Monday, 9 January 2017

A Realist on 'The Crown'

The Crown, Series 1 – irresistible, binge-inducing TV. Full marks are due to the writer, Peter Morgan, for the convincing intellectual component and brilliant dialogue in this gripping series on Netflix, covering the young Queen Elizabeth’s life. Although it is superbly cast, memorably acted, lavishly set and beautifully filmed, his intelligent script made the series.

Its ten episodes have reignited my enormous respect for the Queen. The burden laid on a young woman’s shoulders when the English crown landed on her head was heavy. The way she handled her sudden responsibilities was understandably hesitant at first, but always admirable. The show has generated my enormous sympathy too, for the marital pressure placed on the Queen and her husband when she inherited the monarchy in her early days as a wife and mother. Now that I better understand the indignities suffered by Prince Phillip, he has gone up in my estimation as the loyal supporter of his wife in her role for more than six decades, despite his own high-testosterone nature. In a world obsessed with self-gratification and ‘rights’ rather than responsibilities, The Crown should be mandatory viewing for today’s young people.

Some of my own earliest memories are of the Queen. Perhaps it’s no wonder, as she was the spur for the one-and-only excursion ever organised by my primary school. That was on a hot summer’s day in 1954, when we lined up behind barricades at North Sydney Oval, waving our paper flags. That fleeting  glimpse of the Queen is recalled by Miles Farwell who was present on that day. That 1954 day, imprinted on my memory, came to life again in 1981 when Prince Charles' engagement to Diana Spencer was announced. Because I happened to be working in London at the time, I took my own young daughter to stand with the crowd outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, as a once-in-a-lifetime experience which she still recalls. (The two of us waved no flags, though.)

I remember, too, 5th class in Sydney in 1956, when we kids fearfully looked out the windows of our classroom, waiting for the bombs to start dropping on us, as the Suez crisis took over the news of the day. And I remember the front page stories and newsreel items at the local flicks about poor Princess Margaret and her ill-fated romance with Peter Townsend. After watching The Crown, the Church of England into which I was baptised and later confirmed has lost even more of my once-held affection.

True, there have been moments in the Queen’s long reign when she has looked stern, disapproving and unsmiling in public and she has not been my favourite human being – but never have I doubted the magnificence of her achievement as the archetype of duty, often performed under fire but always with steadfastness, grace and total discretion. This series provides everyone with a useful role model for qualities of character which seem increasingly rare in today’s world.

The contrast with her dutiful approach to the job, no matter the personal price she paid, compared vividly with her uncle David's preference for his personal life with Wallis Simpson. Mind you, when you think about the lack of emotional warmth given to him by his parents it's no wonder he tried to repair the damage of his childhood by seeking love in his adult life, paying the price of a lifelong virtual exile from his homeland and a hankering for his former, brief role as King Edward VIII. The Queen benefitted in childhood from a happy family life with her own parents and had a strong role model, her father, to help her chart her own course as monarch although it came much earlier than anyone expected.

As an Australian, I’ve tended to sit on the fence about the monarchy. It's true, like millions in every country around the world, I love to watch the Royal 'show', all those televised royal spectacles demonstrating how well the British do 'pomp and circumstance'. That does not make me a Royalist. Despite my statements in earlier paragraphs, I don’t describe myself as a 'Monarchist'. I recognise that it is an anachronism to have an English person living on the other side of the world as our official head of state, albeit represented in Australia by an Australian Governor-General.

Yet I don’t describe myself as a 'Republican' either.

I’m a Realist. I simply don’t want to rock the boat of my country’s current constitutional status as I don’t trust the proponents who are keen to change it. The previous cheer-leader Malcolm Turnbull has proved he lacks integrity as our national leader. Current champion of the cause, Peter Fitzsimons of red-bandana fame, lacks intellectual status, gravitas and dignity. Australian Republicans seem unable to give us examples of successful republics overseas, and unable to develop a clearly-articulated template which is well-enough considered and formulated that it can be supported by both sides of politics and the general community.

