'It will be rum and milk at dawn'
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
‘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)
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)
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)
Title: Tobruk, 1941Introduction by Peter Cochrane
Publisher: Text Classics, Text Publishing, 2015
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing