Robin Prior opens this monumental military history by stating that Britain was the only power on the Allied side in both world wars to fight the regimes of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperialist Japan ‘from beginning to end’. Some might quibble. Was not 1937 the beginning of the war against Japan? But few could doubt that Britain’s sustained war effort in both world wars was remarkable. Even though victory often seemed uncertain and the cost in casualties, human grief, economic dislocation, and financial ruin was immense, the nation continued to exhibit ‘stern resolve’, believing that ‘conquer we must’.
This book is about the battles in which the First Australian Imperial Force took part between June and November 1917. It is not, however, a battle history. Rather, it takes the interesting approach of investigating how Australians remember these battles. Spoiler alert: they don’t.
The Somme – it is a name that still strikes dread in the ears for its carnage, ineptitude and sheer waste of life. For the English-speaking world at least, the battle of the Somme has come to symbolise all that was bad about the Great War in general, and the Western Front in particular. The 141-day battle cost the British Army alone more than 400,000 casualties, including 150,000 men killed. The first day (1 July 1916) saw the death of 20,000 soldiers – the single bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. It wasn’t quite as bad as the savage slaughter at Towton on 29 March 1461, where about 30,000 Englishmen perished in the vicious quarrel between York and Lancaster, but on the Somme the bloodshed kept going, day after day for four and a half months, and no one seemed to know how to stop it.
In his introduction to this book, Richard Toye makes the startling but, as far as I know, accurate claim that this is the first book to offer a comprehensive analysis of Churchill’s wartime speeches. For a series of orations that now occupy many pages of any dictionary of quotations, The Roar of the Lion fills a surprising gap. Unfortunately, it does not fill it adequately.
The first thing to be said about this book is that no one associated with it seemed to know what to call it or how to describe its contents. The essays which make up the book are not in any sense about the ‘making’ of World War I. They do not describe either elements that ‘made’ World War I in the sense of causing it, or elements that caused World War I to play out the way it did. Even the blurb does not get the contents entirely right. It says that the twelve particular events dealt with in the essays ‘continue to shape the world today’. No they don’t – or not all of them, anyway. How exactly does the death of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph resonate today?
Too often histories of World War II either have ‘total’ in their title or make great play with total war as a concept. Essentially this is meaningless, because all that is meant by total war is big war. Antony Beevor mercifully does not call World War II ‘total’ or make any reference to total war.
This book is the second in a series compiled by a group of Canberra academics on the distortions they perceive to surround the writing of military history in this country. Before the book itself is tackled, a word should be said about the titles they have chosen for their two volumes. The first (published in 2010) is called Zombie Myths of Australian Military History; this one is entitled Anzac’s Dirty Dozen: 12 Myths of Australian Military History. As happens to many a poor author, these hideously ugly titles may have been imposed on the book by the publisher. If not, they need serious help when they title future volumes.
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.
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.'
This is an important book that should be read by as wide a range of historians as possible. Some will find it totally agreeable, others will find it very disagreeable, while others will agree with some parts of the book but not all. It is a book not just about the ‘militarisation of Australian history’, but, perhaps more importantly, about how Australians see themselves in the world.