Researching The Nameless Names took four years and required fieldwork in five countries. It sounds exhausting, but I loved it. My most memorable research moments included reading a long-forgotten diary in the State Library’s Rare Books Section and tracing my way around Gallipoli using an old 1915 trench map.
Two incidents compelled me to research the Great War’s missing. Firstly, standing beneath the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres that lists 55,000 missing British Empire troops. I felt numbed and unable to penetrate the endless lists to connect with an individual name. And secondly, reading a 1926 article about a French father who climbed the Arc De Triomphe and then dived to his death. He had been tormented by the belief that it was his missing son who had been interred in the Unknown Soldier’s Tomb beneath the arch. The story made me reflect on how the unresolved fate of missing Anzac soldiers must have affected Australian families.
My approach to research is to dive deep and find those hidden facts that no other researcher has bothered to uncover. It’s a bit like gold panning — hours of boredom sifting through tailings, which are suddenly forgotten when you discover a nugget. One of those priceless nuggets was Kath Chapman’s story. I stumbled on it when reading a private family history, which contained an uncaptioned grainy photograph of a woman standing over a white headstone. That photograph helped reveal the mysterious story of Kath leaving Australia in 1920 to grieve at the grave of her beloved Theo Pflaum. That photograph captured for me more poignantly than any other the link between feelings and place.
Pauline Reid’s story was another nugget. She was the wife of a missing soldier I featured in the book, Mordaunt Reid. While Mordaunt’s story was compelling, what was unexpected was the gradual unfolding of Pauline’s story. Research revealed that Pauline travelled to Cairo in her search for Mordaunt, and then onto London, where she worked for the Red Cross Prisoners of War Department. In 1920 she was awarded an Order of the British Empire in recognition of her war work. Remarkably her story also intersected with other characters in the book, such as Vera Deakin.
Luck plays its part in research. I discovered a detailed Red Cross report on Mordaunt Reid that I didn’t believe existed. My simple typing error revealed that the war memorial’s digital record had been filed under the incorrect spelling of ‘Mordant’.
Often I am most excited about a minor detail I uncover, which helps render a character or scene. It might be Theo Pflaum scratching his name into the soft mortar beneath his homestead in 1910 or Theodor Pflaum’s drawing room carrying the faint smell of cigar smoke.
Deep research occasionally prevents an embarrassing mistake. I wrote about Willie Allen hunting possums, only to later discover from a relative that he suffered from polio and was confined to a wheelchair. Yet, as the relative explained, Willie did use old crutches to hobble to his snares — another revealing fact that further renders the story.
And finally, no matter how riveting a piece of research is, it must ‘fight for its life’ to survive the editing process.