Like nostalgia, military history ain't what it used to be - thank goodness. These five books suggest that the field has a diversity and value undreamt of when the Australian military historical boom began, arguably thirty years ago, and symbolised by the appearance of Patsy Adam-Smith's The Anzacs. Like Adam-Smith, none of the authors of these books are known as professional or trained military historians, and it often shows. I read their books over the recent summer, in alphabetical order. What might we see in this more or less random selection of amateur or first-time military historians?
Military biography is a strong tradition in Australia, and Andrew Faulkner's Arthur Blackburn, VC continues it admirably. Blackburn, a South Australian lawyer, was awarded a Victoria Cross for a 'deed' in the opening week of the fighting at Pozières in July 1916. In the Second World War he displayed a more sustained courage in commanding 'Blackforce' in Java and in enduring captivity under the Japanese. Faulkner, an Adelaide journalist, has made good use of the abundant sources that heroism generates, and has pretty much resisted the temptation to simply valorise Blackburn in the manner unfortunately traditional among the biographers of VCs.
Faulkner has produced a more substantial biography than most Australian recipients of the Victoria Cross have been accorded. He offers a new study of the ill-fated Java campaign and of the neglected experience of the senior officers held captive in Manchuria. This is a reflection of Faulkner's thoroughness, and his intention to focus on the men Blackburn commanded as much as on him, but also Blackburn's involvement in the broader politics of the state and of its returned men, after two world wars. Despite his unnecessary devotion to frequent and over-long quotations, usually a sign of lack of confidence in an author, Faulkner ought to be encouraged to attempt further work - perhaps a much-needed book on another South Australian VC, 'Diver' Derrick.
Peter Grose is a former literary agent and publisher who consequently has had an easier time than most first-time authors in getting manuscripts accepted by the premier publisher of military history in Australia, Allen & Unwin. His A Very Rude Awakening tells the story of the Japanese submarine raid on warships in Sydney Harbour in 1942. Grose has produced a lively, popular but not entirely uncritical account of the raid and its aftermath. Though consulting archival sources and approaching them analytically, his disinclination to provide references diminishes the value of his contribution. Grose is among the legion of careless researchers who think that there was ever an archive in 'Kew, England' called the 'Public Records Office', one of several sloppy references Allen & Unwin's editors should have spotted.
In one respect, though, Grose has done Australian social historians a particular service. In my Invading Australia, published shortly before Grose's book, I commented how persistent anti-Semitic rumour has represented Jewish Australians as either fleeing in panic or buying up properties going cheap in Sydney's seemingly vulnerable eastern suburbs. These stories, repeated often, 'demand further investigation'. To his credit, Peter Grose has tested the belief. While he concedes that some Sydneysiders decamped to the Blue Mountains, he uses real estate advertisements to show stories of profiteers - Jewish or otherwise - snapping up bargains in the eastern suburbs to be 'the purest claptrap'. Military history can inform a broader social history.
One of the hallmarks of the military history boom in Australia has been the interest in the way war has been remembered and commemorated. Among the works that stimulated the renewed interest in Gallipoli in the mid-1960s were articles by Ken Inglis on 'The Anzac Tradition' in Meanjin Quarterly, to whose inspiration Janice Pavils pays gracious tribute in Anzac Day: The Undying Debt. An interest in the nature and forms of commemoration has been an important part of Australian military-social historiography ever since. It arguably pre-dates the broader European movement toward 'memory studies' that developed in the 1980s. Anzac Day: The Undying Debt, a book based on her 2005 University of Adelaide PhD is the most recent expression of this aspect of Australian military history.
Pavils' book makes a valuable contribution to the literature of the aftermath and memory of war. Its virtue is primarily as a study of Anzac Day and remembrance in South Australia. Though a national commemoration, Anzac Day is expressed through organisations, ceremonies and practices with strong local inflections. Pavils' discussion of the ways South Australians experienced and commemorated the Great War enriches our understanding of the subject. It is, as one would expect, based on detailed and substantial research in the primary sources, but is particularly useful in documenting and explaining the lingering animosities between 'eligibles', 'returned men' and 'shirkers', and how the rituals of Anzac Day became the battleground of nationalists and empire loyalists. Anzac Day offers a useful reminder that the divisions the Great War introduced into Australian society endured long after the war's formal end.
Anzac Day: The Undying Debt is, however, a curious book in parts. Pavils' commitment to the idea of an actual 'undying debt' to war dead makes her seem at times uncritical. Some chapters (especially the discussion of commemoration at Harefield, the location of an Australian hospital in London) seem to have no place in a study devoted to the war's effects on South Australia. (The book's publisher, Lythrum, seems to have an editorial policy of intervening lightly in its authors' work: Pavils could have done with some more firm advice.) A text less freighted with detail would have revealed the undoubted value of her work more fully.
Rodney Gouttman is a notable scholar of Australian-Jewish history. In his biography of the Australian Zionist leader Eliazar Margolin he necessarily ventures into Australian military history. An Anzac Zionist Hero: The Life of Lieutenant-Colonel EliazarMargolin is a better book than its gushy title might suggest. Margolin, born in Tsarist Russia, migrated to Western Australia in 1902. Joining the Militia (and, unusually for a Jewish soldier, achieving a commission) he served on Gallipoli as a captain in the 16th Battalion of the AIF. In 1917 he transferred to the British Army to command the all-Jewish 39th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, inevitably nick-named the 'Jewsiliers', arguably the first Jewish combatant unit formed in two thousand years. After the war Margolin raised a Jewish militia in Palestine - the 'First Jewish Battalion of Judea'. He died in Perth in 1944 but in 1950 his remains were reinterred in a now-independent state of Israel, where he is still revered.
Gouttman faced several handicaps in attempting this project. The first was Margolin's tendency to not document his own life - indeed, Gouttmann's achievement in successfully writing Margolin's 'life and times' despite the dearth of personal sources should be applauded. While superbly equipped to trace the vagaries of Zionist politics in the British empire and the nuances of the social history among Australia's parochial state Jewish communities, Gouttman ought to have sought specialist help in venturing to write what is in part a military biography. (It seems that Gouttman never quite grasped the difference between military organisations - he refers to 'the 4th Brigade of the 16th Battalion', and thinks that Margolin's battalion numbered 5000 men). Margolin's AIF service is documented more fully than Gouttman realised, though I suspect that few military historians know of his standing as a Zionist. He is perhaps not 'missing in action' as much as Gouttman supposes. These minor flaws in An Anzac Zionist Hero do not diminish either Gouttman's achievement or the significance of Margolin's life, but they do suggest that specialists in Australian history (in this case Jewish and military historians) unfortunately continue to dine at separate tables.
For me, Victor Rudenno's Gallipoli: Attack from the Sea spoiled a nice day at the beach. Rudenno, an engineer with philosophical inclinations, gives no indication of why he thought the world needed this book. His methodology was simple: he read the proverbial dozen books and wrote a thirteenth. Rudenno lists a page of primary sources but gives no idea of where he found them, though he is also among that select band of users of the mythical 'Public Records Office', and something he calls the 'Royal Submarine Museum', whatever that is. Prosaic, and persistently factual, it gives us nothing new about the submarine war in the Dardanelles in 1915. I cannot understand what induced Yale University Press and its Australian partner, UNSW Press, to accept it. Surely any reviewer knowing either the Great War at sea or the Gallipoli campaign (or indeed, what makes a good history book) would have advised against acceptance?
Most of these works, however, reflect a diversity of subject, approach, tone, method and interpretation apparent in the broader field of Australian military history, a welcome development from which we may continue to benefit.