December 2012 – January 2013


Lest We Inflate

By Mark McKenna
Image from ‘The Last Diggers’ by Ross Coulthart. Courtesy of HarperCollins.
Image from ‘The Last Diggers’ by Ross Coulthart. Courtesy of HarperCollins.
Why do Australians lust for heroic war stories?

It began in the mid to late 1990s and erupted in the wake of September 11. Walk into any bookstore and dozens of war histories jostle for attention. The array of titles includes everything from the staple diet of Nazi atrocities to the epic battles of the world wars and the story of Australia’s greatest war horse: ‘Bill the Bastard’.

The surge in popularity of military history is an international phenomenon, just one by-product of the postwar boom in the commemoration and memorialisation of war. Despite the quagmire in Afghanistan, in the West we live not so much in a time of war as a time of remembering war. In Australia this takes on a particular inflection – almost every book that deals with our engagement in war, either explicitly or as a point of comparison, refers to one military campaign: the landing of Australian troops on 25 April 1915 at Gallipoli. Over the last decade or more, the ‘Anzac legend’ has become so ubiquitous, so all-consuming and so sacrosanct that we seem unaware of the unique qualities we have bestowed upon it. No other nation has established its founding moment 15,000 kilometres away from its own soil.

In the past decade alone, more than 150 books have been published bearing the words ‘Anzac’ or ‘Gallipoli’ in their titles. If other military histories, government publications and community and self-published titles are included, the figure easily climbs to several hundred. Few of these books endure. As the centenary of the Gallipoli Anzac landings and World War I approaches, each round of new publications will quickly be supplanted by yet another wave of war histories. Keenly aware of the impending deluge, publishers try desperately to stake out a niche for their authors. Invariably, each new book claims to tell the story of “lost” or “forgotten” diggers, stories that have “slipped through the cracks of history”. Despite the publication of so much Anzac history, readers are encouraged to believe that the stories of Gallipoli remain “untold”. Such is the mythical status of the Anzac sagas: stories so well known and infinite, that we are urged to hear them with each telling as if for the first time.

Among publishers and historians, explanations for the popularity of military history vary. Some, like Phillipa McGuinness, the director of NewSouth Publishing, point to the gamut in quality as well as the enormous diversity of the genre, “everything from popular books about Bletchley Park, to books about aircraft carriers aimed at so-called rivet counters, to cartographic books of battles aimed at obsessives – it’s a hyperactive field”. Historian Marilyn Lake has noted how in Australia many books have been published courtesy of generous subsidies from the Army History Unit of the Department of Defence, the Australian War Memorial, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the RSL. Concerned that the “avalanche of military history is suffocating our intellectual life and stultifying the possibilities for knowing the richness of our past”, Lake has a succinct explanation for the popularity of Australian military history: “It is intensely familial, nationalist and internationalist history at once. It connects people with their family and nation at the emotional level, while it also gives them the pleasure of travel overseas to explore foreign, often exotic lands.”

As the desks of literary editors continue to be inundated with reams of military history, the most recent batch offers some insight into the genre’s proliferation. Two of the most prolific authors in Australia, Fairfax journalist Peter FitzSimons and the Australia correspondent for London’s Sunday Times, Paul Ham, have just released their latest tomes (Eureka and Sandakan respectively). Close on their heels is Ross Coulthart’s exceptional photographic collection, The Lost Diggers.

FitzSimons, “Australia’s biggest-selling nonfiction author of the last ten years”, is the author of a string of bestsellers including Kokoda (2004), Tobruk (2006), Batavia (2011) and Mawson (also 2011).

Since 2000, together with fellow journalists Les Carlyon, Roland Perry and Ham, FitzSimons has been riding the new wave of popular military history. Internationally, the trend is mirrored in the millions of sales of Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad (1998), Berlin (2002) and D Day (2009). As academic historians have retreated from traditional military history, journalists and freelance historians have stepped in to feed a booming market for books that reveal the strategic contests behind key military battles and lay bare the carnage and human suffering of war.