Even if such a template could be agreed, in our current barren and highly-unstable political climate I don’t trust any government-appointed committee which might be charged with suggesting candidates for the job as an Australian head of state. Who would they pick? Who understands the role and is big enough to perform it? In a world ruled by ‘celebrity’, money and the peddling of power and influence, do we even have a suitable pool of contenders? Other than Dame Marie Bashir who is now too old for the job, I cannot think of anyone in Australian public life who comes near the Queen’s example as a role model and who enjoys the respect and genuine affection of a wide cross-section of the public.

Until such a person can be identified, I prefer the status quo and I don’t mind if it continues through the lives of my grandchildren. Lack of trust is my core problem. Should Prince Charles become our next official head of state when the Queen eventually dies, and then Prince William, and perhaps even Prince George, at least I can trust that they will have been well-trained for the job. My admiration for the Queen has been enhanced by her willingness to learn from her own early married life: she seems to be granting 'space' from many official duties so that her eventual successor, Prince William, can develop strong emotional links with his wife and children while they are young, to help them withstand the pressures which will come later in their lives.

This post began with a tribute to a writer, Peter Morgan, and reminds me of several clichés - that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and the right words can ‘move mountains’. Thank you, Peter Morgan, for presenting a story which made me think about something important and helped me to formulate my own views. The right words can be crucial in shaping community views.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Hume Highway Addiction

Hume Freeway sign, Melbourne
On the road again - in a few minutes. In another life I must have been a long-distance truckie. Answering the call of family, I regularly drive up and down the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Sydney. Ten times last year. Today's journey will be the fifth time so far this year.

Here's that daunting sign as I leave Melbourne's Metropolitan Ring Road and join the Hume, having already driven about 30km from South Melbourne.

I've flown to Sydney a few times in recent months, due to time pressures (e.g. getting to a funeral in time), but flying is such a hassle! Taxi to Skybus, bus to the airport, hanging around the airport, flying, wait-wait-waiting for bags, walking miles to catch the train at Sydney airport, mucking around in ticket queues topping up my Opal, train to Circular Quay, getting to Manly on the ferry, trailing my bag up the hill to my daughter's. From start to finish it generally takes me about 6 hours. By contrast, driving door-to-door can be achieved in 9 1/4 hours (at best) but .... I can listen to music all the way, petrol costs for my small car plus toll charges are vastly cheaper than the air fare and I have my car to use in Sydney.

Yes, all this fits in my small car
And this here's another reason why I often drive rather than fly - I need to transport lots of miscellaneous 'stuff' up and down. This is what came back with me last time! Some of it mine, some for other people.

Most people think the Hume is really boring but it's a great road and I never fail to find something of interest. The beautiful cloud formations and colours in our big skies at various times of day are amazing, especially at twilight and dusk. I don't have any sunset pics of my own (solo drivers can't take shots out the window at 110kph) but here's someone else who lives close to the Hume and loves these skies.

I'd forgotten how dry is the landscape between the two cities until I drove from Melbourne to Port Macquarie and return recently, a distance of 2,500 km. On the Hume you cross three 'major' rivers, the Murray at Albury/Wodonga, the Murrumbidgee at Gundagai and the serpentine course of the Nepean several times near Sydney. All  have big, culturally-significant names ... but small flows, except in rare flood-times. Apart from the signs on the bridges, you scarcely register the presence of these rivers as you hurtle across them at 110kph.

(P.S. After a subsequent trip to Sydney, during a very wet winter, a few extra rivers in Victoria reminded me of their existence - the Goulburn, Broken & Ovens, all of which were overflowing.)

Hastings River at Port Macquarie
North of Sydney it's a different story. The Hawkesbury River and sandstone country give way to the Hunter River and all the majestic rivers and lush valleys north of Newcastle. You barely emerge from one river catchment before the next vista astonishes you. Even the minor rivers and creeks, with names unfamiliar to me, were bountiful. At Port Macquarie, the Hastings River becomes a broad estuary as it reaches the sea. All that water. At the time, it was a beautiful sight for parched eyes.

