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Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing about the war between the wars (2)

April 26, 2021

Last week’s post focused on attitudes to writing about the war during the interwar period, particularly in relation to the realism of books like Erich Maria Remarque’s All quiet on the western front. This post continues the discussion, but will share some specific war writing from the article that inspired this series.

But first, a reminder of the main concern expressed about the war novels coming out in the late 1920s to early 1930s. L.S. Avery, former Secretary of State for the Dominions, explains it in his statement that the

fashion of “stench warfare” writing would pass, and the war would take its place as the marvellous effort and an amazing romance in which no part was more amazing that that played by the Australians.

He was proposing the toast of “The Commonwealth of Australia” at a dinner at the Royal Society of St. George, London, in May 1930. I can’t resist digressing to a description of the dinner, which:

was reminiscent of old times. The roast beef of Old England was borne around the room, preceded by the crimson cross of St George, and heralded by the roll of drums and the playing of fifes. Only Empire food, including Australian apples, was served.

No wonder they looked to war being presented as a “marvellous effort” and “an amazing romance”, eh?

Recommended war writing

Cyril Longmore, c. 1941. Public Domain from the Australian War Memorial

Now to Non-com’s article on the “AIF in Literature” in Perth’s The Western Mail (30 April 1936).

Who is this Non-com, I wondered? Some googling took me to the State Library of Western Australia photographic database where I discovered that he was Cyril Longmore (1897-1964), of The Western Mail, which, the photo notes said, preferred to use pseudonyms. Of course, I wanted to find out a bit about Cyril Longmore. More googling found the portrait I’ve used here on the Australian War Memorial (AWM) photographic database. Its notes said he’d been “appointed Military Commentator of the Department of Information” in 1941. At this point, I returned to Trove and found an article in Launceston’s Examiner (21 January 1941) about this appointment. He was to replace one Major Jackson who was returning to military service. The Examiner says that Longmore was recommended by C. E. W. Bean (the respected war historian), and that he had served in “the last war with the 44th Battalion and attained the rank of captain”. Post-war, it says, he “has been actively connected with Australian journalism and has written extensively on military subjects, of which he is a close student”. 

So, not only did I find out who Non-com was, but I also ascertained his credentials for writing the article he did. (Oh, and the AWM also told me that he was The Western Mail‘s editor!)

His article is based on a talk he did for an “Australian Authors” session on the “National station” (by which I presume he means the ABC). Despite his credentials, he commenced by saying that

I speak on the A.I.F. in literature with diffidence, being no authority on the subject, although I have read most of the Australian war books, and my work has led me to make some study of them during the last few years. In this talk I am not touching Dr. Bean’s great historical work on the A.I.F., nor am I mentioning several Australian war novels. I have taken those books produced during the last five years which purport to be the experiences of those who wrote them—men (and a woman) who served in Australian units.

In other words, his focus is not novels but memoirs and the like, but I think they are relevant to our discussion. I’m glad he includes women (albeit “a woman”, parenthetically!) It’s now 1936, but he too references All quiet on the western front, negatively, saying it “seemed to stimulate the imaginations of authors all over the world, for each seemed to try to outwrite the others in his trail of ghastliness”.

Anyhow, here’s his list, in his order:

