Tuesday, April 25, 2017

ANZAC rum and milk 1917- 2017

WITHIN a trenchi message runner’s distance of Gallipoli Barracks on Brisbane’s northside and about an hour before dawn on Anzac Day, veterans will begin their tradition of sipping  
'It will be rum and milk at dawn'  

Anzac Day: How it came to occupy a sacred place in Australians' hearts

Australia is spending the extraordinary amount of $562 million commemorating the centenary of the First World War between 2014 and 2018 - far more than any other nation, including the major combatants

Anzac Day 2017: Victoria Cross hero praises first Diggers

ON A day of remembrance that can never adequately be summed up, Australia's most decorated war hero managed to do it admirably.

Anzac: the spirit  of history in a modern age The spirit of his and her story

Story image for anzac from Brisbane Times

Meet the Brisbane priest who created Anzac Day as we know it

The chapter concludes with Sidney Nolan’s Gallipoli Series, reminding us that he once said that he wanted his Gallipoli pictures to ring like metal – to ‘clang’  as if they’d been beaten into shape at a blacksmith’s forge.  And Churcher once more invokes the personal when she tells us that the figures in the left hand panel of Nolan’s Gallipoli diptych, areNolan’s father, trying valiantly to prevent his son Raymond, (with his corporal’s stripes) from sliding deeper into death. (p.53) (To see both paintings at that AWM link scroll down below the descriptions and click the blue Gallipoli link).

The wars that have been an unrelenting feature of the past hundred years have left an enduring legacy in the art they have provoked.  Here, Betty Churcher, [1931-2015] one of our leading art historians, explores the range and diversity of art inspired by war.  She explores the work of official war artists in the First and Second World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the war against terror in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.  She looks, too, at lesser-known artists, ordinary soldiers, who were drawing and painting in the trenches during the First World War, the concentration camps of Europe, the prisoner-of-war camps of Southeast Asia, and at artists who have been inspired by peace-keeping missions in Timor, Somalia, and Eritrea.
The Art of War is stunningly illustrated throughout, featuring images as diverse as George Lambert’s dramatic battlefield panoramas, Will Dyson’s political cartoons, Ray Parkin’s prisoner-of-war camp sketches, and Gordon Bennett’s graffiti-influenced works produced in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York. Using works created to inspire patriotic sentiment, to record personal insights, or to protest the senseless loss of human life, Churcher shows that where war has influenced movements in art, art has also changed attitudes to war.

The first chapter is called ‘The Birth of a Legend’ and the first painting shown is Grace Cossington Smith’s Reinforcements: Troops Marching c1917.   Churcher, always so observant about the human aspects of art, notes the strident colours of the mother waving off the troops while she ignores her crying child behind her.  This painting is accompanied by a photo of huge crowds lining Collins St Melbourne to farewell troops in 1914, and she tells us the story of her own father’s disillusionment to amplify what follows:

My father never discussed the war. Everything about the First World War turned out to be repugnant to him, yet there could have been no more ardent recruit. (p.1)

The paintings Churcher has chosen to include are influenced by this family history.  Nothing in this book glorifies war.The Art of War by Betty Churcher