Water beside Hume Highway, June 2016
Last time I drove to Sydney it was late in June. For a change we've had a wet winter, gumboot weather. The water lying in paddocks alongside the Hume was a view so rare that I even stopped to take a photo. Ten weeks later the farmers are cursing this year's non-stop wet winter.

'Broad Leaf Wattle & Honey Flower', Margaret Flockton
I wonder what I'll see on my journey today. Lots of wattles in bloom, I expect. It's a specutacular sight all along the Hume at this time of year., worthy of tourist promotion. The ocasional gaps in the display need attention by local councils or the Main Roads Dept.

One of the reasons for my trip this time is to give a talk on Thursday at the Stanton Library in Sydney about my forthcoming book on the botanical artist Margaret Flockton. For details of that book, click here. Let me know if you'd like to join the waiting list for the book, due out in November 2016.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Fromelles and Pozières, 1916

Paying Tribute to Fallen Soldiers,
Australian War Memorial, Canberra
We are about to commemorate the Battle of the Somme, that horrendous five month period of 1916 when 1.1 million soldiers were killed or wounded on the Western Front – lives wasted, for no appreciable gain by either side.

My grandmother's two brothers (just) survived this experience, so naturally I was attracted to Peter Fitzsimons' latest publication: 'Fromelles and Pozières: in the Trenches of Hell'. These two battles were the two definitive experiences for Australian troops in 1916 and far exceeded the horrors of 1915's Gallipoli.

On 9 March 2016 at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne the author spoke at length on this topic … without notes, an impressive performance as a feat of memory. He emphasised that his goal with the book was for his team of researchers to find every possible bit of evidence which would show, not tell, what it was like to be in those trenches. My gentlemanly great uncles had often glossed over the ‘showing’ bit in an amazing set of wartime letters they wrote, so I bought a copy of the Fitzsimons book.

For someone looking for more information about an important moment in our history, the book was worth reading although frequently irritating for its over-the-top blokiness. The author tried to give a day by day account of developments, with the Australian war correspondent Charles Bean clearly the author’s personal hero and guiding light. Inclusion of German archival material added interest. It was disappointing that, as usual, the focus was almost exclusively on the exploits and experiences of various infantry units. The overall role of the artillery in that appalling was frequently mentioned but quotes from, and recounting the experiences of, individuals in the artillery units were scarce. The book’s military unit jargon, its relentless blood & gore and the 'rah rah, Aussies' content so beloved of a vehemently-Republican author, became so overwhelming that, when I reached the end of the 689 pages of text, I needed to deconstruct it.

The first 272 pages traverse the first six months of 1916. After the Australian troops were evacuated from Gallipoli (in December 1915) they were regrouped, reinforced and ‘prepared’ for service on the Western Front. Lost within the book’s myriad details is their underlying structure. This is important to understand, as Fitzsimons spends much of the book castigating senior military leaders.  To summarise, Australian forces in 1916 were organised as two armies:
  • 1 Anzac Corps, commanded by the English General Sir William Birdwood, comprising the experienced Gallipoli veterans of the 1st Division (led by Englishman General Harold Walker) and 2nd Division (led by Australian General James Legge).
  • 2 Anzac Corps commanded by another Englishman, General Alexander Godley, comprising the newly-formed 4th Division (led by Englishman Major-General Sir Herbert Cox) and 5th Division (led by Australian Major-General Sir James McCay).
(The Australian Brigadier-General John Monash’s new 3rd Division did not arrive in France until November 1916, long after the battles at Fromelles and Pozières.)

The two Australian armies were under the overall control of British High Command, the infamous British General Sir Douglas Haig and his various underlings. Their gross failures make me glad not to be a descendant of any of them. Too much blood on their hands.

On their arrival in France (from late March 1916 onwards) the Anzac forces were posted to the so-called ‘nursery sector’ near Fromelles in Flanders. Supposedly, not much fighting was happening there; both sides were just holding their lines. Meanwhile, the Battle of the Somme further south was being planned. It commenced on 1 July. Right from the start, it did not go well. Extra troops were needed. The experienced Australians of the 1st and 2nd Divisions and those in the newly-formed 4th Division were moved down to the Somme, leaving the newly-arrived 5th Division to take their place near Fromelles, around 11 July.

