2014, 221 p.
I always think it’s interesting when a writer returns after many years to something that they had created much, much earlier in their career, and takes up the topic again with the benefit of years of experience, reading, and later research. This is the case in Michael McKernan’s book Victoria at War which was commissioned by the (then Liberal Party) Victorian Government of Victoria to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in 2015. McKernan had written Australians at War over thirty years earlier (which I reviewed here), a book that had been reissued unchanged in 2014 albeit with the author’s own awareness of its inadequacies, but no major rewriting.
However, with this 2014 book, McKernan had the opportunity to revisit his earlier book, within the specific context of Victoria and in the wake of the deluge of World War I research that has been undertaken in recent years, especially leading up to the Gallipoli centenary. Not only was the scope and purpose of the book different, but he himself as a historian and writer would have been influenced- as have most of us- by the trend of using smaller stories to tell larger ones and the emphasis on emotions. I finished this book with a deep sense of what a good writer McKernan is; something that did not particularly strike me with the earlier, more utilitarian, book.
McKernan starts this history by reminding us that, at the time war was declared, Melbourne was the capital city of Australia. The parliament sat here; the governor lived here and the federal bureaucracy was based here. This, perhaps combined with early twentieth century ‘liberalism’, may have contributed to a deeper commitment to the war effort in Victoria than in other states- something McKernan hints out but does not state definitely. Certainly the school effort was strongest here, and Victoria did vote ‘yes’ at the first conscription referendum (alongside Western Australia and Tasmania) although it rejected it by a small majority in the second 1917 referendum. Melbourne was also the home of Archbishop Mannix, the most prominent anti-conscription voice.
Although Victoria may be more closely settled than other Australian states, with the seat of political power based in Melbourne, McKernan places much emphasis on small Victorian towns and the impact of enlistment on the emotional and economic life of small country towns. In particular, he looks at Casterton as a microcosm. He brings forward the stories of specific families where several sons enlisted, or where older men left several children. There are urban vignettes as well, but it is probably the country ones that seem most plangent. He notes the role of the local clergy who were charged with delivering the telegrams bearing bad news, and your heart sinks at the thought of families receiving two, three, four such visits.
It hadn’t really occurred to me that battalions were broadly geographically based, most particularly the 14th Battalion. He follows Victorian volunteers to the army camps surrounding Melbourne, most particularly Broadmeadows, and across to the theatre of war. His book does trace the progress, or lack thereof, of the Victorian battalions, but most particularly in regard to how the news was received back home.
He places much emphasis on the role of the Red Cross, which was organized through Government House, and for some reason I found this description of ‘comforts’ brought me to the verge of tears:
How a man living in the barbaric conditions of the dugouts of Anzac responded when he received a parcel from one of these groups can only be imagined. His normal food was hardtack biscuits, bully beef and tea- when there was water available. Imagine opening a parcel from the Red Cross or the Australian Comforts Fund, to find clean, hand-knitted socks, a couple of lice-free, for the moment anyway, pairs of underpants, a fruitcake, possibly some tobacco or cigarettes, some dried fruit and ‘sweeties’, and writing paper for a letter to the folks at home. The love and commitment that was poured into these parcels would have provided, to even the hardest lag on the Gallipoli battlefield, the whiff of home and of peacetime civilities, the gentler ways of life. (p. 121)
This is a beautifully presented book. The idea of a coffee-table WWI book seems a bit glib, but the beautiful layout of the book and the large, crystal clear photographs that adorn nearly every page are a form of tribute in themselves. The end of each chapter is marked by a khaki-coloured,stand-alone reflection on an individual or a specific theme. Most of all, this book is marked by its respect for individuals, some of whom we have encountered several times in various places throughout McKernan’s narrative. Their sacrifice is noted with humility and a sense of shared humanity, but not ‘celebrated’ with chest-beating or overt sentimentality. It is a mature, thoughtful, appropriate response.