THE WAR, ON PAPER
THE FINEST WRITERS FROM THE FRONT
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