The next 230+ pages cover the debacle of 24 hours at Fromelles on 19 & 20 July 1916. Our rookie foot soldiers and artillery gunners had only just arrived in France, yet they were picked to attack crack German troops, well-entrenched for more than a year, intimately familiar with the territory and in an impregnable position. I reached the end of that single day & night battle feeling as angry as the author. The role played by Haig’s underling, the British Lieut-General Sir Richard Haking, in sending the raw recruits of the 5th Division on his ill-judged mission to inevitable slaughter was criminal, even worse than the orders given at Gallipoli. McCay, the Australian in charge of the 5th Division, was equally despicable for not permitting the truce offered by the Germans so that his desperately-injured men could be retrieved from No Man's Land.

Now for the Somme, where Haig's underling General Hubert Gough was calling the shots at Pozières. Frequently I found myself comparing the Fitzsimons account with that of my great uncle Stephen Boulton, whose letters show that Australia’s six week involvement in the Pozières campaign began the day after the Fromelles slaughter. Bombardier Stephen Boulton's artillery unit (within the 21st Field Artillery Brigade of the 1st Division) began bombarding the German troops at Pozières at 10pm on 20 July. The Australian infantry’s brilliant success in capturing the village of Pozières is quietly confirmed when Stephen’s letter of 23 July is headed ‘in a German trench’. Even General Haig admitted 'the capture of Pozières by the Australians would live in history.' (Fitzsimons, p 597.) Stephen and his fellow gunners participated continuously in the greatest artillery barrage of all time until 7 August when the exhausted, deaf and shell-shocked men were briefly rested away from the front line carnage. The three Australian divisions were rotated ‘in the line’, during which time Stephen received a field promotion to Corporal, until Stephen's artillery unit was relieved slightly ahead of the 1st Division's infantry and sent back to Flanders on 27 August for a 'rest'.
Unveiling the Memorial to 1st Division, Pozières, 8 July 1917. Source IWM 02598
 The Australian troops eventually won possession of the Pozières windmill, the highest ground for miles, although it ‘marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth’. (Fitzsimons, p 661, quoting Bean.) One Australian on this battleground accused the British Generals of murder and blamed the extreme level of casualties on ‘the incompetence, callousness and personal vanity of those high in authority’. (Fitzsimons, p 614.) Pozières was a huge strategic win for the Allies in 1916 and I wonder why so few Australians have even heard about this great victory. It seems that we prefer to celebrate our military failures. Even in Fitzsimons’ massive tome the six weeks at Pozières warranted only 150 pages. Perhaps this was because the author and his researchers were mining the voluminous literature published about the 24 hours at Fromelles.

Fitzsimons tries to follow individual soldiers so that we engage with them emotionally but it’s often hard to keep track of so many characters and so many vignettes. My own book about #WW1 (Brothers in Arms: The Great War Letters of Captain Nigel Boulton R.A.M.C. & Lieut Stephen Boulton, A.I.F.) follows only two men through the entire war. It’s less militarily detailed, less bloody, much gentler, and a much shorter first hand account (although more sweeping in its coverage, from August 1914 through to February 1919 and beyond) but equally sad and moving.

In his Epilogue of 30+ pages, Fitzsimons reviews the fate of various officers and men featured in the story. Needless to say, most of the ‘bad guys’ were honoured and most of the ‘good guys’ suffered.

The underlying story woven into 'Fromelles and Pozières: in the Trenches of Hell' is shocking. Whichever way they learn of it, more Australians need to know it – especially the story of our amazing victory at Pozières, against the odds. 

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Sydney's Orgy Myth - 6 February 1788

All writers of history know how hard it is to swim against the tide of a conventional wisdom repeated over and over in a range of books. Once something is committed to the page, people tend to think of it as gospel.

Take for instance, that famous ‘foundation story’ of Sydney – the story of what supposedly happened on the night the female convicts of the First Fleet set foot on the shores of New South Wales, on 6 February 1788. The orgy story.