Doug Allan 1970
I don’t usually read military history, but I couldn’t resist this latest release in the Text Classics series.  Tobruk 1941interests me because The Offspring had a great-uncle who was a Rat of Tobruk.  Uncle Doug Allan, who died in 1985, was a gentle, kind-hearted soul, generous to a fault and with the typical laconic Aussie sense of humour, but this apparently ordinary Aussie Bloke was also a hero, the like of which we’ll never see again.
Early in 1941, Australian troops captured Tobruk from the Italians: it was an important victory because it was Mussolini’s stronghold on the Libyan Coast.  Bordered by pitiless desert, Tobruk was a strategic fortress because it had a deep-water harbour on the eastern Mediterranean.   Rommel’s Afrika Corps quickly arrived to reclaim it and so began a 241-day siege beginning in April and not lifted until November of that year.  Germany had successfully stormed through Europe using Blitzkrieg tactics, and the Afrika Corps had never been defeated.  Tobruk was the first time they were repulsed and it wasn’t just Rommel who was outraged, the German High Command was livid.  They were especially galled to discover that their crack troops had been stymied by a bunch of volunteers.  As a captured German diary showed:
Our opponents are Englishmen and Australians.  No trained attacking troops, but men with nerves and toughness, tireless, taking punishment with obstinacy, wonderful in defence.  Ah well, the Greeks also spent ten years before Troy. (p 186)
The defenders comprised 14,000 Australian soldiers commanded by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead,  about 5000 men in four regiments of British artillery, and about 500 Indian troops under the command of the British.  For both sides, Tobruk was critical because the Allies wanted to keep Rommel tied up in Libya while they regrouped after their defeat in Greece, and the Axis Powers wanted to get on with having control of the oil fields.
Chester Wilmot was an embedded war correspondent with the AIF, and he wrote this landmark text during 1943 while he was becalmed in Sydney.  (He’d lost his accreditation because he’d offended General Blamey with criticism of the high command supplying the troops in New Guinea).  With the war still raging, Wilmot used this time to write a unique military history of the Siege of Tobruk.
As Peter Cochrane says in the Introduction:
In Tobruk 1941, Wilmot’s roving eye blends coverage of fast-moving events and battle with rich social observation, and melds the local story with its global implications.  His narrative is punctuated with biographical cameos and excerpts from interviews with the men of the garrison, so the vernacular figures prominently in an erudite text.  He is the educated Australian who can lapse into pub-yarn mode, his manner easy, his intellect sharp.  He is both military analyst and social historian, providing eyewitness accounts of combat and conditions in the fortress, covering themes such as food, fleas, health, work, sport, concerts and other entertainment.  He is pioneering a new form of military history, blending a cool dissection of material realities with a record of battle and striking descriptions of everyday life.  (p. xi)
The siege conditions were difficult, to say the least.  It was fiercely hot by day and the nights were cold, but it was the dust storms that were a severe trial:
They were far worse at Tobruk than in the open desert beyond.  Within the perimeter thousands of wheels had churned the baked crust of the earth into a fine powder, and every wind whipped it into a choking cloud.  The men breathed dust, and ate dust.  Every few days the wind raised a storm that blotted out everything.  But regardless of this the troops had to man their posts and guns; drive their vehicles without windscreens; unload ships or lay mines.  (p.206)
The diet was adequate but not nutritious and as the months went by there were cases of ‘desert sores’.  Little scratches took weeks to heal.  The water ration was just eight cups a day – and that was for all uses including washing – prompting a joke that the Diggers couldn’t wave a white handkerchief in surrender because they didn’t have any clean ones.   Wilmot – who knew all this because he was living it too – describes cricket matches to alleviate boredom alongside the casualties from the incessant bombing which could come from anywhere.  He notes that ‘shell shock’ was rare, and malingerers rarer still, and he provides examples of Aussie wit:
There’s militant teetotallers
Who abhor all kinds of drink,
There’s wives who break good bottles
And pour them down the sink;
This place would suit them to the ground,
We’ve searched in every nook,
But booze is rare as hen’s teeth in
This place they call Tobruk. (p.211)
If the Rats were bored and longing for a beer, the crack German troops were seriously disgruntled.  Wilmot had access to the diaries of captured Germans, and they reveal that their pride was hurt by the indignity of their situation:
They had been picked and trained for offensive warfare.  Many of them had been fattened on the quick victories and easy loot of the European campaigns.  They disliked a defensive role: still more distasteful was the task of digging holes in the unfriendly Libyan plateau, working in sandstorm and in heat that often rose to 110 degrees.  (p. 203)
The German rank and file were fed up with having nothing to do and nothing much to eat, because Rommel’s supply lines were dislocated.  They wanted to attack and teach these volunteer Aussies a lesson.  But by contrast morale within the besieged Tobruk was high because the Rats knew how important their role was – because they heard it in signals from the highest levels:
