Hor­rors clear in close-up are blurred in crowd scenes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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