Backed by a team of astute researchers and editors, FitzSimons is a well-oiled publishing machine, averaging almost a book a year. The brand is well established; as Manning Clark wore his Stetson, so FitzSimons, the Cheshire-grinning republican nationalist (“and proud of it!”), dons his red bandanna. It comes as no surprise that the subtitle of Eureka is “the unfinished revolution”.

FitzSimons’ connection with the gold diggers’ rebellion began at primary school, where he dressed up as a redcoat in a Eureka re-enactment. Determined to atone for this miscasting, he leaves us in no doubt that he has changed sides. Burning with “passion”, and “poring” over documents in his “obsession” with the story, FitzSimons proclaims his epiphany:


The action! The characters! The fact – and this was perhaps the key – that this was a real Australian story … I felt I was getting to the very foundation stones of what it is to be an Australian – from multiculturalism to mateship, from our broad mistrust of the elites who would seek to rule over us, to our wide embrace of egalitarianism and insistence on a ‘fair go, mate’, to the very use of the word ‘mate’. 


Such is the Fitz style: attention-grabbing (“Oh dear!” “Devastating!”); reliably entertaining and narrative-driven (he ventriloquises primary sources in order to create the effect of a novel); occasionally heavy-handed (exclamation marks and italics abound); conversational in that familiar, blokey manner (“Fare thee well, Raffaello [Carboni]. You were a beaut.”); humorous (he quotes Jerry Seinfeld during his visit to Australia in 2000: “I love your flag – Great Britain at night.”); and entirely unapologetic in his gung-ho nationalism. FitzSimons gives the impression that he would lead the boys over the top if given half a chance, his red bandanna lighting the way for the rebels marching behind him. In his hands, the Eureka rebellion becomes a victory for the ordinary Australian over the English elite: “and when we become a republic – as we surely some day must – what better flag to choose than the Eureka flag? Say it loud. Say it proud. Exactly!”

In nearly all his books (including Eureka, even if it is not strictly military history), this is FitzSimons’ mission: to exalt the Australian spirit and nation, to raise the country from its slumber and through the power of its ‘stories’ of military endeavour and heroic struggle, urge it onwards to republican independence. Yet perhaps it’s precisely the glaring absence of the stirring foundational narrative for which FitzSimons pines that has seen Australia embrace blood sacrifice in an imperial war as the bedrock of its national consciousness.

Unlike FitzSimons, who insists that he is not one, Paul Ham describes himself as an “Australian historian”. He opens his “untold story” of the Sandakan prison camp and death marches of British and Australian troops in Borneo (1942–45) with a personal letter to the Emperor of Japan, Akihito, demanding an apology for Japanese war crimes. Ham’s epistle is eloquent and slightly portentous.


No apology can alleviate the terrible losses suffered by thousands of families. But it can atone for Japan’s silence and obfuscation … And your words – coming from the highest moral authority in Japan – would bring our two countries a step closer to that most elusive quality in the affairs of people, mutual understanding, which is surely the beginning of true forgiveness and friendship. 


Cynics would see this as nothing more than grandstanding. For any historian wedded to professional standards of objectivity, this is a highly unusual step to take. And it raises important questions: Is Ham a historian or is he directing the prosecution at a war crimes tribunal? Is Sandakan an attempt to understand the full historical context of what occurred in Borneo or is it more concerned with documenting the graphic details of Japanese brutality and collecting ‘a body of evidence’ for which the Japanese must atone? If the answer is the former, and reading Sandakan it undoubtedly is, why should Ham need to play both historian and self-appointed spokesperson for the Australian people?