‘Personal Gen. MORSHEAD from C.-in-C.  Your magnificent defence is upsetting enemy’s plans for attack on EGYPT and giving us time to build up force for counter offensive.  You could not repeat not be doing better service.  Well done.’
‘To General MORSHEAD from PRIME MINISTER ENGLAND.  The whole empire is watching your steadfast and spirited defence of this important outpost of EGYPT with gratitude and admiration.’ (p.188)
In the course of writing this review I visited Wikipedia, and – because I would like young Australians to know the story of Uncle Doug and his fellow Rats of Tobruk – I can’t help but comment on how dull and uninspiring the Wikipedia entry is, compared to Wilmot’s vivid writing.  Sometimes history is worth reading because of the subject matter and sometimes it’s worth reading because of the quality of the writing.  But Tobruk 1941 is worth reading because it’s both.  Chapter 2, ‘Break Through’ relates the capture of Tobruk from the Italians, and it begins like this:
Their only weapons were a thin willowy stick, a pair of scissors, a pocket full of nails and a revolver.  Yet they were the advance guard of the 16000 Australian and British troops who assembled on the dark face of the desert on the night of January 20th, 1941, ready to attack Tobruk before dawn.  On the steady nerves and fingers of these men with strange weapons, the waiting infantry relied to clear the maze of booby-traps, which screened the Italian defences.
They were thirty-three members of 2/1st Field Company, led by Lieutenant S.B. Cann.  Several hours before moonrise they moved out into no-man’s land to the accompaniment of jibes from infantry, who little realised how important those thin willowy sticks were.  A stinging wind swept the desert and the sappers were thankful for their army-issue jerkins and long woollen underwear, and for ‘rum-primed’ water bottles, which were some compensation for the greatcoats they had left behind.  To lessen risk of detection  they wore woollen Balaclavas instead of tin hats and their shiny leather jerkins were turned inside out.  (p. 29)
I found it interesting that I developed a different kind of reading skill for this book.  In some ways it was like the experience of learning to read legalese when I was doing a law degree.  It’s not hard, it’s just a matter of getting used to concepts, vocabulary and acronyms that are just not part of an everyday vocabulary.  I did get used to the military acronyms, but it took a bit longer to be able to visualise all the different kinds of weapons, planes and ships.  (There are maps that show events, but I would also have liked one that showed Tobruk’s position in North Africa and the Mediterranean.)
The other thing that happened as I read, was that I became very conscious of the casualties.  Wilmot mentions few heroic deaths by name, but I think most 21st century readers will read between the lines with a keen awareness of the enormous human cost of this one episode in a war that lasted six years.  When Wilmot wrote – not casually, but without lingering over details – about a ship going down during the relief operation, I thought about the people on board, and their families and their descendants.  I don’t think I’ve ever been made quite so aware of the courage of individual men even though Wilmot mostly only names the officers.
I don’t know how this book stacks up against contemporary histories of this heroic story: Tobruk 1941 was written during the war so perhaps we should assume not just that some matters were self-censored, but also that its mildly triumphalist tone was not just asserting a strategic and symbolic enemy defeat but was also intended to sustain domestic morale.  Cochrane notes that Wilmot had little to say about the Indian contribution and local civilian casualties, and my guess is that contemporary military historians would attempt to redress these omissions with research.  Populist historians might be inclined towards being dismissive or critical of the British as they so often are, but Wilmot is at pains to acknowledge the complementary efforts of the Tommies and the Diggers, invoking the Anzac spirit to praise the dashing courage and initiative of the Australians in the vanguard while admiring the Churchillian spirit of the dogged and indefatigable British.  Aware that there was a tendency for some war correspondents to give all the credit to the Australians, Wilmot writes extensively about the British artillery that – without air support – repulsed German aircraft and he acknowledges that nothing could have been achieved without them.
But at heart, he says in the Preface, we are all British, which is not something anyone would suggest today:
A few words of explanation may be necessary on the vexed question of the use of the term ‘British’.  Where I have spoken at large of our forces as opposed to the enemy’s, ‘British’ embraces all the Imperial, Dominion and Allied troops. But wherever I have spoken of particular forces I have used it – lacking any suitable alternative – to refer only to those of the United Kingdom.  This obviously does not imply that Australians regard themselves as any less British than the people of the British Isles.  (p. 8)
Quaint, eh? Well just remember – it’s not all that long ago that Australians had British citizenship and British passports!
Author: Chester Wilmot
Title: Tobruk, 1941Introduction by Peter Cochrane
Publisher: Text Classics, Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781925498455
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing
Available from Fishpond: Tobruk 1941: Text Classics (Text Classics)
Or direct from Text, where it is also available as an eBook.