In its original form it goes like this, thanks to the transcription of pp 94-96 of the journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, on the website of the State Library of New South Wales:
abt. 6 O'Clock p.m. we had the long wish'd for pleasure of seeing the last of them
[Page 95]
leave the Ship -- They were dress'd in general very clean & some few amongst them might be sd. to be well dress'd. The Men Convicts got to them very soon after they landed, & it is beyond my abilities to give a just discription of the Scene of Debauchery & Riot that ensued during the night --
They had not been landed more than an hour before they had all got their Tents pitched or anything in order to receive them, but there came on the most violent storm of thunder, lighteng. & rain I ever saw. The lighteng. was incessant during the whole night & I never heard it rain faster --
Abt. 12 o'Clock in the night one severe flash of Lightg. struck a very large tree in the centre of the Camp under wh. some places were constructed to keep the Sheep & Hogs in: it split the tree from top to bottom; kill'd 5 Sheep belonging to Major Ross & a pig of one of the Lieuts. -- The severity of the Lighteng. this & the 2 preceeding nights leaves no room to doubt but many of the trees wh. appear burnt up to the tops of them were the Effect of Lightening --
The Sailors in our Ship requested to have some Grog to make merry wt. upon the Women quitting the Ship indeed the Capt. himself had no small reason to rejoice upon their being all safely landed &: given into the Care of the Governor, as he was under the penalty of 40£ for every Convict that was missing -- for wh. reason he comply'd wt. the Sailor's request, & abt. the time they began to be elevated, the Tempest came on -- The Scene wh. presented itself at this time & during the greater part of the night, beggars every discription; some swearing, others quarrelling others singing, not in the least regarding the Tempest, tho' so violent
[Page 96]
that the thunder shook the Ship exceeded anything I ever before had a conception of. I never before experienced so uncomfortable a night expectg. every moment the Ship wd. be struck wt. the Lighteng. -- The Sailors almost all drunk & incapable of rendering much assistance had an accident happen'd & the heat was almost suffocating.
It never occurred to me, prior to publishing my book in January 2009, to look further than that quote and the orgy story enlivening the myriad of books already published about the early days of Sydney. Accordingly, this is what I said on page 43 of my book Robert Forrester, First Fleeter. I’m glad I pretty much stuck to the original source and did not embellish it, as most other writers have done:
Within ten days of the arrival of the newcomers, Sydney’s erratic summer weather made its first dramatic statement. A violent electrical storm on Monday 4 February struck a tree and split it down the middle.[1]
Two days later, in the evening of Wednesday 6 February, another of Sydney's violent electrical storms broke. This second storm arrived on the day the women convicts were allowed on shore for the first time. The storm erupted around 7pm, about an hour after the last of the women convicts were disembarked into longboats.[2] The women had left the transports ‘dress’d in general very clean & some few amongst them might be s’d to be well dressed [but the] men convicts got to them very soon after they landed’.[3]
For all intents and purposes, the two sexes had been segregated for months, and as the men pursued the women with but one thought on their minds, the wild storm illuminated a ‘scene of debauchery and riot that ensued during the night’.[4] It was the most violent storm of thunder, lightning and rain ever seen by one informed spectator.[5] About midnight lightning struck another tree in the centre of the camp, splitting it from top to bottom and killing five sheep and a pig housed in a shelter below it.[6]
Recently I had the pleasure of the company of Patricia Kennedy and her husband John at the annual lunch (in Melbourne) of the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies. We don’t meet often as they live on the Central Coast of NSW and I live in Melbourne. But as descendants of First Fleeters, we have plenty to talk about when we are together. While researching her recently-published book ‘Legacy of Andrew Goodwin and Lydia Monro’ she was forced to confront an important question. Was Lydia a prostitute, as the female convicts on the First Fleet are routinely portrayed? Over lunch, Patricia alerted me to a startling idea – the orgy story is not true.

