BOOKS: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
THE GREAT WAR, by Les Carlyon
, March 17, 2007
With the eye of pityTHE GREAT WAR
by Les Carlyon
(Pan Macmillan Australia)
Hardback: 880 pages
Rec. price: $55.00The three main theatres in which Australians served during World War I were Gallipoli, the Western Front and Palestine. Having written about the first two, Carlyon must now feel the pressure to tackle the third to create a trilogy. I certainly hope that he does. Anything as good as Gallipoli and The Great War would be a magnificent read.
Australian troops served at Gallipoli during 1915. After the failure of that campaign, they were transferred to France, where they went into action in July 1916, just after the commencement of the months-long Somme offensive.
All Australians have heard of Gallipoli. It has become a legend, a fetish and a place of pilgrimage. Few have heard of the Australians' actions on the Western Front 1916-18. Fromelles, Pozières, Bullecourt, Messines, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Passchendaele, Hamel, Amiens and Mont St Quentin might as well be Jupiter, Atlantis, Narnia and Gotham City for all most of us know.
And yet these were the scenes where the majority of the most heroic actions by Australian troops during World War I took place. Five Australian divisions served on the Western Front. A division consisted of 12,000 soldiers, but because of lack of reinforcements (due in turn to the failed conscription referenda of 1916-17), Australian divisions and their constituent brigades and battalions gradually shrank in size. The other reason for their ongoing diminution was their overuse in assault roles. By the end of the war, an Australian battalion could contain 300 instead of its theoretical 1,000 men.
Australia lost 60,000 killed in WWI out of a population of 5 million, compared with half that number in WWII when her population had grown to 7 million. Of that 60,000, about two thirds were lost in France and Belgium.
One of the most difficult mysteries for us to grasp today, nearly a century later, is why these mostly young men (some enlisted at 15, but one in his sixties) continued to fight. We can understand them joining up in a flush of patriotic enthusiasm, but how did they keep going? They lived in mud, and some drowned in it. They endured prolonged artillery bombardments in open trenches. They saw their mates blown to pieces or buried alive. They were mown down charging over open ground into massed machine-gun fire. They were strung up on barbed wire. They were cut in half, decapitated, disembowelled. They lost limbs, jaws, eyes. They were asphyxiated from gas-filled lungs, and turned strange colours.Australian mutiny
Part of the French army mutinied, for which a number were shot pour encourager les autres
. The Australian army did not use capital punishment, and its only "strike", amicably settled, was over the disbandment of some battalions. Carlyon calls it "a very Australian mutiny".
Perhaps this episode explains our mystery. At one level, the Australians fought for "God, King and Country", as countless memorial boards in schools and churches used to proclaim. At base, however, they stuck at the job out of loyalty to their comrades and the honour of their immediate "family" (as Carlyon terms it), the battalion.
That doesn't mean that there were no good "big picture" reasons for fighting. Carlyon clearly sets out the moral and pragmatic justifications, such as the undesirability of the domination of Europe by illiberal Prussian militarism, and the threat to Australia's vital economic sea-links to Britain. The problem is that these casus belli
just seem comparatively feeble to an Australia which later sacrificed far fewer lives opposing far darker forces, such as Nazism and communism.
Carlyon navigates masterfully between two contemporary perils: the Scylla of raucous, ignorant jingoism, and the Charybdis of dishonest "black armband" revisionism.
On the one hand, he humbly and admiringly describes the brilliant military achievements of the first AIF, ranging from platoon exploits such as the capture of 47 machine-guns and a "bag" of prisoners at Montbrehain, up to divisional and corps triumphs such as Mont St Quentin.
These accounts include portraits of individuals who won decorations such as the Military Medal, Military Cross and Victoria Cross. Nearly all were ex-civilians - farmers, teachers, labourers, accountants. Most officers were former civilians, too, and many were promoted from the ranks; there was little of the tension over "temporary gentlemen" that troubled the British Army. (Ideological jibes that "a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at each end" notwithstanding, the wealthier and better-educated suffered disproportionately in WWI, largely because of the attrition of young subalterns).
On the other hand, Carlyon does not whitewash the fact that Australian soldiers sometimes wept, collapsed, surrendered, ran away, deserted or gave themselves self-inflicted wounds. Even the legendary Albert Jacka finished up with his nervous system devastated by shell-shock. They also got drunk, vandalised abandoned French homes, robbed prisoners, and on occasion deliberately shot groups of Germans who had laid down their arms.
Unofficial atrocities are, unfortunately, an inevitable feature of war - which is to say, of human nature itself - and they have been repeated by Australians in subsequent conflicts, witness the killing of Japanese prisoners in WWII. They provide legitimate ammunition for pacifists, but not for opponents of particular wars.
Carlyon is also mercifully free of that insecure, adolescent compulsion to denigrate Australia's allies, or putative rivals, in the interest of boosting the Aussies. He is generous in his commendation of British, French, Canadian, New Zealand and American achievements, and sparing and specific in his criticisms. He is quite prepared to suggest that the Canadian commander-in-chief, the real estate agent Currie, was possibly an even greater leader than the Australian corps commander, the lawyer and engineer Monash.
While scathing, when necessary, in his denunciations of faults in the British High Command (particularly those of Haig and Gough), he does not fall for the simplistic "lions led by donkeys" scenario so dear to some nationalist commentators, according to which the lives of heroic, egalitarian Australians were squandered by stupid, callous, monocled British aristocrats.
One of the reasons for the power of Carlyon's writing is his effortless interweaving of disparate elements: discussion of politico-military strategy in London, and a company delousing behind the lines; the domestic circle at home in Gundagai or Hawthorn, and the son in the trench on the other side of the world; the explosions, shrieks, mud, barbed wire and dismembered bodies then, and the birds, trees, fields, flowers and dreaming war cemeteries today.
While making the experience of Australian military units and individuals central to his account, Carlyon handles the support cast of his drama in a confident and nuanced manner. These include Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes and Australian correspondents Charles Bean and Keith Murdoch. Also on the bill are the British and French Prime Ministers Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau; eventual generalissimo Ferdinand Foch; and German warlords Ludendorff and Hindenberg.
Despite its 850 pages, there are odd lacunae in the book. This was an era in which nearly all Australians possessed some sort of conscious religious (which in those days meant Christian) knowledge and allegiance, but while there are a few references to the contemporary Catholic-Protestant sectarian tensions in Australian culture and politics, there is no discussion of the more personal and urgent spiritual responses to this unprecedented experience.
How did soldiers deal with the constant loss of comrades and their own imminent demise? What role did chaplains play, at and behind the front? What about formal religious observances, such as church parades? To what extent did the evil and suffering of the war constitute a challenge to faith?
The men of the Australian military forces played a numerically small, but vital and honourable role in the victories of the Western Front, such as the famous "black day of the German army" (Ludendorff's words) on August 8, 1918.Duty
It would be easy to celebrate them as invincible superheroes. Instead, Carlyon humanises them. Some were plodding nonentities who had greatness thrust upon them by their very participation in the war. Some - such as that egregious mixture of bombast, tenderness and courage which no novelist would dare invent, Brigadier Pompey Elliott - suddenly discovered their métier. Most did their duty, some brilliantly. Some failed. All suffered.The Great War
surveys them all with "the eye of pity". This expression was debased by that Leninist and moral mountebank Manning Clark, but it is entirely appropriate in describing Carlyon's wonderful rebuke to our national amnesia. He does not strain to be didactic, polemical, sentimental or manipulative. This is a work of effortless instruction and controlled passion, written by a master of his craft.