Neil Oliver unlocks Australian War Memorial's deepest vaults

Scottish historian Neil Oliver at the Australian War Memorial.
 Photo: Jay Cronan
Scottish historian Neil Oliver at the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Jay Cronan

The people involved in World War I and their stories will probably never stop coming to light at the Australian War Memorial, says historian and international broadcaster Neil Oliver.

Filming The Memorial, a series that begins on Remembrance Day in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of World War I, Oliver says new ways of reinterpreting the past and new ideas on how we understand how it all happened will always be emerging.

''And I'm sure without a shadow of doubt there are still hundreds, thousands of stories we don't know about specific individuals and they will be languishing in cupboards and attics, under beds all over the world and in Australia – diaries, notebooks, photographs that people have just forgotten,'' he said.

Filming in Canberra for the History Channel, Oliver and his crew are recording the day to day business of the war memorial, the phone calls and walk-in visits of people who give up a new name, or a new collection of medals, or another set of letters or diaries.

''Yes, that's happened while we have been here,'' he said.

He has unprecedented access to the memorial's vaults and is eager to unravel stories of allied and enemy fighting forces.

An archaeologist who has covered everything from the early Stone Age in Scotland to World War II coastal fortifications in Kent and northern France, Oliver says the Australian War Memorial is unique in reflecting such a young, optimistic country when it was thrust into war.

''In a sense if you imagine the countries of the world as people, a lot of old men went into the Great War and some very young men, too. Australia was one of those young men.

''So the impact here, although every loss of every son is equally tragic, the losses here were felt especially keenly because the country was so young and had been forged with such hope and forged as a federated democracy.''

Oliver said it was once thought that when the veterans all died the war itself would be consigned to history and forgotten.

''It's been a fascination to me as the last of the veterans have passed away, the numbers of people turning out for Anzac Day, for the services of Remembrance on November 11, have been increasing year on year.

''This country has had to hold a ballot [to see] who can go to Gallipoli for the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. So interest is clearly intensifying.''

The Scottish father-of-three expects as many young people to be interested in The Memorial series as middle-aged and older people.

''Because the First World War in a practical sense is lost to all of us, the veterans have gone, every last one of them, and so it's history for all of us now.''

This story Neil Oliver unlocks Australian War Memorial's deepest vaults first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.