Sol­diers’ words an en­dur­ing me­mo­rial

From the Trenches: The Best An­zac Writ­ing of World War One

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce Peter Pierce

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

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