Dr K.S. Cunningham: A scholar goes to war

News of the landing at Gallipoli in April of 1915 saw a significant rise in recruitment figures across Australia. While early recruits had joined primarily to satisfy a yearning for adventure, many later enlistments were motivated by rising casualty lists and a growing sense of necessity. In August of the same year, twenty-five year old scholar, academic and teacher Dr Kenneth Cunningham became an enlisted man in the service of his country, and was given first-hand experience to the horrors of war and the trauma of loss.

Leaving his teaching post at the Bell Street School, Cunningham initially joined the infantry, but still housing some prior want of a career in medicine, soon transferred to the Army Medical Corps (AMC). As a trainee stretcher he undertook training in and observed a variety of medical procedures, and performed general duties at the local hospital. 

Cunningham wished to rise to the highest rank possible while serving his country, and was disappointed to learn that the best a non-medical serviceman could hope for in a field ambulance unit was sergeant or warrant officer. He was dismayed at the Australian rejection of the British custom of automatically sending infantrymen with a University education on to officer training school, feeling that Australian medical graduates were particularly fortunate as they received commissions on enlistment and could expect rapid promotion. The advantage of medical graduates entering into the AMC not only heightened Cunningham’s frustration at his earlier inability to study medicine, but also led him to assume that in some cases, unsuitable men had command over others in the ranks.

Despite his initial frustration with the system, Cunningham was selected to attend officer training school at Broadmeadows beginning in January of 1916. He attended for the required thirty days, completing the courses successfully and achieved sufficient results for a nomination to the officer’s college at Duntroon, however this opportunity failed to materialise before Cunningham’s company were shipped out to join the Western Front in France, and was inadvertently lost to him.

After Gallipoli the majority of the Australian Infantry Force (AIF) were sent to this front to fight the advancing German army. Between July and September 1916, the AIF was engaged in the battle of the Somme and experienced some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, sustaining nearly thirty thousand casualties.

Cunningham arrived in a section of the war completely ravaged by carnage and bloodshed. The advent of the machine gun had allowed for the massacre of wave after wave of advancing forces, while tanks and explosive artillery, unperturbed by barbed wire and obstacles to foot-soldiers allowed for devastating long-ranged attacks.

Joining the 5th Field Ambulance unit as a stretcher bearer, Cunningham struggled with the futility and seemingly senseless destruction of war; retaining many of his scholarly practices, Cunningham wrote fervently from inside trenches at the front, seemingly seeking refuge from his surroundings in his writings. Often writing at night, by the light of a candle he had dug into the side of the narrow trenches, Cunningham observed the condition and weariness of the men returning from the front.

As a regimental stretcher bearer his duties required him to retrieve the wounded from the maze of trenches composing the front and return them to makeshift first-aid posts, where they were given rudimentary medical attention. The exposure to troops returning from the front and their recollections from the fighting were scribed in Cunningham’s journal. Vividly describing shell-shock and the toll the war was taking on the soldiers in his care, Cunningham recorded the words of one particular soldier who had previously seen action at Gallipoli, exclaiming that he would rather endure six months there than a single week amongst the fighting on the present front.

In July of 1916, Cunningham was moved to a front beginning a series of attacks on the derelict French village of Pozières - a battlefield later described as ‘more densely sown with Australian sacrifice that any other place on earth’. Under the constant duress of enemy fire, Cunningham’s squad ferried critically injured soldiers through fields encumbered with debris and the concussions of exploding artillery. These recues could sometimes last several hours as the stretcher bearers hauled patients through the narrow enclaves littered with shrapnel and the bodies of the fallen. Cunningham believed it to be the hardest physical work under the most terrible conditions he could ever expect to endure, a thought he epitomised in a letter back home: 

“If I believe that hell was a matter of physical torture I could not imagine it worse than this place.”

Adding to his written lamentations on the front and on the horrible business of war, while on a ‘carry’ Cunningham came frighteningly close to losing his own life, as a piece of shrapnel from nearby exploding artillery shells lodged itself in the buckle of his stretcher sling. Had he not been wearing the sling, the shrapnel would have pierced his heart.

Toward the end of 1916, Cunningham penned a lengthy essay from a rain-soaked trench near Delville Wood. Entitled “Life Versus Death” Cunningham outlined the repulsiveness of stumbling across bodies of the fallen and the overwhelming magnitude of the death caused by war. He clearly came to despise conflict, but showed a determination that the sacrifices it brought about should not be for nought;

“It rests with those who remain to prove themselves worthy that blood should be poured out so that they may remain in peace and security; above all it rests with them to see that any repetition of this sacrifice of life is rendered impossible”

Despite his lament for his surroundings and his chronicles of the bloodshed, Cunningham also made notes on educational practices within the armed forces. Due to the young enlistment age, many soldiers fell behind educationally and some knew no calling except the army. This was a point of frustration for Cunningham as an educator, who felt that the lack of education apparent in the trenches led to soldiers losing the ability to view events objectively, taking rumour and hearsay for news without substantiation.

In 1918 Cunningham began an involvement with army education, when his commanding officer asked for his co-operation in organising a unit scheme of classes and lectures to offer the men some mental stimulation. Pre-dating the official AIF Education Service, Cunningham put together a series of lectures on shorthand, math, biology and grammar – many of which were welcomed by the troops in his unit.

The success of this scheme buoyed Cunningham to apply for a course in Cambridge for men believed to be capable of contributing to the expanding area of military education. Despite being overlooked for this particular course, Cunningham’s contribution was rewarded with a commission in November of 1918, rising to the rank of lieutenant and becoming Education Officer for the three ambulance units in the 2nd Division. 

Upon his appointment, Cunningham was able to obtain an office at Divisional Headquarters, finally putting an end to his horrifying time on the front lines. He served out the remainder of the war in his position as Education Officer, before arriving back on Australian soil in 1919. Completely changed by his wartime experiences, but still a young man, Cunningham adopted an unflinching belief in the futility of war and its senseless toll on humanity, society and education – a hard-learned perspective that would continue to shape his next and most famous contribution to Australia – as the inaugural director of the Australian Council for Educational Research.


Williams B., Education with its eyes open 1994, ACER Press, Camberwell, VIC

Turney C., Pioneers of Australian Education , Vol. 3 1983, Sydney University Press, Sydney NSW

Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993, Australian National University, Canberra ACT