Military History

Arthur Wheen, a nineteen-year-old signaller in the Australian Imperial Force, sailed from Egypt to France in June 1916. A month later he wrote to one of his younger sisters in Australia recounting, in highly fanciful language, his first experience of battle. After describing his difficulties with mud and barbed wire, he told her, ‘I got out in the end though and cantered across to the German trenches where I had much better luck with their barbed wire.’ Agnes Wheen would have had no inkling that her brother had just taken part in a disastrous battle in which more than five thousand Australian soldiers were killed or wounded.

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For long after World War II, particular opprobrium was reserved for the statesmen who failed to resist the belligerent dictators. Their failure was denounced in the popular tract Guilty Men, which appeared in 1940 soon after Hitler overran Western Europe, leaving Britain to fight on alone ...

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It is a brave undertaking to write a single-volume history of World War II. As Max Hastings notes, we already have many good books in this category: Weinberg, A World At Arms: A Global History of World War II (1994); Calvocoressi, Wint, and Pritchard, Total War: The Causes and Courses of the Second World War (1989); Millett and Murray, A War To Be Won: Fighting the Second World War (2000); and Hastings might have mentioned Parker’s Struggle For Survival: The History of the Second World War (1989) and Ellis’s Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War (1990). He was too late to notice Andrew Roberts’s latest contribution.

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War is one of the great paradoxes of Australia. Why should a people occupying a continent so far from the world’s trouble spots have spent so much of their history dying in often distant wars? It is one of the questions that drew me to the study of Australian history. I am little the wiser after reading this collection of Australian war writing. This is partly because editor Mark Dapin is intent simply on providing a range of Australian literary responses, and a few not so literary, to the experience of war.

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When the United States recently announced its commitment to enforce a ‘no-fly zone’ in Libya, the State Department spokesman was asked whether the United States was now at war. He could only manage a floundering non-answer. The unfortunate spokesman’s difficulty with this apparently simple question is a reminder of the vast changes in the nature of military conflict in recent decades. Major conflicts are seldom a matter of one state formally declaring war on another, with a largely agreed set of rules on the conduct of operations (sometimes flouted in horrific ways) and with some generally accepted markers of victory and defeat.

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Of the fate of Australian prisoners of war in the hands of the Japanese during World War II, the literature – memoir, fiction, history – is voluminous. There were 21,652 of them, of whom thirty-five per cent, or 7780, perished. A good deal has also been written of enemy prisoners – Japanese, German, Italian – who were held in camps in this country, and in pa ...

Witnesses to War, an ambitious book, is part of a larger project by the C.E.W. Bean Foundation to commemorate the work of Australian war correspondents. Fay Anderson and Richard Trembath, setting out to document the performance of Australian war correspondents, have tackled complex material. They deal with an enormous cast of characters and various interwoven themes, including the struggle against military censorship, how journalists have observed their duty to neutral coverage (or not), and the changing technology of reporting war – from sending stories by carrier pigeon or steamship in World War I to today’s live telecasts by journalists direct from battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book fills an important gap. Until now, Phillip Knightley’s more general work, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker (1975, 2004), has served as the final authority in this field. Knightley is a patron of the Foundation and an important influence.

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The title of this new book on the Vietnam War comes from the final verse cycle of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1869). As Arthur lies dying, he reflects ‘that we / Shall never more ... Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds’. This Arthurian borrowing for the title of a book about an obscure battle fought by Australians in Vietnam during the 19 ...

Gallipoli: A Short History by Michael McKernan & Pozières: The Anzac Story by Scott Bennett

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May 2011, no. 331

Michael McKernan states in his introduction to his short book on Gallipoli that he is dissatisfied with much writing on military history. He writes: ‘Military history is often presented as a thing of maps and statistics, a brutal narrative based on the deployments and motives of commanders with a score sheet of those who performed well and those who failed. In this book I have tried to go beyond that ... to show that somewhere for each life lost, there was long mourning and deep grief.'

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While explorations of Australia at war have never been short on ‘male stories’, the prevalence of the masculine frame may yet increase in coming years as part of the ongoing examination of competing forms of manhood in this country, as evidenced by the upcoming symposium ‘Embattled Men: Masculinity and War’ at the Australian National University. The publicit ...