Trying to understand Lydia, Patricia delved deeply into this orgy story, about which she subsequently wrote (but has not published) a paper entitled ‘Fact or Fiction’. She referred me to the work of historian Grace Karskens (recently published online as The Myth of Sydney’s Foundational Orgy’), who says that the orgy myth was demolished years ago by historian Marian Quartly, the independent thinker from Monash University in Melbourne. When so many officers and men on the First Fleet kept journals, from Governor Arthur Phillip down to John Easty, a seaman on the Scarborough, Marian wondered why only one of them ever thought to mention such a dramatic and salacious event as an orgy. That single diarist was the surgeon responsible for the welfare of the female convicts, Arthur Bowes Smyth, who spent the night of 6 February 1788 aboard the Lady Penrhyn.

Patricia informed me that this ship was not moored in Sydney Cove but well out in the harbour, so the surgeon could not possibly have been an eye witness. His journal entry attests to swearing, quarrelling and singing aboard his ship, but not to any sounds from the shore. No women screaming. (Although such a violent storm might have frightened anyone into screaming. ) Likewise, the surgeon made no reference to drunken convicts  - because they were not drunk - they were not issued with any alcohol until June 1788, as a special treat to celebrate the King’s birthday. It was the sailors aboard his ship who were drunk.

Sigh. I try to be accurate in what I write. This small section of my Forrester book (get your copy here) will now need to be amended, should I ever produce a second edition. Thank you, Patricia Kennedy, for being an interesting and enlightening lunch companion.





[1] Easty, First Fleet Journal, p 95
[2] Smyth, Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, p 67
[3] Ibid, p 67
[4] Ibid, p 67
[5] Ibid, p 67
[6] Ibid, p 67

Monday, 30 May 2016

Fears, then Tears

Plenty of people engaged in family history take themselves very seriously, and we tune out ... or our eyes glaze over.

But real-life tragedy abounds in the ‘birth, death and marriage’ scene.

Some years ago I sat beside an attractive young woman in her early twenties who was trying to operate a microfiche reader in the State Library of Victoria. She was very agitated, and constantly slid the reader tray in, out and roundabout, so I asked if I could help. She replied ‘I can’t remember the order of the alphabet.’

Astonished, I asked for the name she was trying to find, and then noted she was searching the Inquests.  I found the surname instantly, and saw the verdict. ‘Oh’, I said, ‘Murder!’ 

She waved a photocopy of an old newspaper article at me. ‘My sister. My mother murdered her.’ Around us, everyone’s ears pricked up.  Her voice broke. ‘Until a few minutes ago I didn’t know I ever had a sister.’ She was shaking uncontrollably. 

Concerned, I said ‘Would you like to come outside with me and have a cup of tea?’

We went to a nearby café. She talked. She cried. She’d been adopted but had some contact with her birth mother’s family. She’d always suspected something major was being hidden from her but she’d never been game enough to try and find out what it was. She’d recently inherited an old house in a desirable inner-urban suburb, the gift of a kind uncle, and didn’t understand why. Pressure was being applied by greedy family members who wanted a share of her windfall.

Today she’d summoned up the courage to come to the Library and ask the staff to help her find newspapers from around the time she was born. The duty librarian found the confronting details of her background  – her pregnant drug-addicted mother had killed her toddler sister. As a newborn she herself had endured drug withdrawal symptoms and she was removed from her mother’s ‘care’ by the authorities.

I struggled to reduce her anxieties. ‘Am I going to turn out like my mother? I was born a drug addict.’ She sobbed again. ‘The worst part is the knowledge that I once had a sister. A sister. I’ve always wanted a sister.’ And so it went. I sat listening and talking with her for a long time, advised her to seek counselling and advised her not to sign any documents in her distraught state and never without independent advice.

I saw her onto the tram, on her way home to her boyfriend, returned to the Library and approached the librarian who’d found this sensitive material for her and handed it over so matter-of-factly. ‘Didn’t you see how distressed she was when you found that article?’ 

‘Oh’, tossed off the librarian, ‘the things people find out here, we really need to employ a full-time counsellor.’

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Why Doesn't She Leave?

Domestic violence. Not a topic I usually cover, but dear to my heart.

There was a vigil in Melbourne last night, and in other Australian cities, as family members and others recalled the hundreds of women and children who have lost their lives to violence in the home.

