Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Between Battles 5: Introducing Astley James Bromfield


The displays in the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library supporting the project - “Between Battles: Commemorating The Cultural Lives of Soldiers” feature a collection of photographs, postcards and personal possessions belonging to Astley James Bromfield, a North Queenslander who served with the 25th Infantry Battalion as a corporal and later with the 7th Australian Machine Gun Company as a sergeant. Bromfield spent time in Egypt before seeing action in France and Belgium, and was wounded at Menin Road, near Ypres, in September 1917. His younger brother Jack Mawdsly Bromfield also served on the Western Front, and was killed in action at the Battle of Hamel in July 1918. The collection of artefacts on display has been generously loaned by Bromfield’s family and reveals the cultural life of an ordinary Australian soldier during the First World War. The photographs and postcards record both the devastation of war and the curiosity of a young man abroad. Accounts of sightseeing on leave mingle with hurriedly-written messages from the trenches, providing invaluable insight into his individual experience of war.
 
Astley James Bromfield enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on the 27th of September 1915. The twenty-two year old bookkeeper, one of three sons of an Atherton dairy farmer, was assigned to the 25th Infantry Battalion, and embarked for North Africa on the troopship Itonus on the 30th of December.
Extract from Service Record of Astley James Bromfield. Australian National Archives, B2455.

Even before he left Australia, Bromfield was corresponding with his family, particularly his sister Grace. Picture postcards were a popular means of communication at the time, and were often produced to commemorate significant occasions, such as the embarkation of troops. Bromfield sent this card, showing the 25th Battalion marching through Brisbane:
Postcard (Front), AIF March, Brisbane. Private Collection.
By buying and sending this card Bromfield was trying to create a sense of personal engagement and presence for his family at home. He strengthened that  sense by marking his place in the procession:
    “If you hold it up to the light you will see a little hole I made through my hat.”
The hole, while only a pin prick and difficult to spot, serves to identify Bromfield as an individual taking part in an historic event, reducing the distance and anonymity of official accounts of the mass movement of troops.
Postcard (Reverse), AIF March, Brisbane. Private Collection.
Throughout his service in North Africa and on the Western Front, and during a period of convalescence in England, Bromfield took photographs and collected postcards for his sister. References to local sights and stories dominate his messages home; looming “trips up the line” and the lasting effects of his wound are briefly mentioned, glossed over with reassurances that all was well. Signing as “Chap,” Bromfield wrote about his experiences, collected memorabilia and photographed his surroundings both to reassure his anxious family in Australia and to distract himself from the brutality of war. In doing so he asserted a small but significant degree of ownership over his actions and experiences, in a situation where individual lives were routinely sacrificed and choices were few and often illusory. His collection of original and acquired photographs (taken by official war photographers, fellow soldiers, and in a few instances captured from the enemy) tells the story of the First World War through the eyes of an ordinary Australian soldier, helps make some sense of his war service within the broader context of global politics and history.

The collection of photographs, postcards and personal effects on display at Townsville City Library - Flinders Street branch and the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library at James Cook University is not a record of courage and heroism. It is not an account of military engagements, but rather of the experience of living with the War. By continuing cultural production of this type soldiers like Bromfield managed to retain their humanity in utterly inhumane circumstances. Further blogs will explore individual photographs, postcards and artefacts, revealing the cultural life Astley James Bromfield as he sought to survive and document his experience of war.

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