It was the toothache that really struck me.
Not my own, you understand – I am not about to turn this into a blog about my ills and ailments. This toothache was about 100 years old. Allow me to explain.
I am currently working on a photography project as part of the commemorations of the First World War. It’s called the Remembrance Image Project, and I’m afraid you’ll probably be hearing a good deal more about it over the coming months and years on these virtual pages. That’s partly because I’m spending a fair amount of time visiting WW1 sites; and partly because a lot of my spare time is spent researching the history of the conflict, and the stories of those who were involved in it.
As part of that research, I’m reading many accounts from those alive at the time. Most recently, I have picked up a superb book called The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund. The author explores the story of the war by drawing on the accounts of 20 relatively unknown eyewitnesses, sometimes by paraphrasing and at other times by quoting directly.
What’s most striking about the book are the poignant human details. This is not just a tale of military strategy and sweeping troop movements, though to be sure they are part of it. It’s also the story of the fleeing refugee who cannot take the family dog with her, and leaves behind a vial of ether so that the pet can be put to sleep when the food runs out.
It’s the story of the retreating engineer who sets fire to a railway station to prevent the enemy from using it, and then climbs onto the burning roof to rescue a trapped cat from the flames.
And, to return to my title, the story of an Australian soldier whose medical history tells us he was suffering with toothache on the day he lost his life at Gallipoli in 1915.
I’ve said before that the intrigue and the tragedy of history are, for me, in the myriad human details. Those events and incidents which remind us that what we are studying is not an abstract occurrence in the past, but something which happened to real people with human concerns who found themselves, perhaps, in extraordinary circumstances.
A timely reminder in Remembrance week, if one were needed, never to forget.