Soldiers’ words an enduring memorial
From the Trenches: The Best Anzac Writing of World War One
Edited by Mark Dapin Viking, 413pp, $39.99 (HB)
COMPLEMENTING his The Penguin Book of Australian War Writing, while narrowing his focus, Mark Dapin’s From the Trenches is a fine, judicious and moving selection of writing ‘‘ reportage, memoir, diaries, letters, fiction and poetry from Australia and New Zealand’’. There is generous representation of New Zealanders, some of whom were among that country’s nearly 17,000 dead. Aged 56, William Malone was killed by ‘‘ friendly fire’’ at Gallipoli. Archibald Baxter did not fire a shot, but his account of the torture that he endured because of conscientious objection to war is one of the most harrowing excerpts in the book. John Lee lost a leg on the Western Front but returned to New Zealand to become a radical member of parliament.
Trenches were not a novelty of World War I, as American Civil War photographs attest. What was new was warfare on a scale incommensurate with anything known before.
Moreover this was war where the means of death dealing were more mechanised and lethal than they had ever been. Dapin calls the first part of his book ‘‘ The Great Adventure’’, as he succinctly traces the soon-obliterated enthusiasm when war was first declared. Those delusions are admonished by the poem with which the section opens — Walter Turner’s Death’s Men. These are its chilling last lines: ‘‘ click, clack, click, clack, go Death’s trim men/ Across the autumn grass’’. Following Turner up the line is Philip Schuler, an Age war correspondent who then joined the AIF. His Australia Answers the Call begins with that pseudochivalric language that Paul Fussell analysed in The Great War and Modern Memory: ‘‘ young manhood’’, ‘‘ baptism of fire’’, ‘‘ thousands of braves’’. The Great War killed off this rhetoric, as it would kill Schuler, at Messines in Belgium in 1917.
The more self-aware of the authors whom Dapin selects wrestle with the question — moral as well as stylistic — of what language can be found to register the horrors of war. Sometimes there was a resort to mocking euphemism — the naming of frontal assaults as ‘‘ stunts’’. For John Monash, a dry, descriptive mode seemed best: ‘‘ the front line is not really a line at all, but a very complex and elaborate system of field works’’. He writes also of those behind the front — field police, liaison officers with the French Military Mission, salvage corps and 200 girls in the laundries.
The favoured figurative device of Great War writing (indeed of much war literature in the century since) hearkened back to Homer. This is the simile. Official war correspondent Charles Bean wrote of ‘‘ an occasional sniping shot, exactly like the crack of a cricket ball’’. New Zealander Alexander Aitken likened a tank to ‘‘ a pertinacious beetle’’, while for Frederic Manning (whose 1929 novel The Middle Parts of Fortune Ernest Hemingway thought the finest about the war), ‘‘ the drumming of the guns’’ was ‘‘ as though a gale resounded overhead, piling up great waves of sound’’.
By remaking the unfamiliar through the familiar, the horrible through the benign, simile allows the illusion of escape from war to the distant peaceful land left behind. But literary respite, like time spent away from the trenches, is only temporary. Dapin shows ways of reckoning with war and implicitly invites us to contrast them. We can set Walter Downing’s exultant account of the recapture of VillersBretonneux on Anzac Day 1918 — ‘‘ the fierce low growl of tigers scenting blood’’ — with John Jacob’s account of advancing into battle: ‘‘ We all got up and walked on as if we had suddenly got tired of lying there.’’
Then there is the quiet witness of May Tilton (one of the women Dapin includes). She wrote of her experiences as a nurse in Egypt, France and England during 1915-19 in The Grey Battalion (1933). At one point she observes with sad calm that ‘‘ most of the original Anzacs who came to France lost their lives during this advance to capture Passchendaele’’.
Dapin says ‘‘ this book is a war memorial’, one made from words, as distinct from the bronze of those World War I statues of ‘‘ straight-backed warrior stoics, expressionless and intact’’. He is no doubt aware of Ross McMullin’s Farewell Dear People (2012), selected biographies of ‘‘ Australia’s Lost Generation’’, when he writes of the dead that ‘‘ they might have been anything, had they lived’’.
One who didn’t was Adrian Stephen, a dramatist who enlisted before being called to the bar; served as an officer in the British Army (as did Manning and Martin Boyd) and survived 21/ years at the front before being killed in 1918. Two who enjoyed long postwar lives were Albert Facey and Keith Murdoch. Dapin is equivocal about the accuracy of their war writing. From Facey we hear of his skill with bayonet and machinegun — ‘‘ must have killed hundreds’’. Murdoch — beaten in a journalists’ ballot for the job that Bean won — wrote the notorious letter from Gallipoli in which he called (successfully) for the recall of General Hamilton: ‘‘ sedition is talked around every tin of bully beef on the peninsula’’.
From the Trenches is a rich addition to the literature of Anzac, just at the point where centenary fatigue may be setting in prematurely.
Australian soldiers in a trench on the Western Front in France during World War I