BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
BACKS TO THE WALL: A larrikin on the Western Front, by G.D. Mitchell with Robert Macklin
, April 28, 2007
Australian heroism rememberedBACKS TO THE WALL:
A larrikin on the Western Front
by G.D. Mitchell with Robert MacklinSydney: Allen & Unwin
Paperback: 352 pages
Rec. price: $29.95While researching Robert Macklin's recent biography of World War I hero Albert Jacka VC (reviewed in News Weekly, February 3, 2007), I came across Backs to the Wall, the account by George Deane Mitchell (1894-1961) of his World War I experiences.
Originally published in 1937, the book has long been out of print. Fortuitously, Mitchell's letters were recently submitted to the Australian War Memorial, and from these Robert Macklin has been able to reconstruct events in Mitchell's life prior to his wartime service in northern France and after the 1918 Armistice.
Mitchell originally enlisted in 1914 and served at Gallipoli in 1915, but spent only three months there before being invalided out due to illness.
He spent most of the following 12 months recuperating, then, in late 1916, embarked for France.Backs to the Wall
commences with Mitchell's arrival in northern France. It goes on to describe his military experience which encompassed some of the most bloody battles of the Great War - battles such as Bullecourt and Dernancourt Siding in which he fought as a member of the 10th Battalion and later the 48th Battalion.
He soon found himself in the front line but, unlike most other Australian soldiers, he did not receive a wound serious enough to remove him from there. Instead, he spent the following two years - apart from short intervals for leave and attending courses - on active service in France.
What strikes the reader almost immediately is the sheer horror of the trench warfare. Injury was sudden and unpredictable, with men often suffering slow deaths in acute agony.
Furthermore, they had to endure rats, lice and other privations such as a lack of food and sleep, and they lived in constant fear of being killed or maimed.
Interestingly, while many other accounts by World War I veterans dwell on mateship and comradeship, Mitchell makes only passing reference to fellow soldiers and officers. It was undoubtedly true that having comrades was necessary for one's survival; but, what with so many soldiers being killed or invalided from active service, circumstances were scarcely favourable to developing and maintaining friendships.
What particularly stands out is the sheer bravery of Mitchell and his fellow-soldiers in enduring these terrible conditions.
Although war-weary, they recognised, for example, the urgency of the fight and the imperative not to waver when the German advance of March/April 1918 came so close to defeating the Allies.
This was indeed the pivotal moment when the Allied armies, had (as General Douglas Haig famously put it) their “backs to the wall” - hence the title of this book.
Macklin thus pays tribute to the heroism of the 47th Battalion, alongside whom the 48th Battalion fought at Dernancourt in early April 1918. Their resistance prevented the Germans from capturing an important French railway junction, but this was at the cost of the lives of a high percentage of the Australian battalion, including this reviewer's grandmother's cousin.*
This reprint of Backs to the Wall
is well timed to coincide with this year's Anzac Day. It would be of interest to the general public, particularly younger readers who have perhaps little knowledge of the conditions of trench warfare.
* This review is dedicated to the memory of Pte Eric Edward Coxon, killed in action, Dernancourt, France, April 5, 1918.