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Recording and preserving veterans' memories

Valuing our veterans cover

Valuing our veterans



Recording and preserving veterans' memories

It is highly desirable that the stories and other information gained from interviews with veterans be properly recorded and preserved. To do this requires a systematic approach to making contact with veterans, preparing for the interview, conducting the interview, and deciding in what form the results of the interview should be preserved and how this material might be used in the future.

The needs and interests of those making contacts with our war veterans will be varied. The different questions they ask will stimulate memories over a wide range of topics and it is this very range, from military battles to personal anecdotes, that sustains vibrant, collective memories. Memories of war, freely given, have the authority of individual eye-witness accounts, but also the collective authority of a veteran community whose motive for passing on these memories is 'lest we forget'.

To harness the emotive authority inherent in veterans' memories it might be better to focus on one theme - Anzac Day. What is remembered on such days? Young people do not have intuitive answers to such questions. If most interviews at some point address this question, the sum of the interviews will have a powerful organising theme and interviewers will deepen their understanding of what it means to be human.

'Do you mind telling me what you remember on Anzac Day?' This can be a very useful initial interview question. It can allow the veteran to provide wide-ranging answers and to feel valued, but it could also be distressing. Tact, some knowledge of the person about to be interviewed and flexibility in skirting around any distressing questions will be needed. Generally it is best to arrive at the interview with a key question and a range of three or four associated sub-questions. This way, the interview is likely to have more direction and veterans are more likely to feel that their specific memories are valued. However, do be ready to suspend your questions, if necessary. The key word is "listen".

Interviewers require many skills. Foremost among these is to be considerate and responsive toward the person being interviewed. In the sections "Preparing for the Interview" and "Conducting the Interview" the particular skills needed for an effective oral history project are described.

The Interview Outcomes section suggests what you might do with the results of your interview, while the next page, Communicating what was learnt suggests ways of letting your community know about the good work you have been doing.

Preparing for the Interview

Conducting the Interview

Recording the Veterans' Memories

Interview Outcomes

Preparing for the Interview

It is possible to interview someone without knowing anything about them or events that have affected them. If the questions are asked generally enough, with enough interest, most people will open up and tell their stories. For example, "Do you remember what you were doing on your twentieth birthday?" is usually an effective opener. In contrast, an over-prepared interviewer may intimidate, and a bombastic one may actually put words into the veteran's mouth by 'correcting' the facts being remembered. The ideal is to know a little about your subjects and the effects of the conflict on them, but not to reveal too much knowledge. Your questions should encourage those whom you interview to speak with confidence, certain that you are genuinely interested in them and what they have to say. To win this confidence it is often necessary to complete a little background research. For example, you may be able to discover:

  • the age of the veteran at the time of a conflict which interests you;
  • the part of the world in which he or she served;
  • rank and any military decorations;
  • some details concerning any injuries sustained.

Clarify the purposes of your research. For example, are you interested in:

  • an aspect of the war, such as life at the front, mateship, or relationships between the ranks?
  • why individuals fought in this war?
  • living conditions for a POW?
  • a particular battle?
  • attitudes among the ranks toward conscription?
  • the Anzac Day experience over the years?
  • the general reaction of someone who had served with Australian military forces to his or her wartime experiences?

If your main response was to the last dot point, are you clear about your purpose? Have you brainstormed ways you might categorise the responses you receive? Categories could include the year of the war, the regions in which events took place, and the attitudes toward patriotism which were evident at the time.

Ultimately how interviews are categorised will determine how others will be able to access them. Basic information collected should identify at least each veteran's:

  • name;
  • sex;
  • date of first military involvement;
  • rank upon leaving the armed forces;
  • place/s of war service;
  • date of interview; and
  • main topics covered; eg frontline experiences, friendships among the ranks, values/attitudes, food, recreations, wartime Anzac Day memories, etc.

Conducting the Interview

Once the necessary arrangements with veterans have been made, the actual interviews could take place at the local school, RSL club or other suitable community venue. The topics for discussion may grow out of a general social activity or a focused learning activity or be part of a wider research assignment. The expected interview outcomes should be clear to both parties.

