Good Reading : February 2017
GOODREADINGMAGAZINE.COM.AU GOOD READING FEBRUARY 2017 46 GOODREADINGMAGAZINE.COM.AU For many of the families of servicemen killed in World War I, a terse telegram from the government was never going to be enough to assuage their grief. Families wrote back in their thousands, seeking more information about the fate of their loved ones. It was the task of James M Lean to reply to these families and, as author CAROL ROSENHAIN outlines in The Man Who Carried the Nation’s Grief, he did so with extraordinary empathy and sensitivity. The genesis of The Man Who Car ried the Nation’s Grief dates back to 1996 when I was visiting Gallipoli. Wandering around the scattered graves, I noticed that all the Australian plaques had a unique and, in most cases, poignant epitaph. Deeply moved, I noted them and the names of the young men who lay beneath. My interest piqued, I yearned to know more about these men and the families who composed such brief but eloquent testaments to their sacrifice. This led me to the National Archives, which houses the service records of each enlisted man. I expected to find little more than basic personal and family details but, instead, I unearthed a trove of stories. These stories developed from the correspondence between James Malcolm Lean, who in 1914 became the Officer in Charge of a newly developed department known as Base Records, and Australian families. Initially the department’s mandate was to liaise between the army and the public, informing families of the fate of their loved ones. This may sound straightforward, but there was no precedent or infrastructure upon which to model such a department. If a soldier was killed or wounded, the department’s responsibility was to inform the family. The primitive means of communication between Australia and the distant battlefields of Europe meant that the fate of servicemen was usually conveyed via a brief telegram. This was all that the department had to work with. Families naturally longed for further infor mation, and for this they wrote in their tens of thousands to Base Records. These letters were heartbreaking in their grief and mostly impossible to answer in terms of requests and details, but all received a courteous and compassionate response, universally signed by J M Lean. Fascinated, I immersed myself in reading thousands of servicemen’s files. Such files generally contained a dialogue between J M Lean and the soldiers’ families, often spanning many years. So I began wondering. Who was this man? How did he establish and sustain a personal and voluminous correspondence with the public? What was his background? What experiences shaped his education and moral values? A MELANCHOLY DUTY JamesMLean thousands, seeking more information about the fate of their loved ones. It was the task of James M Lean to reply to these families and, as author outlines in so with extraordinary empathy and sensitivity.
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