  • Red dust (1931), by JL Gray, writing as Donald Black: Subtitled “A classic account of Australian Light Horsemen in Palestine during the First World War”, this was apparently written during the war as a diary, and, says Longmore, “is a remarkable description and analysis of the life and deeds of the Australian trooper”.
  • The desert column (1932), by Ion L. Idriess: Also a story in diary form of the Lighthorsemen, but at Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine. Longmore says that “some of his pen-pictures are epics of war realism”. (As realistic as Remarque’s, I wonder?)
  • Hell’s bells and mademoiselles (1932), by Joe Maxwell, VC, who served with the 18th Battalion. Longmore says it is “an enjoyable volume, but there is some fiction woven into its truth, especially about the mademoiselles. The best feature in it is its faithful reproduction of types” that diggers would recognise.
  • Jacka’s mob (1933), by E. J. Rule: Longmore describes it as “a true and vivid picture of experiences with the 14th Battalion, A.I.F., by a man who was intimately associated with everyone and everything of which he wrote. It is no glowing picture of faultless knighthood.” He continues that “Knighthood and chivalry were in every unit in the A.I.F., in all the fighting armies, but even knighthood experienced the chill pangs of “wind-up” at times, and it is in the correct proportions in which the author has presented these and many other of the minor personal details that somehow escape the novelist [my emph!] that makes Jacka’s mob so valuable.”
  • The gallant company (1933), by H.R. Williams: Subtitled “An Australian soldier’s story of 1915-18”, it is praised by Longmore as the “best of all the Australian war books … It is not highbrow literature and there is no forced striving for effect. But it is a faithful, vivid narrative of an Australian unit and of its individuals, with just sufficient historical background to give them their proper atmosphere. A readable book that does justice to the great achievements of the digger and puts “war, wine and women” in proper perspective”.
  • Iron in the fire (1934), by Edgar Morrow: About the author’s experience of the 28th Battalion, Longmore praises it for being “the truest and most comprehensive war book of the lot” in terms of capturing the “inner feelings — sinking in the pit of the stomach before zero; sorrow at the death of a comrade; joy on receipt of a letter, or a parcel, or leave, which we all tried to hide under a mask of unconcern.” It’s “critical”, he says, and “all may not agree with the criticisms of authority, but it is a fine book”.
  • The grey battalion (1933), by Sister May Tilton: The one book by a woman, “the only one of its kind”, this “gives its readers an idea of the great courage and endurance that were needed by these women in their unenviable task of nursing the sick and maimed victims of war back to health and strength”. Interestingly, he notes that “what they suffered themselves no one will ever know”!
  • The fighting cameliers (1934), by Frank Reid. By a member of the A.I.F’s Camel Corps, but Longmore sees it as “the one disappointing Australian war book” because “colour and realism are lacking”.
  • Crosses of sacrifice (1932), by J. C. Waters. Differs from the others because the author is a journalist who was too young to go to war but had “toured the battlefields and war cemeteries of the world”. Longmore says he “brings a reverent and understanding mind to … his subject”. He writes more on this book than on any of the others!

Do you read war histories, diaries or memoirs?

25 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2021 23:20

    I’ve read a couple but none of those…
    Weary Dunlop’s War Diaries; Fear Drive My Feet by Peter Ryan, and I have A Doctor’s War by Rowley Richards on the TBR. Also something about or by Vivian Bullwinkel but I can’t remember what it was called. Kitty’s War is the best history I’ve read about nursing in WW1.
    I’ve read more about members of the Resistance than about soldiers: I read Nancy Wake pre blog, and there’s a whole category ‘Resistance’ as a subset of my category War, but some of those are novels.
    I wouldn’t say I’m fascinated by war, but I am fascinated by courage.

    • April 26, 2021 23:27

      Thanks very much Lisa. I have Kitty’s war in my TBR. I’d love to find time to read it. Looks like you’ve read more nonfiction about war than I have, though I did read quite a few memoirs and autobiographies long before blogging.

      I like your comment that you are “fascinated by courage”. I am too, though I think I’d have to say I’m fascinated by war, because I’m fascinated by the whole gamut of human behaviour under war conditions. The courage of people though is the most interesting.

      • April 26, 2021 23:46

        Kitty’s War is one of those books that changed my way of thinking… it was a revelation to learn how much danger these nurses were in, but more significantly, it changed my way of thinking about history. Now I look not just what what’s in a history, but what’s not in it, and why it’s not there. (I don’t mean the usual ‘suppression/neglect of women’s stories’ trope, I mean the information that Kitty herself left out of her letters and diaries, and why she did that.)

        • Discover and Explore permalink
          April 27, 2021 01:20

          Very insightful. Thank u

        • April 27, 2021 08:11

          Glad you liked it.

        • Discover and Explore permalink
          April 28, 2021 01:46

          🙏🙏

        • April 27, 2021 08:07

          Oh yes, I became aware of that issue decades ago when I read about diaries and diary writing. If you are writing with the expectation of posterity, that affects how and what you write. Or, even if you write just being aware that others may fnd your diaries either when you are alive or after you’ve gone, that will affect what you write too. Letters, you know will be read, but who you are writing to will affect what you say. How much horror did many soldiers want to tell their mums, eh?

      • Discover and Explore permalink
        April 27, 2021 01:19

        Well stated!

  2. April 27, 2021 02:27

    I’m such a lightweight! Although I’m interested in the World Wars, especially the first one, I usually read about it in novels. I did read one collection of letters from a WWI nurse, but it must have been published as a ‘read local’ initiative and seemed of little interest to anyone outside of a few villages in Newfoundland.

