THE WAR, ON PAPER

THE FINEST WRIT­ERS FROM THE FRONT

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

THE 99th an­niver­sary of the Gal­lipoli land­ings should oc­ca­sion lit­er­ary, as well as mil­i­tary and na­tion­al­ist re­flec­tions. The orig­i­nal An­zacs were first ex­alted in the flowery prose of English jour­nal­ist El­lis Ash­mead-Bartlett, but the shap­ing of their leg­end be­came the life­long com­mit­ment of of­fi­cial Aus­tralian war cor­re­spon­dent CEW Bean. The story of Gal­lipoli that he helped forge has been so in­flu­en­tial as to screw reck­on­ing of Aus­tralian fic­tion and non­fic­tion about war. Af­ter all, there had been over­seas mil­i­tary ex­pe­di­tions be­fore: to New Zealand, the Sudan, China and South Africa. The pe­cu­liar­i­ties of Aus­tralia’s ex­pe­ri­ence of war also need more clearly to be un­der­stood.

Un­like Amer­i­cans, Aus­tralians have known no civil war; un­like the Bri­tish they have had no hered­i­tary en­e­mies. The sub­ju­ga­tion of Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia was more pro­tracted and blood­ier than once sup­posed, but there were no pitched bat­tles such as were fought against the na­tive peo­ples of New Zealand or the US. The ma­te­rial of Aus­tralian saga lit­er­a­ture has not usu­ally been war but the strug­gle of pi­o­neers against fire, flood and drought. Fi­nally, Euro­pean Aus­tralia has suf­fered no in­va­sion.

Yet for all this rel­a­tive im­mu­nity, Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture is thronged with en­e­mies. In the late 19th century they were Asians, fright­en­ingly fig­ured forth, in imag­in­ings of in­va­sion, by nov­el­ists and car­toon­ists. The anti-Asian an­i­mus was re­vived in de­pic­tions, in fic­tion and mem­oir, of the Ja­panese in World War II.

In World War I, be­sides the Ger­man en­emy, Bri­tish and Aus­tralian writ­ers per­ceived threats be­hind their own lines, from their com­mand­ing gen­er­als. As AD Hope wrote later, in An In­scrip­tion for Any War: ‘‘Go tell those old men, now in bed,/We took their or­ders, and are dead.’’

In Aus­tralian war lit­er­a­ture can be found the de­sire to be pos­sessed of a his­tory such as war guar­an­tees: to en­list in his­tory by go­ing to war; to kill one­self into na­tion­hood. This is why Gal­lipoli has been so sem­i­nally im­por­tant, but the note had been struck ear­lier. In 1885 NSW pre­mier Wil­liam Dal­ley com­mit­ted troops to the Sudan with an alacrity that per­plexed im­pe­rial au­thor­i­ties. His Vic­to­rian coun­ter­part, James Ser­vice, en­vi­ously re­marked that this had ‘‘pre­cip­i­tated Aus­tralia, in one short week, from a ge­o­graph­i­cal ex­pres­sion to a na­tion’’.

World War II pro­duced the finest Aus­tralian war writ­ing. Au­thors who served in­cluded David Camp­bell (a RAAF pi­lot), James McAuley, Patrick White, James Pi­cot (who died in a PoW camp in 1944) and Peter Ryan, who wrote the com­pelling mem­oir of war in New Guinea, Fear Drive My Feet (1959). High­light­ing works of distinc­tion from this and other wars dis­tracts at­ten­tion from the mass of non­fic­tion writ­ing in the form of unit his­to­ries (es­pe­cially of the war in Viet­nam) and the of­fi­cial his­to­ries that have suc­ceeded Bean, such as the se­ries on Asian con­flict edited by Peter Ed­wards.

Gal­lipoli has been re­vis­ited of­ten, for stance in nov­els by Roger McDon­ald, 1915 (1979) and New Zealan­der Stephen Daisley, Traitor (2010). Now a del­uge of words awaits the cen­te­nary of the An­zac land­ings. A shift of em­pha­sis — to other sites of bat­tle, other wars — al­lows a more com­plex un­der­stand­ing of why Aus­tralians have gone to war, what hap­pened to them then, and af­ter­wards.

It is in this hope that the fol­low­ing se­lec­tion of the best Aus­tralian works of fic­tion and non­fic­tion about war has been made. Amer­i­can poet and wound-dresser dur­ing the Civil War Walt Whit­man cau­tioned that ‘‘the real war will never get into the books’’. What fol­lows not only con­tests that as­ser­tion but alerts read­ers to some of our finest, and of­ten nearly for­got­ten, war writ­ing. One short piece of prose de­serves re­mem­ber­ing. Early on the morn­ing of An­zac Day 1918, as Aus­tralian soldiers ad­vanced to re­take Villers-Bre­ton­neux, one re­as­sured a fright­ened French­woman in words of gar­bled majesty: ‘‘Finit re­treat madame, beau­coup Aus­tralians ici.”

