Light Horsemen of the Upper Murray
The Upper Murray has had a long association with the Light Horse. Armed with this knowledge, in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, my teaching partner, Georgia Dally, and I decided to conduct a book study with our Year 5 and 6 students at Corryong College. Having read Dianne Wolfer’s excellent book, Light Horse Boy, I suggested that we use that for our text. Georgia did a search and found a plethora of curriculum materials for the book. That immediately sold us both. Knowing that many local men had enlisted in the Light Horse during World War One, we decided that each student would choose a trooper and write their biography. Being an avid reader on military history, and having done similar tasks with students in the past, I was aware of both the online and local resources that we could use.
Teachers don’t normally start an integrated unit of literacy and history with the thoughts of writing a book about the topic, certainly not with Year 5 and 6 students. The thought had been placed into our minds by Honor Auchinleck, and as I drove out to see her one cold and wet Upper Murray day I was struck by the thought “why not?” By the time I had driven the 15 or so kilometres to Honor’s property I was not only convinced but had started organising the process in my mind.
Back at school, after the term break, I ran the idea by Georgia. She proved to be as enthusiastic about it as myself. Georgia was in her second year of teaching and had total confidence that we, and the cohort of students that we had, could pull it off. What an amazing journey we thought, trying to bring the names of men on the Roll of Honour to life, and getting these 11 and 12-year-olds to develop a connection with the men who had walked the same school corridors as they had, albeit it nearly 120 years ago.
Our first thoughts were in the planning of the task. Like all classes we had a continuum of literacy skills and, whilst some students would grab the task and run with it, others would need to have their hands held for most of the project. We developed a website that the students could use, which provided them with guidance. We constructed research grids that allowed students to fill in the gaps. We developed an illustrated process showing the students how to read and decipher the soldier's service records. Finally, we developed a proforma for the writing of the biography where students inserted their research.
The students' initial responses ranged from total enthusiasm to “how much do we have to write?” They chose the name of their soldier from the list that had been previously generated, with many choosing relatives. Over the next term, the process of research, analysis, drafting and editing commenced and ran through multiples cycles. The daily reading and tasks associated with the Light Horse Boy helped the students to gain some background knowledge of a conflict and a world that was, initially, beyond their comprehension. Around their dinner tables at home, conversations about long lost relatives were shared and links forged with past great grandparents and great uncles. In one case two long lost diaries were located, which brought a richness to that particular student as she read the words penned by her great, great uncle as he lived through the horrors of war.
Along with the book, the students developed their own websites that would contain a digital copy of the research they had undertaken. Groups of students analysed websites trying to decide on the most appropriate layout. In the end, students cast votes on the sites that had been developed and one was chosen to store all of the research. This also provided us with a format to add information to as more came forthwith from the community.
While the book was being written, a parallel task was taking place. This task was trying to locate funds to purchase the photographs we needed, as well as to cover the cost of publishing the book. Through donations, and winning $500 for being placed first in the North East region in the Cows Create Careers program, we had sufficient funds to cover the cost of the photographs. Next, the task was to obtain the $1400 needed to publish the book. One of our Year 6 girls, on her own initiative, wrote a submission to the Man From Snowy River Festival and was successful. We had the money!
Over the eight months of the project, the students discovered stories that were beyond their wildest dreams. The men that they were researching became real people with real lives. They discovered that many were to live through the conflict only to die upon their return home. There was the case of man perishing in the first air accident in Australia when his fiance's high heeled shoe became wedged in the controls causing the aircraft to crash. Another student discovered that her trooper had come home only to find that his parents had sold all of his horse breaking gear because they believed he wasn’t going to come home. In another case, a father of three was killed cycling home after visiting his wife in hospital; a mother’s day card in his pocket for his children to sign.
Finally, after what seemed like an arduous wait, eight boxes of the published books arrived at school. In over 30 years of teaching I have never experienced to utmost joy shown by the students as they were handed their own copy of a book that they had helped to write. While this journey may have ended for the students, many have gone off on their own, developing an interest in family members who served not only in the First World War but every other conflict that Australia has been involved in since. Long lost relatives have come alive for them.
Our book would not have been possible without the constant assistance and encouragement from a number of people. Honor, Graeme and the Chauvel Foundation were a constant source of support for us and we thank them immensely for that. They helped us to realise the importance of bringing these men, and their stories, back to life. The school community at Corryong College always showed an interest in how the project was going. Finally, the students of Years 5 and 6 in 2018, showed Georgia and I what was possible when you trust and support them.
It doesn’t stop there! Many students, having been inspired by what they achieved, are now working on another book based on over 100 men and women from the Upper Murray who didn’t return from conflicts. The development of this book is limited to students in Years 5 and 6, but has been opened up to any students at the College who wish to be involved. Alas, the journey continues!
Copies of the book can be obtained by contacting Stephen Learmonth at Corryong College, either on 0260761566 or 0407644165, the price being $20 plus $5 postage. Please contact the College to organise payment.
To view the student biographies click this link.
To view the website set up for the students to use click this link.