Military History

‘A peculiar bloke, Jack; you never knew him. You couldn’t get close to him.’ Reg Pollard, who was one of the abler members of the Labor Caucus in the 1940s, confessed his puzzlement to Lloyd Ross as Curtin’s biographer gathered personal testimony ...

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Our fascination with Gallipoli is probably at a peak. Like other symbolic events, it rises, falls and rises again in public esteem and curiosity. In the last quarter of a century, beginning when Anzac Day was at a low ebb, books and documentaries about Gallipoli have flooded bookshops and television stations. This new book by Professor Robin Prior, a specialist Australian historian of World War I, argues that the flood tide has almost drowned us in myths. The subtitle of his book is ‘The End of the Myth’. It is doubtful whether one able historian can terminate the myths, but this is a brave attempt.

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The Torch and the Sword began life as Craig Stockings’s PhD thesis, and shows its origins on every page. He presents a hypothesis and refers to it often as he proceeds systematically through a chronological and thematic exposition of his subject.

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The Shrine of Remembrance is such a familiar object in the landscape of Melbourne that we can easily be unaware of its singularity. This is, as far as I can tell, the largest purely monumental structure in the world commemorating the war of 1914–18, a great memorial to participants in the Great War. The duke of Gloucester inaugurated the Shrine before a crowd of more than three hundred thousand people – almost three times the largest number ever to attend a sporting event at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – on 11 November 1934, Armistice Day, as it used to be called. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the duke placed a wreath from his father, George V, on the Stone of Remembrance in the Sanctuary at the centre of the Shrine, and at that moment, as planned by architect and engineer, a ray of light fell on the black granite of the Stone, lighting up the word ‘Love’ in the carved inscription ‘Greater love hath no man’. In 1934 more people than in 2007 knew those words and the words that followed them in the Bible: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’

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General Peter Cosgrove by Peter Cosgrove & Cosgrove by Patrick Lindsay

by
February 2007, no. 288

There is certainly a refreshing candour in My Story and a good deal of pleasant anecdote and humour, but, on the whole, not a lot of ferocity. Cosgrove is most at ease and most readable when he can be convincingly diffident, mocking his own pretensions or, more often, the embarrassing lack of them, as in his account of his arrival at Duntroon Military College. Just short of eighteen, with a ‘lot of growing up to do, both physically and emotionally’, coming off a modest performance in his second try at the Leaving Certificate, with a school track record of larrikin insouciance, the young Peter Cosgrove had every reason to feel nervous as he boarded the bus outside the Canberra station for the short trip to Duntroon. Finding he is sitting next to ‘a fellow who seemed about my age (although years more mature)’, Cosgrove decides to ‘break the ice’. As a result, he discovers that this young man is a product of one of Sydney’s most prestigious private schools, that he had been school captain, a senior cadet, captained the School XV and had been selected for the combined GPS rugby team. Despondently, Cosgrove asks about cricket, assessing himself as ‘no world beater [but] better [at cricket] than at rugby’. His delight in hearing that his companion never played the game is quickly snuffed out when the young man explains that, as stroke of the school eight when his school won the Head of the River, he had no time for cricket. ‘We sat in silence for a moment and then he turned to me and said, “What about you?” I said morosely, “I’m on the wrong bus!”’

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Ever since Federation, Australians have heard of the Boer War, as they have heard of the Wars of the Roses. As to deep understanding, they have as much about the one war as about the other. As a ‘Matric’ student in 1939, I had for my Commercial Practice teacher a Boer War veteran – lean, tall, bowlegged – every schoolboy’s image of our horsemen who had taught the Empire’s enemies such a lesson in South Africa. Beguiled by eager juvenile diversionists, he would treat us to ten minutes of soldier anecdotes, straight from his saddle forty years earlier.

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The title is not provocative: The Brisbane Line Controversy, but Paul Burns’s subtitle flags the partisanship that will mark his study. This is a case, he contends, of ‘Political Partisanship versus National Security 1942–45’. His conclusion is unobjectionable: ‘belief in a “Brisbane Line” was our barometer of fear about the vulnerability of our own continent which no Australian Army could negate’. In political demonology, the Brisbane Line signifies the intention of the Menzies–Fadden conservative governments of 1939–41 to abandon all but the south-east corner of Australia to the Japanese, should an invasion come. Burns is keen to absolve Menzies and his colleagues of blame and to find where, and with whom, the notion of the Line originated. In the process he indicts Labor front-bencher Eddie Ward, whose allegations about a Brisbane Line led to a Royal Commission in the election year of 1943.

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The serious academic study of war has grown considerably in Australia in the last ten to fifteen years, bringing with it an often welcome diversification in focus and a willingness to subject old issues to fresh scrutiny. One sign of the increasing acceptance of war as a subject of serious study in the universities is the increasing number of university historians and other who, with little knowledge of or interest in the mechanics of war, nonetheless extend their work to include consideration of war and the military as these affect their particular areas of interest.

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These five books are about war and are all written by veteran infantrymen (except Making the Legend), a fact which is quite relevant. The fiction is every bit as gritty as the non-fiction. There’s none of the glamour that popular thrillers attach to war, and there’s none of the abject horror that literature generally attributes to war. Instead, there is what can only be described as honesty. These books are truly about the work of winning wars; not the glory or triumph, but the face-in-the-mud labour of it.

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In a response to Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli published in Quadrant in 1982, Gerard Henderson observed that ‘recounting the story of the Anzacs has become something of a growth industry’. Five years on, the Gallipoli industry shows no sign of a downturn. The salvaging and publication of war diaries, letters and manuscripts that had long mouldered in museums, libraries and attics, the spate of ‘epic’ teledramas and ersatz war fiction (like Jack Bennett’s spin-off from the aforesaid movie), new historical studies and the resurrection of old ones such as C. E. W. Bean’s Official History and, at the other end of the scale, John Laffin’s Digger: The story of the Australian soldier (its subtitle magically changed to ‘The legend of the Australian soldier’), all attest to the enduring appeal of Australia’s military exploits to writers and filmmakers and to the subject’s ability to tap a popular audience.

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