While preparing for the interview, the purpose will have been clarified. The actual techniques of oral history interviews are described in a number of places, including Past-Continuous, and various internet sites. The New England's Association of Oral History Home Page, contains links to other oral history web sites, which are mainly in the USA but also include the National Library of Australia, where the Oral History Collection contains tape-recordings and transcripts. In fact, Australian public libraries are increasingly the source of excellent oral history material.

Some of the principles mentioned in such sources for conducting effective oral history interviews, suggest:

  • begin slowly, especially if the veteran is hesitant, with questions about something easy to remember, like food, or what the beds were like during the war;
  • allow the person being interviewed to go from topic to topic;
  • listen carefully and follow up points with a new question or two, rather than just reading out a list of prepared questions;
  • try prompting with a few specific, concrete questions, perhaps about whether the veteran remembers a particular birthday or Christmas during the war, if you find that his or her memory is faltering;
  • be clear about what you want; and
  • be considerate. If the answer is moving too far away from your question, gently ask another question to get the interview back on track, but do not forget that fascinating, unexpected details can sometimes be revealed when the interviewee is wandering down memory lane.

Recording the Veteran's Memories

Interviews can be taped (audio or video), transcribed from tape or produced from summary notes. For a Valuing Our Veterans project, as described in this book, you might decide that your outcome will be typed, edited, transcribed, categorised records. This means:

  • a typed summary of the interview is created but this does not have to include everything that was said;
  • the summary should be, as far as is possible, in the words of the veteran. Quotation marks (" ") should be used to identify when the exact words spoken by the veteran are used. Three dots (...) should be used to show that words have been omitted from a quote; and
  • the final, summarised version, complete with quotes, must be signed by the veteran to signify that he or she accepts that the summary is an accurate reflection of what was said. If the veteran wants changes made to the written record, even if you are sure you recorded them correctly the first time, the changes must be made.

Interview Outcomes

In thinking about what to do with the results of your interviews, see what has been done in Australia and other parts of the world.


  • A relevant project undertaken by Ararat Secondary College, Victoria, is "Faces of War". The project seeks to involve students in gaining an understanding of war and sharing this through the Internet with other students in Australia and overseas.*

  • A very sophisticated collection of veteran interviews was compiled by Canadian historian Timothy Travers. It consists of 24 sound recordings of interviews with World War I veterans. A list of veterans interviewed and interview synopses are also included.
  • The Center for Life Stories Preservation has web pages devoted to Family Stories; Military Memoirs; Reunions; Genealogy and Anniversaries. It is a resource for helping people capture their family and life stories:
  • To gain some idea of what can be achieved by even very young students, look at a piece of work written after seventh-grade students interviewed war veterans at the Cole Land Transportation Museum in Bangor, Maine:*

Although these are all examples from the USA they indicate what could be done with interview material from Australian veterans, and how it might also find a place on the world stage of the Internet. Of course, there are some wonderful Australian examples of what can be done with oral history. See, for instance, what the Brisbane City Council has done at:

By 2001, the centenary of Federation, what amounts to a comprehensive index of Australian veterans' memories could be available on Internet sites around Australia. In this way, the service of many of Australia's veterans will have been recorded. Future generations will have access to a vast array of first-hand evidence which can provide shape and form to the proposition that the Anzac legend was central to the development of the Australian identity in the twentieth century.

Equally, through such a program, thousands of young people will have had the opportunity to meet veterans. Moreover, students will have participated in a valuable learning experience, fully justified in terms of current national curriculum objectives, and which will have significantly added to our knowledge of Australia's past.

Finally, to ensure maximum public awareness of this project, tell others what you have done.

* Disclaimer: This publication contains links or references to external web sites over which DVA has no direct control. Whilst reasonable care was taken at the time of publication, it is possible that the content of these external sites has changed, moved, or may no longer exist.

Valuing our veterans cover

Valuing our veterans