Ham is, in fact, a fine historian. Sandakan makes a compelling contribution to our understanding of the Pacific War and easily supersedes previous accounts. The book’s appendix contains an “honour roll” of the 1780 Australian and 658 British men who died at Sandakan or on the Sandakan–Ranau death marches, together with a list of all “Borneo natives” who helped the prisoners. While Ham is certainly interested in questions of historical interpretation and analysis, he often manages to curtail these reflections into brief asides. At all times, his eye is on the story of the men’s ordeal, which he fleshes out to 550 pages, a remarkable feat given the paucity of sources compared to the scale of those that have informed his previous books (Vietnam, Kokoda and Hiroshima Nagasaki). Ham lets the narrative speak for itself. The prose is taut and understated with one exception – his determination to convey the ruthlessness of the Japanese army. No effort is spared in detailing Japanese atrocities – the massacre of 320 staff and patients at Alexandra Hospital in Singapore, the torture, starvation and execution of British and Australian troops that amounted to a policy of “mass extermination” – all of which is told, disconcertingly (at least for this historian) in the present tense. This novelistic technique, one also employed by FitzSimons, may partly explain the extraordinary popularity of both authors’ work.

Rewriting the past in the present tense creates the immediacy and intimacy that all good storytellers strive for. The distance between the past and the present is broken down. History reads like a film script. The reader relives the experience, recoiling in horror at yet another tale of barbarity, rising to applaud the many examples of human courage and ingenuity. Emotional impact is everything; the past is felt before it is understood. Characters speak as if giving testimony, dutifully emerging to play their allotted roles on the stage.

But history is more than storytelling. Its most crucial quality is the deeply read, critical interpretation of the past in its fullest context. For the historian, the past is past. The danger of repackaging it in the present tense is that we risk creating the past in our own image, judging it not by its own standards but by our present-day concerns, as we have airlifted the Anzacs out of their imperial world and recast them as more naive incarnations of our contemporary selves – a group of innocent larrikins who sailed off to the Dardanelles to fight the good fight for “Australian values”.

The public’s insatiable appetite for Anzac history was on full display in 2011 when Channel Seven’s Sunday Night public-affairs program featured photographs of Australian diggers taken in the French village of Vignacourt (130 kilometres north of Paris) during some of the fiercest fighting on the Western Front. Anticipating the response, Seven set up a Facebook page which resulted in thousands of viewers at home and overseas helping to identify many of the soldiers. This online community created the momentum for the publication of Ross Coulthart’s Lost Diggers, which weighs a handsome 3 kilograms and contains an arresting selection from the most important photographic archive of Australian soldiers at war to be discovered in recent times.

As Allied troops returned from the front, only a day’s march to the north-east, they passed by the studio of local photographers Louis and Antoinette Thuillier. For the soldiers, it was an irresistible chance to send a last photograph to their families back home, an image for posterity, perhaps, but also consolation in the event they didn’t make it back themselves.

After a series of chance occurrences (from a discovery in a rubbish tip to an unexpected story in London’s Independent), and with the collaboration of local researchers and delicate family negotiations, thousands of photographic glass plates containing images of Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, British, Indian, American and French soldiers were discovered in the attic of the Thuillier family farmhouse.

The people of Vignacourt have not forgotten the Australian soldiers. When Henriette Crognier placed the first set of images stored in World War II ammunition boxes on her kitchen table before Coulthart and Peter Burness, the senior historian at the Australian War Memorial, she exclaimed proudly: “Pour les Australiens.”

Unlike at Gallipoli, the British banned servicemen from taking cameras to the Western Front, which makes these photographs even more valuable. The Thuilliers’ images, beautifully complemented by Coulthart’s text, are true to the diversity of the soldiers’ lives on the front. We see the VC winners like Joe Maxwell, the deserters, the suicides, the Aboriginal diggers, the mutineers, the limbless soldiers, the shell-shocked, the larrikins holding up bottles of local wine, their wrists adorned with roughly made bracelets cut in the shape of Australia. Others smile as they stand, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, clad in homemade sheepskin vests to protect them against the northern winter. Yet in almost every image, the experience of the Somme is etched into their faces – haunted, exhausted, depressed, devil-may-care or, occasionally, irrepressibly exuberant at being free from the trenches for a few precious days.

