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THE GREAT WAR

Author: Les Carlyon

Reviewed By David Wilkins


It was a “very warm corner”.

Highly respected journalist and modern-day populist historian, Les Carlyon, utilizes common digger jargon such as this to help capture the atmosphere of the time. The time of these particular words was during March-April 1918 when the Allies were being pressed by the biggest German counter offensive of the Great War. The understated phrase meant that it was a place where you’re likely to be killed.

Book Cover: The Great WarA generation of young, fit and vibrant Australian men were then lost and now lie buried beneath the fields of France and Flanders, yet Western Front battles such as Fromelles, Mont St Quentin and Messines are not remembered in the same way as Gallipoli’s Anzac Cove. Les Carlyon goes a long way to rectifying this with a very clear, readable and authoritative history, “The Great War”, about Aussie diggers on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918. The title is a misnomer however, as there were other campaigns in the war not dealt with in this book. It is actually a sequel to his compelling book “Gallipoli”.

A somewhat daunting tome of 863 pages confronts the reader but fortunately Carlyon’s extraordinary account of the diggers is both interesting and engrossing. Whilst it is essentially an Australian history, it is extremely well balanced with global, political, strategic, and above all, unit and individual perspectives. The author personalizes the last of these by graphically employing personal diaries and letters to breathe life into the soldiers’ battles from that dreadful campaign of 90 years ago.

Carlyon says: "Soldiers' letters touch you in a way that official documents do not. They drag you in when you are trying to stand back. You follow a man to Egypt and Gallipoli and on to Pozières and Passchendaele. You gain a sense of him, of where he came from and of the people to whom he is writing. You come to like him, his rough sense of humour and his acceptance of outrageous events. And then his letters end and you look him up on a file and it says 'Killed in action', followed by a date and you feel a loss."

Very often Carlyon has also stood at their graves.

Australia's population was fewer than five million. More than 420,000 men volunteered; 324,000 went overseas; 61,000 were killed; 155,000 were wounded. The author puts faces to the names, names to the statistics and often flesh on lost bones.

Through meticulous research and Carlyon’s analytical eyes the reader becomes acquainted with, and is given a balanced view of, major personalities such as the commander-in-chief of British and dominion forces, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the Australian commander, General Monash, and our Prime minister, Billy Hughes (who twice tried unsuccessfully to introduce conscription), as well as Australian individuals who were decorated for bravery, and those who died with little recognition, some with a simple tombstone, some without. The author closely examines leaders like Australian Brigadier Pompey Elliott and British General Herbert Plummer who learnt to properly use mass artillery fire.

In the final months of the Allied counter-offensive from May to September 1918, commencing at Villers-Bretonneux, the Australians liberated more than 100 French villages and took over 29,000 German prisoners. This was stuff of greatness. They had fought 39 German Divisions and wiped out all but a few. As the Allies pushed rapidly forward towards victory, the Brit commander of the 4th Army, General Rawlinson, reported to Field Marshall Haig that captured German officers were saying their men no longer wanted to face Australians.

It became clear that the Australians had fighting instincts but not soldierly ones. “The Australians must have confused Haig. They had offended his ideas of soldierly behaviour since he first saw them ... yet he now had to concede that these same men, along with the Canadians and New Zealanders, were the best shock troops he had.”

These were our ancestors and as you read, it makes you proud to be Australian.

 

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