In defence of Aussies at war

Nanjing Night Net

Prime Minister Robert Menzies talks to Australian troops in the Middle East during his 1941 visit.ANZACS IN THE MIDDLE EAST: AUSTRALIAN SOLDIERS, THEIR ALLIES AND THE LOCAL PEOPLE IN WORLD WAR II. 

By Mark Johnston. Cambridge University Press. 255pp. $59.95.

Like most other Australian wartime prime ministers, Robert Menzies visited his troops in the field – in this case, in Libya in February 1941. He ”traversed their recent battlefields and celebrated their successes with them”, his biographer Allan Martin wrote.

Menzies also spoke to the Australians’ overall commander in Libya, Britain’s General Maitland Wilson. He asked how the Australians had performed.

”They’re troublesome, you know,” the general replied. Menzies was quick with his response: ”I understand the Italians have found them very troublesome.” The general persisted: ”It’s not that,” he said. ”They’re not disciplined, you know.”

It is the aim of this book to explore that and similar perceptions. Mark Johnston has written good solid books on Australians in action in World War II and knows his subject thoroughly. He has written histories of three of the Australian divisions in the war and he tells us that this book is a companion piece to his earlier books, At the Front Line and Fighting the Enemy. Like them, it draws on the letters and diaries of hundreds of soldiers and others who observed the Australians and has a detailed and most personal touch.

The focus is not on battles and strategy but how the Australians engaged with the locals among whom they lived and fought; how they perceived their allies; and how they were perceived by locals and allies alike.

Johnston reveals that he has been thinking about this book for more than 20 years and it shows. There is such a breadth of reading, such a wide range of evidence and one word springs to mind as the reader engages with the book: judicious.

Johnston will not be rushed to judgment; nor will he allow the actions of a few thoughtless, boisterous or unruly Australians to dominate his evidence or opinion.

Johnston tells us that he teaches at Scotch College in Melbourne – in his words, ”one of Australia’s best private schools”. Strangely, it was the image of a school that occurred to me as I was reading this book. I went to school not far from where Johnston teaches and endured long journeys each day. We had it drummed into us by our teachers that we were always on display in our uniforms as we made our journeys. Most of us would have been well-behaved from natural inclination but a few might be a bit rash or over-excited. These few could trash our reputation no matter how good the rest of us were.

Perhaps Johnston tells his boys this on a fairly regular basis for this is the overwhelming theme of the book. As one of his eye-witnesses writes: ”It seems to me most ungenerous as well as silly to seize on the nastiness of a few to belittle the whole.” Johnston is determined to defend the reputation of the Australians and he goes about his task with overwhelming success.

Of course, some Australians, in their letters home, made remarks that would now be described as crudely racist. Of course, some Australians drank to excess and caused trouble. Others visited houses of ill repute even if the ”heads” had put them off-limits. Some of them – too many – contracted resulting infections. This is an army, for goodness sake. But Johnston shows that most men treated most locals generously and personably. They were eager to learn local customs and to see local sights. Johnston makes the important point that the soldiers were appalled by the poverty they witnessed in many of the host societies. But, as they were largely from the working class themselves and had just emerged from the Australian poverty of the Great Depression, their reaction was rarely condemnatory. More usually, the Australians engaged with local poverty with sympathy and understanding.

To explain how their allies viewed their capacities as fighting soldiers, Johnston takes his readers, briefly, into accounts of the fighting in Libya, Greece, Crete, Syria and elsewhere. He has a sure touch and his battle summaries seem to me to be interesting and fair.

Johnston concludes that most of the time most of the Australians fought bravely and with individual initiative. It was this initiative and professionalism that distinguished them from the troops of other countries, occasionally. He explains that every nation will have fighting units that serve somewhat better or somewhat worse than the norm. The conclusions in this book are not remarkable or sensationalist but they are agreeable and fair.

Menzies stuck up for the reputation of his troops, too, and made one of the more sensible points in Mark Johnston’s fine book. He took up the cudgels against General Wilson: ”These men haven’t spent their lives marching round parade grounds. They come from all walks of life and they’ve come over here to do a job and get it over.” Precisely. Or, as another observer put it: ”Their discipline under fire is immense … it does not matter a lot if they shave irregularly and like to go about their duties wearing underpants and no trousers.” Cut them some slack, both these men were saying, and Mark Johnston most strenuously agrees.

Michael McKernan is completing a book on Victoria in the Great War.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.