Military History

Geoffrey Blainey reviews 'Gallipoli' by Robin Prior

Geoffrey Blainey
Tuesday, 29 September 2020

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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As with many authors, Covid-19 forced Catherine Bond to cancel the launch event for her new book. But unlike most authors’ work, the contemporary relevance of Bond’s latest book has been considerably heightened by the ongoing pandemic. Indeed, in the midst of this crisis it is hard to imagine a historical text timelier than Law in War: Freedom and restriction in Australia during the Great War. A century later, lessons from that era are still instructive today.

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In its long war in Afghanistan, Australia lost forty-one soldiers. These deaths were felt keenly, and usually the prime minister, other senior politicians, and army chiefs attended the funerals. In addition, more than 260 soldiers were wounded. Service in Afghanistan was trying and demanding. Yet, while Special Forces units were constantly rotated through numerous deployments, at any particular time fewer than 2,000 Australian soldiers were serving in Afghanistan. ... (read more)

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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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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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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The centenary of World War I offered a significant opportunity to reflect on the experience and legacy of one of the world’s most devastating conflicts. In Australia such reflection was, on the whole, disappointingly one-dimensional: a four-year nationalistic and sanitised ‘memory orgy’ (to use Joan Beaumont’s wonderful phrase). It did, however, galvanise historians to produce important new studies of the war and to tackle long-standing questions about Australians’ attachment to Anzac. Many of those historians, established and early career, feature in The Great War: Aftermath and commemoration.

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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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First, a quibble. In the first paragraph of his introduction, John Connor writes that few Australians could ‘name a significant figure of the Australian Army’, John Monash and Simpson (and his donkey) aside. I am less sure. A generation after his death, Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop remains a familiar name. Two of the past three governors-general, including the incu ...

The recent scandal over Facebook’s censorship of Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of ‘Napalm girl’, Kim Phuc, offers a salutary reminder of photography’s stubborn ...

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