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Think Piece: Looking for traces of the First World War: The South Australians in France Project.

Thursday 21 September, 2017

While historians have traditionally examined written artefacts such as letters, postcards and diaries in order to make sense of war experiences, today they are increasingly recognising the value of studying objects such as trench art, textiles and even music scores as physical evidence of the traces of war and its long-term impact on people. Family artefacts and memory objects in particular can be touch-stones to other places, to people who have passed, and to times long gone, embodying sensory-rich memories of the past and carrying great significance in the present.

The South Australians in France project is interested in items such as war souvenirs, as well as personal items of memorabilia, currently held privately that relate to the experience of the World War One service of South Australian women and men.

Over the next six months we are hoping to unearth the century-old items that found their way to the state in the days and months following the end of the War and may end have ended up at the back of garden sheds, in dusty lofts or packed away under beds.

We have already unearthed a number of fascinating stories linked to material objects that were brought back to South Australia in the aftermath of the War.

One such item is an ashtray, a rather rare object that shows how the material aspects of the War infiltrated everyday life, even when the War was over. It has been constructed from shell casings, bullets and a distinctive red wood. But where did that distinctive red-coloured wood come from?

Family story has it that the piece of wood representing the plane in this ashtray was part of German flying-ace Manfred von Richthofen’s aircraft. Hundreds of Australian, British and Canadian soldiers have claimed that they witnessed the shooting down of Richthofen, or the Red Baron as he is better known, on 21 April 1918. The Red Baron was shot down in aerial combat over Sailly-le-Sec on the Somme in France and within a day of his death, most of Richthofen’s plane had been souvenired by allied soldiers so it is likely that at least some of the stories are true!

Whether or not this object is part of the Red Baron’s plane matters little here; however it does give a sense of how well-known Richthofen was and how people were captivated by aerial combat, which took off with the First World War.

This piece of trench art was brought back to South Australia by the great-grandfather of one of our contributors. ‘The story goes that my great grandfather got it from a prisoner of war’, says Brett.

Where and how did this Australian soldier meet a prisoner of war at the end of his service? Did he win the ashtray in a card game? Or perhaps he paid the POW for it, convinced that it was ‘the real deal’. Could this piece of wood really have come from the red-coloured plane of Manfred von Richthofen?

Objects such as these are invaluable in assisting to understand the First World War’s material culture and soldiers’ experiences, and the South Australians in France project is calling for the public to share their stories.


Dr Romain Fathi is a Lecturer in Australian History at Flinders University and an Associated Researcher at Sciences Po’s Centre for History (Paris). He is a cultural and military historian focusing on the transnational dimension of war and its aftermath in both the Australian and European contexts. His primary research interests focus on the First World War, war commemorations and Australian identity. Romain has taught at the University of Queensland, Sciences Po in Paris, and Yale in the US. Dr Annmarie Reid was a history teacher and librarian for twenty years prior to taking up positions within the university sector, where she has taught at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. She has a particular interest in storytelling and the complex ways in which people narrate their lives. Her research focuses on the links between oral history and material culture, examining how people tell memory stories about their personal belongings.

How can you get involved?

The South Australians in France team would love to hear the story of your First World War object. We can also help you reconstruct its story by uncovering the origin of the object, its uses and its relevance to the First World War.

Be a part of this exciting project, first by following us on Facebook HERE. Post a picture of your WWI object and add a brief description of its history.

You can also contact Dr Romain Fathi, and Project and Research Assistant Dr Annmarie Reid by email at:

South Australians in France has the financial support of  the French Consulate in Adelaide, the City of Unley and Flinders University. The Project is further supported by the Government of South Australia through the Office of the French Strategy in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet and The Hon Martin Hamilton-Smith MP, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, and the Anzac Day Commemoration Fund, at Veterans SA.

The Embassy of France to Australia, the Alliance Française d’Adélaïde and Creative France in South Australia also support the project.

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