Horrors clear in close-up are blurred in crowd scenes
Between 2006 and 2014, three prime ministers overrode (as was their right) the decision of the panels they had appointed to judge the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. It’s been noted that the three books they advanced had war as their subject matter: two military histories and a novel largely concerned with the Burma Railway. This caused some mild disquiet.
What did it say about the reading tastes of our PMs? Did it imply that macho, boy’s own themes are the politically preferred representatives of our literary identity?
War books are fairly much a male preserve, both for writers and readers. There are exceptions. The New Zealand-born historian Joanna Bourke, for example, has written the important books Dismembering the Male and An Intimate History of Killing. But generally speaking women are not the main audience for works about CEW Bean or Monte Cassino or the 88mm anti-tank gun. Fair enough, but the awkward catch is that it seems to be destruction that men are interested in, whereas women are seen to embrace creativity and nurture. So a question of comparative values comes into play.
This in turn is weighted by the attitudes to war of Australia’s reading classes. Wars in the remembered lifetimes of most of us have meant Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, all widely seen as at best misguided and at worst immoral. So there is a transference of attitude: an interest in military matters is not quite respectable. PMs evidencing it only deepens an ideological divide.
War book production is certainly not waning. The years 2015-18 are patently golden ones of opportunism for military writers and publishers. Over perhaps the past 30 years, World War I has surged back into popular consciousness and even, we might say, popularity. It has certainly displaced its successor. World War II, when it came to be written about, had three big advantages over its predecessor. The conflict was more varied and geographically dispersed, so accounts weren’t restricted to yet another grim day in the trenches of Flanders. It also produced more individual and micro accounts. And decisively, these accounts thrived in the new, paperback era. The shelves of my boyhood were crammed with Pan editions: Carve Her Name with Pride, Enemy Coast Ahead, I was Monty’s Double, The Naked Island, The White Rabbit ...
Now the resurgence of Anzac Day has marked a turning point. The Great War is back on top, and the books have fuelled and been fuelled by this turnaround. The apotheosis of Charles Bean has been part of it: the monumental nature of his Official History is contrasted with the largely pedestrian and multi-authored volumes on 1939-45. Bean is a standard and a revered resource. For new books on World War I, his work is a secure starting point such as doesn’t exist for other conflicts.
The year 1916 was disastrous for Australian arms. Australian troops were barely in place on the Western Front when they were caught badly off guard by a German raid, and men and new secret weaponry were captured. The British brass were not happy.
Then on July 19 they were sent in against well-entrenched Bavarian positions. In five hours 2000 men were killed, another 500 captured and 3000 wounded. For a long time Fromelles was not a favourite subject for our popular historians. But its centenary this month has seen several treatments on the market.
Patrick Lindsay first published his account of the action in 2007, and clearly the publishers have brought it back for the centenary. Nothing in the bibliography of Our Darkest Day is dated later than 2007. What is new is a chapter on the pits at Pheasant Wood into which the Germans threw the bodies of the Australian and British soldiers who died within their lines. A Greekborn Australian teacher, Lambis Englezos, developed what Lindsay called “a magnificent obsession” that the missing of Fromelles had to be locatable. And located they were, after 10 years of Englezos agitating on their behalf.
They were exhumed, identified where possible and reburied individually. Lindsay provides a listing of the missing, and of those who have been identified to date. There is however another book devoted wholly to this operation. Furthermore, Lindsay generously refers to Robin Corfield, the author of several books on the subject, as “the definitive expert on the Battle of Fromelles”. The reader wonders what exactly Lindsay’s own book is offering.
Adam Wakeling’s The Last Fifty Miles is subtitled Australia and the End of the Great War, but