Our Students Wrote a Book
What happened when teenage students and their teacher started researching about the Light Horse as a local history research project?
They produced a comprehensive book, in an outstanding piece of research!
This school project was conducted during half-year electives. It could be readily adapted by other schools, or local history groups, interested in other Light Horsemen from any other parts of Australia.
Graeme Massey was actually a trailblazer. We asked him to explain how he went about it……..
How it all began
The Ian Jones and Simon Wincer film ‘The Lighthorsemen’ was the main focus of part of a middle-school history half-year elective unit at Warracknabeal Secondary College (western Victoria) in 2005 and 2006.
In one of the film’s scenes, Light Horse soldiers Chiller, Scotty and Tas go to visit their wounded mate, Frank, in the hospital at El Arish. Frank has opened a letter from his girlfriend, Joyce, in which he is told that she has married a bloke from Warracknabeal and shifted to Geelong…………… This intrigued many of the students. They asked questions such as “Who was the bloke?” “Did Joyce and Frank come from Warracknabeal?” and “If Scotty’s film character is really Trooper Sloan Bolton, 4 LHR, then surely the others are real as well?”
They were informed that the letter scene is imaginary. However, there were Lighthorsemen who did come from the towns and farms around Warracknabeal and most of them were in the charge at Beersheba!
So it was decided we should found out who they were…. I knew that two are featured in the film:
Major James Lawson, who led the first squadron, worked for the Union Bank at Warracknabeal when he came out from England in 1908. He boarded at the Commercial Hotel and ended up marrying Effie Franklin, whose family ran the hotel. He left the bank and he and Effie shifted to Rupanyup to run one of the hotels there.
Lieutenant Frank Burton, who was killed leaping the Turk trenches at Beersheba, was a farmer at Nullan, a district between Warracknabeal and Minyip.
How we tackled the task
My next step was to work out how the students could discover who these men were by researching available resources. Neil Smith’s book Men of Beersheba provided the starting point: at the end of his book there is a nominal roll in alphabetical order of the 4th Light Horse Regiment.  Smith indicated who he believed were chargers by placing a cross (+) after their name. This gave us our first list. There were 627 men over the 33 pages. We knew our work would be cut out! Given that the regiment’s strength on 31 October 1917 was just under 500 and that only about 400 of these men charged, we had too many names…. The book’s nominal roll was photocopied.
My 2005 class numbered 24. It was agreed that we would form six groups of four and each group would research 5 pages. This division fitted in nicely with internet access in the college library - there were 12 computers, all connected to a printer. Each group was to nominate one student to co-ordinate their group. The stipulation was that the group leader had to have home internet and be willing to keep their group’s research on track to our timeline. I was fortunate that the 2005 cohort include some quite competent IT students, who were also keen on this subject.
The class met each week for one single class of 50 minutes and one double period of 100 minutes. We would use the National Archives Australia (NAA) website to go into RecordSearch using surname and regiment number to access each file. I thought we could do this step in a couple of months. Not to be! It was slow going even though each student was shown how to find the appropriate page on the soldier’s file. The internet speed in 2005 was not fast and the individual files were not in the same sequence. After two weeks the students had confirmed 18 names. At this rate we would only be halfway through checking Neil Smith’s possible chargers when the unit concluded!
History Project: Warracknabeal Secondary College students (from left) Eve Lindsay, Donna Robinson and Lucy Morcom research the history of the Battle of Beersheba in which numerous Warracknabeal residents were involved. The school’s Year 10 history students are creating a book of the event.