It so happens that I've just finished reading 'Why Doesn't She Leave?' by Marion Hosking. Everyone should read this powerful book which describes the establishment of a 'safe house' at Taree and explains the psychology behind this type of violence. My cousin's partner Leonie McGuire features strongly in the book, being a former manager of 'Lyn's Place' at Taree, the Manning District Emergency Accommodation centre for women & children who are victims of domestic violence.

I was shocked to read that this essential, highly successful and effective service at Taree has been closed down, in effect, by the NSW Government. Read all about the circumstances here. Rosie Batty, eat your heart out. As Hosking's book says, as a society we do more to protect our animals from cruelty than we do to protect women & children.

What is wrong with our governments? Constant churning and disruption, akin to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, does not solve pressing community problems. Services like 'Lyn's Place' were a shining example, a role model, with the blueprint all laid out. As the Mortein ads used to say, 'when you're on a good thing, stick to it.'

Hopefully more politicians, their minders & advisers and top public servants everywhere will take note of the state government's actions in Victoria, where the current Premier and Police Commissioner are finally 'doing something' constructive about domestic violence. In many more ways than this, Victoria is definitely 'The Place to Be' in Australia right now.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Did you know Germany nearly won the First World War?

Sometimes we can't see the wood for the trees. When we Australians commemorate ANZAC Day each 25 April, that's often how I feel. The big picture, 'macro' story can be lost within the mire of various platitudes and 'micro' commentary.

Craving to understand more of the big picture, I was very interested in the latest issue of the Sydney Review of Books, featuring Greg Lockhart’s article Gallipoli Reckoning. It examines two books about Gallipoli, books whose authors were driven by ‘the strong impulse to follow primary evidence and build their subjects from the bottom up’.  This was music to my ears. It’s how I like to work too. Last week, in Churchill’s Silver Bullet, Lockhart reviewed a book using primary resources, rather than conventional wisdom and self-serving books, to examine how the disastrous Gallipoli decisions were made in England, decisions which ultimately led to what Lockhart describes as the ‘heroism in defeat’ narrative in Australia.

Weblinks this year led me to last year's offering, under the heading Imperial Romance,  Greg Lockhart reviewed two other ‘war’ books and argued that ‘Australian histories of the Great War are generally part of an imperial romance that floats free from any workable Australian national framework’. 

Stephen & Nigel Boulton - Brothers in Arms
After reading Lockhart’s commentary on the general shortcomings of WW1 military history books, I felt greatly relieved that my own recent book on this topic offers the reader almost entirely a primary resource document. It cites Bean’s Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18 only once – in a quote on pp 339-340 covering specific events at the end of March 1918.

Should I confess that I was largely ignorant of Australia’s overall role in WW1 when I sat down to ‘do something’ with the Great War letters written by my Boulton grandmother’s two brothers? The letters were saved by their recipient, my great grandmother, who had them typed in the 1920s. She presented a typed copy to the Australian War Memorial. The originals were immediately requested and they have been preserved in Canberra ever since.

It was those Boulton letters which taught me the history of that appalling war. They offer a wonderful primary resource for the times, largely free of today’s interpretations. Some may be disappointed that my book simply orders the letters, introduces them where necessary and ‘presents the story’. But women readers of my book, in particular, have responded well to this approach because it’s a narrative account of that war, personalised, with intelligent characters whose lives the readers can follow.

I was limited by space, time deadlines and publishing costs from delving much further into the military, political and social history beyond what is revealed within the text of these letters.  The book would have been too long. Thus, the several hundred letters are offered up as an original source for professional historians and general readers who are invited to draw their own conclusions.

Here follow several of mine.

The letters cover the whole war, including the Gallipoli campaign, but do not support the view that the events of 25 April 1915 saw the birth of Australian ‘nationhood’. As Lockhart points out, this happened in the lead up to Federation in 1901, and afterwards too. A sense of nationhood saw the establishment of citizen military forces from 1901 and the building of our own naval fleet, which sailed proudly into Sydney Harbour in 1913.

