Good Reading : October 2006
OCTOBER 2006 ı goodreading 17 categorical the ALP from its origins to the Hawke government. Its treatment of the early history of the party is illuminating in that it highlights how central to the Australian Settlement were the concerns of organised labor, be it in restricting non-white immigration or legislating for compulsory arbitration. Labor could be so influential, though rarely in power, because of the division of the conservatives between the New South Wales based free traders and the Victorian protectionists. The new nation enjoyed a high standard of living, a demo- cratic government, and its citizens were among the longest lived in the world. But something was missing. Blood.World War I was to provide the missing element. Some 69,000 Australians died in World War I and the overall casualty rate was over 50% of men enlisted. One can understand the need to find something redemp- tive in this shambles. The recent growth in attendance at Anzac Day commemora- tions undoubtedly reflects the time devoted to the Gallipoli story in schools as well as a widely-felt need to participate in unifying ritual. For those who want to get beyond the mythology, Les Carlyon’s Gallipoli is a well-written conventional narrative history which places the campaign in its strategic context and provides considerable information about Turkish as well as Allied motivation and objectives. Patsy Adam-Smith’s The Anzacs is a history of the first AIF with fascinating insights into matters such as the compara- tive rates of venereal disease in the allied armies.The Australians led the way in this area as well as on the battlefield. Somme Mud by EFP Lynch is the memoir of an Australian infantryman, written in 1921 but only recently redis- covered and published for the first time. This appears to be the genuine article – the review copy promises a foreword by the respected military historian Bill Gammage – and is that rare thing: a detailed first-hand account by an intelligent and thoughtful observer who somehow forced himself to confront and record the appalling reality he experienced. The starting point for reading on the first AIF and in many ways the originator of the Anzac ‘legend’ is CEW Bean’s Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918. At twelve volumes and in amazing detail this is not for the faint-hearted. Bean was not jingoistic and was careful to discount exaggerated claims as to Australian martial prowess, but he is also assiduous in finding admiring commentary from both allied and enemy observers. The overall effect is somewhat adulatory. A rather less uplifting impression is conveyed by The BrokenYears, a selection of Australian soldiers’ diaries and letters home edited by Bill Gammage, many of which depict the brutalising effect of incessant slaughter on the correspondents. Particularly by 1918, the Australians hated the enemy and exalted in their destruction. It was this hatred which seems to have driven the Australians to perform so well in the critical battles of 1918. Many of those battles were directed by an Australian: John Monash. Almost forgotten now, Monash was the allies’ most suc- cessful general on the Western front. Roland Perry has written an excellent biography, Monash:The Outsider Who Won a War, which makes intelligible to the lay person his tactical brilliance. John Laffin’s The Battle of Hamel focuses on the first major set piece con- ducted by Monash, which prefigured his later successes and set the pattern for the defeat of the Germans on the Western front. After the war to end all wars there was a brief period of eco- nomic recovery – but the 1920s in Australia were not prosperous. Falling commodity prices and industrial unrest characterised the political environment. Just when the Scullin Labor government had finally achieved office after a landslide victory, the New York stock exchange crashed and the chairman of the Commonwealth Bank board, in line with the economic orthodoxy of the day, demanded massive expenditure cuts. Australia did not pull out of the resulting downward spiral until World War II.Jack Lang by Bede Nairn is a biography of the ‘Big Fella’ and is of particular interest for its treatment of how the conventional economic wisdom of the day guaranteed an exacerbation of the economic crisis. Lang, a real estate agent from what was then western Sydney, knew little and cared less about economics, and his attempt to run a populist line against those who paid the piper was shortlived. For Australia, two fronts in World War II had particular signifi- cance: North Africa and New Guinea. North Africa is particularly remembered for the role of the 9th division in the successful defence of Tobruk, and in inflicting the first major defeat on German land forces of the war at El Alamein. Somewhat unfairly, the roles of other Australian units in the earlier successful cam- paigns against the Italians in North Africa and the Vichy French in Syria are less well remembered. Tobruk’s defenders were largely Australians of the 9th division with British artillery and some Indian units.The commander of the 9th division, Morshead, initiated a policy of active defence with nightly patrols contesting no man’s land. My grandfather, transferred into the 2/15 battalion during the siege, had told me Some 69,000 Australians died in World War I and the overall casualty rate was over 50% of men enlisted.