the rest of her life, but that was not her most serious injury.
Pratt was unable to adjust to life after war. At a time before PTSD was recognized, she was shuffled between mental hospitals and treated for depression with drugs that caused seizures and narcosis. She died in 1954, still institutionalized.
'The war is awful and I simply cannot discuss it. There is no prospect of it ending.'
Several other stories revealed the thoughts and emotions of women who worked for the Red Cross sending supplies to POWs, provided care to soldiers ravaged by STDs that the ANZAC officials wished to deny were a problem, and sacrificed themselves to treat men sent home with the Spanish flu. Their names are not found on soldiers' monuments, but some of these women truly gave all.
I have started this free course through FutureLearn and learned that it is based upon a book of the same name. This first week included an introduction to the stories and a discussion of the role of memorials for grieving families. Since this course is provided by Monash University, the focus is on the war from an Australian point of view. It is interesting to look at events from a new angle, that of people who were so far removed from the theaters of war that most were never able to visit the graves of loved ones.
The course opens with the Museum Victoria, which was built for the 1880 International Exposition. The ingenuity celebrated here soon after led to the first industrialized war with weapons of mass destruction and widespread devastation of people and landscape.
We quickly moved on to individual stories of Australians involved in the war effort. These were told in short, silent films. Many stories mentioned mothers searching for sons long after they had departed Australia's shores, searching for news and begging for help. In one case, a mother was never told that her son had been executed for murdering an MP. In another, a boy's family refused to accept the news of his death, and the father included him in his 1928 will, certain that he would one day return. One is reminded of the difficulties caused by time, distance, and lack of technology 100 years ago in the stories of these everyday soldiers and families.
One father dedicated his life to peace and the World Disarmament Movement after the death of his son. "Now it is time to act. Now lest we forget. Now before the generation passes which felt what modern war means." Sadly, his efforts were in vain.
Another soldier spent his last moments before dying dictating a letter to his wife. "You must be prepared for the worst to happen." After describing the excruciating pain he was in as gangrene settled into his wounds, he tells her, "I am very sorry dear."
Some subjects were only lightly touched upon: letters written home, families begging for subsidies in order to visit loved one's graves, the unprecedented challenge that the war created for accounting and bookkeeping. The War Graves Commission was both praised and criticized. Though they were devoted to equal treatment of all servicemen, providing identical tombstones regardless of rank and nationality, the Commission also charged per character for epitaphs and rejected those they felt were inappropriate. They also removed many privately funded memorials in the interest of equality. The booklet, "Where Australians Rest" was published as a substitute for the graveside visit that families could never afford to make, travel to Europe costing approximately 1 years wages to the average Australian at the time.
Through individual stories, the poignant truths of the War to End All Wars is being revealed. I am enjoying this so far, though I wonder if the idea is to give a teaser that will encourage me to buy the book. (Is that so bad? It is a free course.)
Our assignment by week 4 is to create an epitaph for one of the individual stories that we learn. As the grieving families experienced at the time, we are limited to 66 characters, though we will not have to pay the 3 pence halfpenny per character that they were charged.