Nor was Gallipoli the initial generator of Australian ‘mateship’, as we hear so often on ANZAC Day. I'm glad that this claim is morphing into something I can support - that it's the (existing) quality of Australian mateship which helped us survive adversity at Gallipoli and in later battlefronts. My own three books about early convict settlers (listed below) show that Australian mateship dates from 1788 and the convict era. Mateship was an outcome of the long journeys on the transport ships and the ensuing years of struggling to survive physically and psychologically in a land of flood, fire and drought. From 1794 the Hawkesbury district, food bowl for the colony, saw numerous examples of mateship: local residents helped each other with food, shelter & labour and more distant residents donated money following the numerous floods which devastated that district over the next 25 years.

By 1820, community self-help was well-established in Australia. And, as free settlers flooded in after the Napoleonic wars ended, mateship became well-entrenched among the lower echelons of Australian society, the emancipist convicts. I have no doubt that close analysis would prove that a good proportion of the physically tough, stoic, bravely reckless, laconic, larrikin survivors we laud on ANZAC Day could trace their roots and their attitudes back to convict forebears.

The Boulton letters support the argument that it was our ‘self-identity’ as Australians that was forged during the Great War, a process which began at Gallipoli and intensified on the Western Front. The Boulton brothers, born in Australia of English parents, were clearly ambivalent about their own national identity at the start of the war. As Nigel wrote on 19 Sep 1914, ‘How glorious it is to feel one is a Britisher at a time like this. What a wonderful country England is, and what a wonderful nation. I quite agree with you. Mum, I thank God I was born of English parents every time I think of it.’

Over the next four years the brothers rubbed shoulders with men and women from other states; they compared the performance of Australian soldiers against those from other countries; they observed living conditions and cultures in many other countries. They began to feel proud of the strengths of their own countrymen and to think of Australia as ‘home’.  They became Australians, in their minds, as part of a gradual process.

Western Front, 1918. © John Newland, 2015
The other insight I gained from compiling this book was also significant. And it’s something we rarely, if ever, hear in Australia, obsessed as we are with the Gallipoli story. I discovered that in the spring of 1918 Germany's 'Spring Offensive' made a Big Push forward and Germany nearly won the Great War. The map shows how far the German front line extended into France at this time.

The Boulton letters taught me a huge history lesson, that it was the Australians who played a major part in our side ‘winning’ in the end. I learned about the role of the Australian First Division near Hazebrouck in stopping Germany’s spring advance on the crucial Channel ports, then holding and ‘shoving back’ that front line through the summer of 1918.  Down in the Somme valley, on ANZAC Day in 1918, other Australian soldiers recaptured the crucial high ground at Villers-Bretonneux. In the late summer and autumn of 1918, with Monash at last in charge of all the Australian Divisions as a combined force, the Australian strategy turned the German advance into a rout in the Somme Valley, pushing them back well beyond St Quentin, Negotiations for the Armistice began.

I ssk myself, was this 'victory' story I extracted from the Boulton brothers’ letters true? If so, why don’t we hear more of this story in Australia? Why are we so scared to claim credit for part of the big picture narrative of the Great War on the Western Front? Instead, we dwell on the successes and more often the failures of individual battles. We continue to seek glory in defeat. This year I expect we’ll hear much more about how many men we lost in 1916 (huge numbers in the costly disaster at Fromelles in July and in the brilliant victory at Pozières in July & August) than we'll hear about what these battles meant, strategically.

Recently I attended an event at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. It was a large crowd and everyone I spoke to had made a pilgrimage to the war memorials on the Western Front. Many of my personal friends have too. But the impact made on them focused on the terrain and the futile loss of life on individual battlefields, demonstrated so starkly by the endless rows of war graves. When I get to visit the Western Front region, it will mean much more than that to me. The Boulton letters have jolted me into an understanding of the overall significance of the role played by Australians on the Western Front, one hundred years ago.

Footnote: My three books about early convict settlers are 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter' (2009), 'Paul Bushell, Second Fleeter' (2010) and 'Southwark Luck; the Story of Charles Homer Martin, Ann Forrester and their Children' (2012), with details listed on my website.