University of Melbourne Magazine

Mourning a lost generation

  • Now peace has come, but they that fell
    Know only that they sought it well.
    They cannot know that peace has come
    Let us make haste and let us build
    Great worlds with strength
    and wonder filled,
    Then shall they know their peace has come.

    In July 1920, Nettie Palmer contributed a poem, Their Peace, to an issue of the Melbourne University Magazine commemorating its students’ and graduates’ part in the Great War. In seven short stanzas it summed up the deep sentiments at the institution — both grief and the hope and potential for a better future.

    As the University’s War Memorial on the South Lawn records,  1725 of our people served on active duty during World War I, of whom 253 died from wounds or illness. They included “past and present students, teaching staff, administrative staff and servants of the University of Melbourne”.

    As the student population of the University until 1914 was little more than 1000, it represented an inordinate sacrifice, not only in lives but the extinguished futures of many of the young nation’s “best and brightest”.

    “That loss of potential was devastating for Australia,” says Professor of Australian Studies and History Kate Darian-Smith (BA(Hons) 1983, PhD 1988, GDipEd 1992). “Following the war there is this lost generation of young men, often very brilliant men, who don’t come back or come back incapacitated.

    “There’s personal grief and a wider social grief and I think the lost generation haunted Australia through the 1920s. That decade was a period of huge adjustment — in the nation and at this university — to that loss.”

    The war years were “a grim time” that brought significant change to the University, adds Dr James Waghorne (BA/BE(CivEng) (Hons) 2002, BA(Hons) 2003, PhD 2008), Research Officer at the History of the University Unit. “The effect of such a proportionately large loss was massive. I think it totally changed the way the institution operated and the way its people saw themselves, in so many different ways.”

    Where the University had previously been a somewhat insular, elite place, its student body and staff now engaged with broad social issues, forming a Public Questions Society and leading debate on such issues as conscription and the implications of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The University also brought its research capacity to bear, with medical  research and the engineering department’s work on mass production of armaments.

    And, in a sense, the loss of that generation of men opened up opportunities for one section of society, says Professor Darian-Smith. “Those gaps did create, for a very small number of highly educated women, some extraordinary opportunities to get into the workforce and begin making great  contributions. “The war was a catalyst for change in Australian society and that of course was reflected in the University.”

    – Gary Tippet