Rhys Cooper, ‘The Transformation of Australian Military Heroism during the First World War’ (PhD in History, 2020).
This thesis examines how Australian heroism was defined and represented during the First World War. I present an in-depth analysis of two sets of primary sources: Victoria Cross (VC) medal citations and Australian wartime newspapers. Victoria Cross citations are official British military descriptions of battlefield acts that have earned a serviceman the VC medal and therefore offer a window into how British and dominion commanders awarded and prescribed heroism. My analysis of all British and dominion VC citations, from the institution of the medal in 1856 to the end of the First World War in November 1918, show that the type of act that was primarily awarded the VC changed in late 1916 and early 1917. While most VCs were awarded for acts of saving life before this point, this changed to an emphasis on acts of killing. Statistics compiled from VC citations also show that Australians were exceptional in the way they were awarded the medal during the conflict, receiving proportionally more awards for killing and fewer for life saving than any other British or dominion nation.
Analysis of major Australian newspapers’ representations of military heroism during the war reveals a similar trend. Australian newspapers primarily represented stretcher-bearers and wounded men as the heroes of Gallipoli in reports throughout 1915, yet from the entry of Australian forces into the Western Front in 1916, newspaper representations of heroism focused far more on men who killed the enemy. This thesis offers an original contribution to the literature by showing how and why pre-war ideals of heroism transformed in Australia during the course of the First World War. It specifically identifies the dominant model of Australian heroism that existed in 1914, and traces how it was displaced by new ideals of heroism considered more necessary and apt for the conditions of the Western Front. In identifying the shifting ideals that were officially recognised and widely represented as epitomising the highest forms of military valour, this thesis is the first to examine the nature of Australian hegemonic heroism during the First World War. In analysing the dominant heroic model in Australia during the First World War and showing how and why this model transformed over the course of the conflict, this study presents new insights into the nature of heroism and masculinity in wartime Australia.
Supervisors: Professor Kate Darian-Smith, Dr Julie Fedor, Dr Steven Welch