Men at War: Australia, Syria, Java 1940–1942
Hardie Grant Books, $49.99 hb, 643 pp
There is an honoured tradition of battalion histories in Australia, particularly from World War I. The best of them tell us something of the individuals who served Australia well. This book takes battalion histories to an entirely new level. It is the most complete, and the most absorbing, account of a battalion I have ever read.
James Mitchell calls his account of the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion a social history. It is most certainly that. The Melbourne Argus described a Pioneer Battalion for its readers: ‘Pioneers are now specialist troops [in early times] they were used mainly for trench digging … and road building [whereas now] they will really be super-infantry battalions.’
The detail in this book is simply extraordinary. Recruitment, training, and the life of the battalion at camps at Puckapunyal and Balcombe, and at sea on HMT Queen Mary, occupy the first 163 pages of the book. Many battalion historians rush through the creation of the battalion in a few pages, eager to get their men to war.
Is Mitchell’s account of camp life as the battalion forms simply a prelude? Not a bit of it. It is full of fascinating insights into the making of a living human institution. The account is quirky, sometimes humorous, but always thoroughly absorbing. Mitchell asks, ‘How do a thousand strangers become a community?’ He answers this question with a unique focus on the details of many individuals who made up the battalion. Men at War is a book about people.