Of course, the Thuilliers’ diggers are at play. We see them after a few drinks, boxing, dressed for concerts and parties, or surrounded by the children and women of Vignacourt. The trenches seem far away. Yet as the English poet Edmund Blunden wrote in his memoir of the Somme: “War is not all war and there lies the heart of the monster … he leads the way through the cornfields to the cemetery of all that is best. The best is, indeed, his special prey.”

Some men photographed by the Thuilliers died shortly afterwards. Others still remain to be identified. Coulthart’s Lost Diggers, which shows Australian soldiers who fought in crucial battles at Pozieres, Fromelles and Mont Saint-Quentin, reminds us of the folly of placing so much attention on Gallipoli.

As we peer into the faces of the diggers on the Western Front or Gallipoli, we confront a time when warfare was the ultimate gladiatorial contest. Unlike today, when the enemies of liberal democracies often lurk within our own societies, this was a time when war seemed more straight-forward. There was a line. There were two sides. They charged at one another, fighting desperately to gain even a few metres of ground. It was a special type of hell, one that George Orwell, growing up in England’s militaristic culture, felt he had been prepared for since he was a young boy:


A war in which the guns rise to a frantic orgasm of sound, and at the appointed moment you clamber out of the trench, breaking your nails on the sandbags, and stumble across mud and wire into the machine-gun barrage. 


Contemplating that moment, we stand in awe of our soldiers’ courage. The memory of the enormous loss suffered by a generation of Australians is galvanising. It heightens the intensity of our own existence and the bonds we share with one another. We want to believe that the soldiers died for our freedom, as if they were defending Australia itself. We return again and again to these stories of sacrifice and loss, hoping that within them we will find the true values of our own society, some essential spirit or quality of character that sets us apart from other nations and makes us exceptional in the world. Yet there was nothing unique about the courage of Australian soldiers. Bill Gammage, the historian who did much to draw our attention to the experience of Australian soldiers in World War I, pointed this out in his 1974 classic account, The Broken Years.


I make no claims about the uniqueness of the Australians I describe, or of any Australian soldier: I believe that much of what is written here might apply to New Zealanders or Canadians, and that some of it would be true of soldiers in every army. 


Our popular memory of the Great War has become increasingly ahistorical. Much like Australia Day, Anzac Day has shifted from a day of commemoration to a day of celebration. The imperial nature of the Gallipoli campaign is airbrushed out or simply overlooked. Far more important is the politically led, emotional embrace of a history of melancholy, loss, honour and pride.

The conflicts that we remember, like much of the recent wave of popular military history, focus our attention not on the politics or economics of war but on the character of individual soldiers – on those particular qualities we see as most useful to bind the nation: courage, sacrifice in the course of duty, and ‘mateship’. Popular conceptions of war in Australia have become sanitised. Rather than remembering the horror of war and confronting the Anzacs as killers as well as ‘fallen’ heroes, we prefer to misremember them in order to celebrate Australian values and inflate our own national pride.

In the 1920s, “the white bones of unburied soldiers and the rusting guns” along the shore of Gallipoli were still visible. Thirty years later, when Alan Moorehead visited the Turkish peninsula while writing his seminal history, Gallipoli, published in 1956, the hills were “deserted as ever, and packs of wolves still appear[ed] from time to time”. As for the war cemeteries tended by an old Australian soldier, Major Millington, and a handful of Turkish stonemasons and gardeners, Moorehead observed that “hardly anyone ever visits them”.


Except for occasional organised tours not more than half a dozen visitors arrive from one year’s end to the other. Often for months at a time nothing of any consequence happens, lizards scuttle about the tombstones in the sunshine and time goes by in an endless dream. 


In little over 50 years, we have so dramatically transformed our conception of what happened at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915 that the men who clawed their way up those steep hills would not recognise themselves in the images we have created of them. As the centenary approaches, the chasm between what occurred at Gallipoli and what we remember grows ever wider.

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is an award-winning writer and historian. His most recent book is Return to Uluru.

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