THE GREAT WAR
By David Wilkins
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.
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
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
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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