Some talented South Australian storytellers are about to go on the trip of a lifetime (Image Source: Viki Ntafillis)
By Viki Ntafillis | @viki_ntaf
A number of South Australian students have been selected for the revered Premier’s ANZAC Spirit School Prize, with the 2019 theme being the centenary of the 1919 Air Race.
This year, the winners will enjoy a government-funded trip to Vietnam in the October school holidays, where they will learn about Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war.
“This is something that really promotes quality, historical education in our schools,” said Malcolm McInerney, competition and tour manager for the prize.
“It requires students to do some original research and write authentic pieces of work.”
To enter the competition, students must be in either year 9 or 10 and submit an essay describing the life of a South Australian serviceman or woman from the First or Second World War.
This must be accompanied by a 500-word interpretation of the Anzac Spirit, and how their chosen service person individually displayed this throughout their time of service.
“It’s research that’s not just out of a textbook. The students have to go to troves, interview people, or go to original newspapers or other artefacts,” Mr McInerney said.
He also said marking the essays was no easy feat.
“We only accept four submissions from each school, but this still means there are hundreds that need to be marked.”
“There are two panels of five people each. The marking takes two-and-a-half to three days,” he said.
Mr McInerney said the competition is designed to benefit all students that participate, even those that do not win, as all the essays entered are archived on the Virtual War Memorial.
“A lot of the resources students use have never been seen or have been archived away…so we’re accumulating knowledge that would’ve been otherwise lost or hidden.”
“[The competition] is purposeful for kids, it’s not an assignment for the sake of it. It lets them be little history detectives.”
Amy Vogelsang, a communications and media student at the University of South Australia, was one of the students who won the 2015 Gallipoli trip, during which she attended the Centennial ANZAC Day Dawn Service.
“When our tour guide pointed to how far the soldiers made it up [the cliffs at ANZAC Cove], you could see how rugged the terrain was and you’d think to yourself: how in God’s earth did they get up there?’”
“It was just water and cliffs…[as a soldier], you would have gotten off the ship and just been devastated.”
Ms Vogelsang also said the trip has had a lasting impact on her life.
“At the memorials [in Turkey], when you see all the crosses, it’s so scary.”
“Now, I rarely miss an ANZAC day. It’s really enriched my interest in history because I’ve been [to Gallipoli], and I can now visualise it. You get a real feel for the place and what it would’ve been like.”
Jessie Lewcock and Joel Grieger, awardees from the 2009 France-Belgium trip, agreed the trip was life-changing.
“I was right on track to study medicine, but the trip completely hijacked that and helped me to see that history didn’t just have to be a hobby—it could be a career,” Ms Lewcock said.
Having completed both a teaching and arts degrees at the University of Adelaide, Ms Lewock has continued her studies as a PhD candidate, researching a subject “inspired by the trip”.
“I’m trying to determine how many South Australian First and Second World War veterans died by suicide upon their return home,” she said.
“I hope that my thesis will provide a historical context for the problem of suicide by veterans that is still so sadly relevant today.”
She also said the trip has broadened her perspective of the Anzac Legacy.
“Over time, I’ve become much more aware…of those who the Anzac legend excluded until very, very recently: women, returned soldiers struggling with mental illness and physical disabilities…Indigenous servicemen and women, LGBTQ+ servicemen and women,” she said.
“That’s not to say that I’ve become anti-Anzac. Anzac Day is still one of the most important days on my calendar, and I get into discussions sometimes…about how important it is for us to continue [those] commemorations and traditions.”
For Mr Grieger, who is now working as a lawyer in Port Lincoln, the competition touched him in a more personal way.
“I was able to learn about my family history, visit my great-great-grandfather’s grave at the Somme and have a memorial service for him at the cemetery,” he said.
He also said the trip was a “whirlwind”, with so much new information to divulge.
“You’re kind of sitting there like a sponge, absorbing it all in,” he said.
“I grew up eleven kilometres outside of a town of three hundred people. Going from that, to London, was a big difference. Your world view is changed dramatically over the course of two weeks.”
“Through our history lessons [on the trip], we learnt about the horrors of war and why we really need to place an emphasis on peace and stability.”
Fortunately, the Returned and Services League’s (RSL) involvement is intended to make this known to students.
“The RSL provides a perspective on military history and the human-cost consequence of war,” Geoff Tattersall, 2015 RSL Regional Coordinator for Adelaide and Delegate, said.
“By doing so, the students honour the service and sacrifice of those who served and encourage the memory to be retained, but not in a way that glorifies war.”
Mr Tattersall also said the competition has proven to be beneficial for the RSL.
“It’s helped connect the RSL to a younger cohort…it’s given it some relevancy and currency for the emerging generations,” he said.
“This aspect also helped remind us that this is what we’re about: continuing to maintain the memories and respect for the fallen and injured.”
Secondary history teacher and 2011 Teacher Chaperone Paul Foley said the trip had a “profound” impact on schools for its unique teaching of South Australian history.
“It is SA’s only commemorative study tour competition,” he said.
“Every student who participates gains in research skills and uncovers the past.”
Mr Foley said “many students will go on to tertiary education, some studying archaeology, history or politics, but this is hands-on learning”.
“They’re going to the Western Front or South-East Asia: that’s tangible learning. The students are meeting people, they’re meeting veterans; these stories weave together the fabric of our past and help determine our future,” he said.
The prize’s theme is just one of these stories.
In 1919, brothers Ross and Keith Smith piloted one of the six planes aiming to race from England to Australia in under 30 days.
With a 10,000-pound prize on offer for the victors, the event was organised by the Australian Government in the hopes that it would boost national morale after the Great War and place Australia on the world stage.
The brothers were joined by mechanics Wally Shiers, also from South Australia, and Jim Bennett from Victoria.
Together, they flew a Vickers Vimy bomber with G-EAOU written on the side (God ‘elp All Of Us).
Miraculously, the crew made it to Darwin on December 10, 1919, at 3pm, after a journey of 27 days and 20 hours.
This was an outstanding feat, as the only other team to make the full distance took seven months.
Meanwhile, the remaining four teams crashed, some even resulting in casualties.
The Smith brothers’ plane is currently on public display in a memorial building at Adelaide Airport.
Since its inception in 2007, the Premier’s ANZAC Spirit School Prize has preserved legacies like these, with approximately 835 essays out of 7000 entrants reaching the judging phase.
As for the trip itself: 128 students, 30 teachers, and 13 RSL delegates have participated over the 12 years it’s been running.
The tour has also taken place in Singapore and South Korea.