    • April 27, 2021 08:12

      I don’t think reading novels is “lightweight” at all. Some of the deepest thinking goes into them, Debbie! At least, I think so!

  3. April 27, 2021 06:15

    Some, as previously commented, ST. Have you thought about reading “Goodye to All That” yet ? 🙂

    • April 27, 2021 08:14

      Sorry M-R, I have 8 months backlog of review-copies reading, plus my monthly reading group, plus the books on my physical TBR, that just get in the way of adding more books to read. It’s very frustrating in a way!

      • April 28, 2021 05:32

        This is what comes of being a highly respected reviewer: it’s all your own fault ! 😀

        • April 28, 2021 08:18

          Highly respected is going a bit far, but I do accept that it’s my fault for accepting review copies!

        • Neil@kallaroo permalink
          April 28, 2021 12:17

          Well, M-R says you are a highly-respected reviewer, and so do I, so you must be!

        • April 28, 2021 12:31

          Wish it were that easy, but, knowing you two to be the intelligent perceptive people you are, I will accept the compliment with grace!

        • April 30, 2021 07:26

          Q.E.D.

        • April 30, 2021 08:29

          I’ll just “like” that!

  4. April 27, 2021 08:48

    The closest I have got to war stories is my fascination/obsession of old about the Holocaust. I’ve read quite a lot of novels, diaries and history books about this era. For me, it’s trying to understand man’s inhumanity to man…and how extraordinary it is that despite a wholesale onslaught of terror, injustice, despair and suffering, that so much hope, resilience and courage can emerge.

  5. George permalink
    April 27, 2021 09:03

    Memoirs, yes.

    War in Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo is worth reading–life in 1943 and 1944 dealing with refugees, Germans, Fascists, and partisans, waiting for the 8th Army to show up. She later wrote a memoir of more of her life, Images and Shadows.

    Crossing the Line by Alvin Kernan, a memoir of enlisted service in the US Navy during WW II. The copy I have is inscribed by the author to Bernard Knox. Kernan also wrote an excellent memoir of his academic career, In Plato’s Cave

    The introduction to Knox’s Essays Ancient and Modern recounts his own war service: with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, in a Jedburgh unit behind German lines in France, then with partisan units in Italy.

    With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge: enlisted service with the US Marine Corps, including the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa.

    Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser: enlisted service with the British Army in Burma.

    Stepping back to the American Civil War, both Grant and Sherman wrote very readable memoirs–available in print and online at the Gutenberg Project.

    Then stepping way back, Joseph Plumb Martin wrote Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier. Martin served in some notable actions in the American Revolution, but like everyone else spent more time foraging, freezing, and going hungry.

    And to go really far back, there is Xenophon’s Anabasis.

    Histories, too many to mention, though my history reading doesn’t end that much to military history.

    • April 27, 2021 19:17

      Sounds like it tends to it more than mine has George! Thanks for all these. I’m not really up on American non-fiction about the wars, so I’m pleased to have these recommendations.

  6. April 27, 2021 12:39

    One day I’ll open those 15 boxes and see how many of the books you’ve mentioned my father had, a few probably especially the Idriess. I don’t read much about the Wars. I did my bit for Anzac Day posting about stories written by serving soldiers.

    • April 27, 2021 19:20

      A retirement job, perhaps, Bill?

      I will get to your ANZAC Day posting later tonight. We were away for a few days until Saturday, and I’m still catching up. (I still have the Jane Austen group meeting to write up – though I wasn’t at it!!)

  7. George permalink
    April 27, 2021 22:36

    Two curiosities:

    The sports writer Art Hill, who served in the US Army in the Pacific during WW II, said that Australians would ask Americans whether they had read God’s latest book, MacArthur Is My Copilot.

    Tristan Jones wrote Hearts of Oak, a very readable account of enlisted service in the Royal Navy during WW II. The curious thing about this one is that it is all made up: Jones joined the Navy as soon as he could, but that was in 1946. I can remember a respectful interview with him in The Washington Post about 1980, so I’m not sure when the news got out.

    • April 27, 2021 23:24

      Oh these are great George. Sounds like Aussie humour.

      Why didn’t Jones write it as a novel? He thought people wouldn’t read it if it were? However, it has led me to learn something new: Here’s Wikipedia on him “While his account of war service is entertaining, Jones has been compared to a ‘rum gagger’ (19th century British slang for a man who got money or drinks by telling fraudulent tales of supposed suffering at sea).” I love that the British have slang for such a specific activity.

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