World War I

The myth and reality of the Anzac legend has proven a perennial subject of inquiry and argument for over thirty years now, since the publication of Ken Inglis’s justly famous articles in Meanjin and elsewhere in 1964–65. These prompted a spirited exchange with the late Geoff Serle and others. More recently, John Robertson examined the Gallipoli campaign in terms of the myth (1990), and found the critics of Australian martial performance wanting, while Eric Andrews took the Anglo-Australian relationship between 1914 and 1918 to task (1993), and found duplicity and manipulation in the construction of the Australians’ image.

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The Gallipoli campaign has a peculiar fascination for historians of World War I. This new book, by British historian Nicholas A. Lambert, is concerned not so much with the conduct of the campaign as with the reasons for its being launched. The chances for its success were known at the time to be low, so why was this gamble, which cost perhaps 130,000 Allied and Ottoman lives, taken?

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This is a book in the expansive American tradition of long, well-researched historical works on political topics with broad appeal, written in an accessible style for a popular audience. David Nasaw has not previously worked on displaced persons, but he is the author of several big biographies, most recently of political patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy.

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It seems hard to imagine that we need more books on World War I after the tsunami of publications released during the recent centenary. Yet, here we have a blockbuster, a 926-page tome, Staring at God, by Simon Heffer, a British journalist turned historian in the tradition of Alistair Horne and Max Hastings.

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Australia’s role in the war against the Ottoman Empire from 1916 to 1918 is much less widely understood than its contribution to the doomed campaign in the Dardanelles or the muddy slog on the Western Front. It is one aspect of Australia’s World War I that has not been overwritten by historians ...

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It is, of course, one hundred years since almost 9,000 Australians died on a small Turkish peninsula during a campaign that, despite its localised failure as a military operation and futility in influencing the overall course of the war, has been unalterably woven into the fabric of our national mythos. Commemorative presentations are frequent. Orchestras, televisio ...

The Great War produced its own idiom and slang. Many of the new words and phrases created during the long conflict, such as ‘tank’ and ‘barrage’, became part of standard English, although often with a different nuance of meaning.

The recording of Australian soldier slang was seen as important at the end of the war. It was recognised as being integral to the unique character of the Australian soldier and linked to the official war historian C.E.W. Bean’s characterisation of the Australian soldier as the bronzed bushman and an outstanding fighter with a disdain for authority. In 1919, W.H. Downing published Digger Dialects; he described the slang he had collected as ‘a by-product of the collective imagination of the A.I.F.’. In the early 1920s, A.G. Pretty, chief librarian at the Australian War Museum, later the Australian War Memorial, compiled a ‘Glossary of Slang and Peculiar Terms in Use in the A.I.F.’. Amanda Laugesen (now the director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University) has previously edited an online version of Pretty’s ‘Glossary’ and in 2005 published Diggerspeak: The Language of Australians at War.

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Every author has his prejudices and it is usually best to lay them face-up on the table. Then the reader can track their influence, watching how they structure interpretation and noting any gaps that open up between the data and their construal. In this Douglas Newton is exemplary. No one can read the opening pages of his book and be left in any doubt about his mainstream argument or its target. Candidly, he sets himself against the ‘developing consensus’ of the ‘new hawkish school’, whose members ‘lavish praise’ upon Britain’s choice for war in 1914, reckoning Britain’s belligerency a ‘dire necessity’ or a ‘just war’. ‘At the heart of this book,’ he tells us, ‘is the belief that the war was not irresistible.’ Widening his target to include ‘nationalist historians outside Germany who refuse to find any fantasies, follies, or errors in their own countries’ records’, he counters: ‘Disappointing as it is to the convinced moralists, there is no “one true cause” [of the outbreak of war] to be discovered ... [T]he plague is upon all houses.’ In the light of this last remark, it is no surprise that the now famous author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012), Christopher Clark, gives The Darkest Days a ringing endorsement on its back cover, warmly lauding it as ‘bracingly revisionist’.

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The resurgence of the Anzac legend in the last quarter of the twentieth century took many Australians by surprise. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, it seemed that the rituals of Anzac Day would wither and fade away as the generations who fought the two world wars died. It proved not to be so. ‘Anzac’, to use the common shorthand, now dominates the national memory of war as strongly as it ever did, although it is not the same legend as it was 100 years ago. Many commentators see this ‘return’ of Anzac as a spontaneous upwelling of national sentiment, a natural and appropriate honouring of those who have died in Australia’s defence. Critics, however, discern a more deliberate orchestration of public sentiment by successive governments, which, for a variety of political purposes, have ‘militarised’ Australian history and sidelined other competing narratives of Australia’s development.

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Dangerous Allies by Malcolm Fraser, Cain Roberts

by
June–July 2014, no. 362

Coinciding with the World War I anniversaries, Malcolm Fraser’s book will polarise Australian opinion on a fundamental issue. It has never been raised in this way, for Australian leaders have not discussed decisions to go to war in public, nor sought popular approval of Australia’s alliances. Yet successive generations of young Australians have fought in British ...

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