‘‘Banjo’’ Pater­son’s first pub­lished poem ( The Bul­letin, 1885) was the pseudony­mous El Mahdi to the Aus­tralian Troops, in which he de­nounced the Bri­tish-led in­va­sion of the Sudan. This was the icon­o­clas­tic be­gin­ning of a long ca­reer. Pater­son was al­ready a fa­mous poet when he ar­rived as a war cor­re­spon­dent in South Africa in Oc­to­ber 1899. He de­scribed cav­alry ac­tions and ar­tillery bar­rages; death close at hand. This reporting (and that from sub­se­quent wars) was pub­lished with the puz­zling ti­tle Happy Dis­patches (1934). In 1901 Pater­son was in China to cover the Boxer Re­bel­lion (Aus­tralia’s first, brief in­volve­ment in Asian con­flict).

While at the Boer War, Pater­son had writ­ten pre­sciently: “Never again, un­til the Great War comes, will so many dif­fer­ent types of the Em­pire’s sol­diery gather to­gether.’’ That war soon came, and to it came Pater­son, as a re­mount of­fi­cer for the Light Horse in Egypt.

His trav­els as a jour­nal­ist in western NSW in the early 1900s per­suaded Bean that here was ‘‘the real Aus­tralia’’. He meant mas­cu­line virtues of mate­ship, in­de­pen­dence and ir­rev­er­ence that he would come to be­lieve were em­bod­ied in the men of the First AIF.

Bean beat Keith Mur­doch in a bal­lot for the po­si­tion of of­fi­cial war cor­re­spon­dent and went

in- ashore on the first morn­ing of Gal­lipoli. While re­prov­ing their sex­ual and lar­rikin mis­be­haviour in Egypt, he lauded the Aus­tralian soldiers in bat­tle and crafted The An­zac Book (1916) from their con­tri­bu­tions. Bean edited the mon­u­men­tal Of­fi­cial His­tory of Aus­tralia in the War of 1914-1918 (1921-43) and wrote its first six vol­umes. (His abridg­ment, An­zac to Amiens, was re­cently reis­sued by Pen­guin un­der the ban­ner of Pop­u­lar War Pen­guins). He was a prime mover in the con­struc­tion of the Aus­tralian War Me­mo­rial. The sig­nal qual­ity of his reporting was fear­less close­ness to, and sym­pa­thy for or­di­nary Aus­tralian soldiers.

The in­trepid Louise Mack wrote pop­u­lar fic­tion about teenage girls and “A Woman’s Let­ter’’ for The Bul­letin be­fore leav­ing for Eng­land and Italy in 1901. Her mem­oir was disin­gen­u­ously ti­tled An Aus­tralian Girl in Lon­don (1902). In the open­ing months of the Great War, Mack found her­self near the front line as the Ger­mans in­vaded Bel­gium. She be­came one of the first (and not only Aus­tralian) fe­male war cor­re­spon­dents. Com­ing to be­sieged An­twerp in Au­gust 1914, Mack re­marked the massed taxis on the city’s out­skirts and a field of mono­planes and bi­planes. Op­tions of es­cape and re­sis­tance were side by side. Ig­nor­ing ad­vice to evac­u­ate, Mack stayed un­til the city had fallen. In A Woman’s Ex­pe­ri­ences in the Great War (1915) she wrote that ‘‘surely, this lurid, cop­per-tinted noon­tide, hang­ing over An­twerp, was con- ceived in Hades as a pre­sen­ta­tion of the world’s last day’’. In his poem Grotesque, Fred­eric Man­ning (son of a Syd­ney lord mayor) wrote from his ex­pe­ri­ences as a Bri­tish army pri­vate on the Western Front that “even skulls have their hu­mour,/an eye­less and sar­donic mock­ery’’. Man­ning’s only novel, The Mid­dle Parts of For­tune: Somme and An­cre 1916 (1929) (an­other Pop­u­lar War Pen­guin), ap­peared un­der the pseu­do­nym Pri­vate 19022, Man­ning’s ser­vice num­ber.

The name of its pro­tag­o­nist, Bourne, sug­gests the com­mon hu­man con­di­tion, suf­fer­ings en­dured in war and that mar­gin be­tween life and death from where, as Ham­let re­marked, ‘‘no trav­eller re­turns’’.

Dis­re­spect­ful to­wards author­ity, elo­quently plain in style, its mor­dancy light­ened by rue­ful com­edy, this great­est of Aus­tralian war nov­els ap­peared in the same year as Erich Re­mar­que’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Ernest Hem­ing­way’s A Farewell to Arms. The lat­ter paid Man­ning’s novel this trib­ute: ‘‘the finest and no­blest book of men in war’’.

When Kenneth Slessor was ap­pointed an of­fi­cial war cor­re­spon­dent in 1940, he was Aus­tralia’s leading poet. Apart from two last flour­ishes

Top, nurse Jessie Si­mons (third from left, front row) with fel­low for­mer pris­on­ers of war; above, war his­to­rian CEW Bean (right) in the trenches at Hou­plines, north­ern France, in 1916

War cor­re­spon­dent Kenneth Slessor

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