‘In the Shadow of Gallipoli’ by Robert Bollard


2013, 224 p.

I know that historians often get railroaded into a title for their book by marketing-oriented publishers, and I can’t help thinking that the title of this 2013 book was chosen with one eye on the then-upcoming centenary of Gallipoli in April 2015. There is, in fact, very little about Gallipoli in it at all. The content is far better conveyed by the sub-title ‘The hidden history of Australia in World War I’.  Although even that isn’t particularly accurate either, because much of what is written in this book is not ‘hidden’ at all: Jauncey covered much of it in 1935 and Ernest Scott (available online) covered the rest the following year in his Volume 11 of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918.

Nonetheless, given the hoopla which surrounded Gallipoli in 2015,  it was important that there be a corrective to the view that the whole of Australia wanted to rush off to fight on foreign fields and the equally erroneous idea that Gallipoli was the ‘birth of a nation’.  This book is an eminently readable counter-balance, aimed at a general audience, that examines the division and acrimony at home in Australia during the war.

There are eight chapters, titled with a quote and descriptor.

  1. ‘To the last man and the last shilling’: Patriotism triumphant
  2. ‘If you want the 44-hour week, take it!’: The strike wave begins
  3. ‘Wherever green is worn’: Irish discontent
  4. ‘I will curse the British Empire with my dying breath’: The first conscription referendum
  5. ‘Fifteen years for fifteen words’: The empire strikes back
  6. ‘Solidarity for ever’: The Great Strike of 1917
  7. ‘We’ll burn the town down!’: The second referendum
  8. ‘Plunge this city into darkness’: The peace turns ugly.

It seems to me that historians write about Australia during the war through a prism which, while recognizing other contemporaneous influences, hones in on one particular focus.  Judith Smart focuses on women; Jauncey focuses on pacifists; McKernan on mainstream churches, and here Bollard picks up on the unions in particular. Chapter 2 takes readers back to the ‘working man’s paradise’, the Harvester judgment and arbitration. He refers in many places to the Broken Hill – or as he terms it the ‘Barrier’ -miners, and his chapter on the Great Strike is probably the strongest in the book. I liked the final chapter, too, where he examines the role of returned soldiers in the strikes that exploded during the wars immediately following the war.

With the focus on unions and resistance, this is a very political book, with few individuals (other than politicians) stepping forward to centre stage.  It is a book of organizations more than people, drawn from newspaper reports and government files.  His reference list is fairly dated, and women don’t get that much of a look-in here, other than as part of a crowd, and there are no families.

But what he does really well is tell a good story. The narrative is chronological, it is very clearly written, and it’s a seductively easy read. It’s a good antidote to the hefty, celebratory WWI books with big single-word titles that have burdened the nation’s bookshelves over the past few years.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (e-book)

Read because: in preparation for my talk to Heidelberg Historical Society on the conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917.


4 responses to “‘In the Shadow of Gallipoli’ by Robert Bollard

  1. It sounds like a good one, as you say, to contrast with all the hoopla. I must admit that I thought I didn’t want to read any more about Australians at war for a good long while, and then this week I took up Archipelago of Souls not really knowing what it was about – and loved it. So there we are, a good author can refresh even the themes we think we’re tired of.
    I hope all goes well for the opera – it’s this week, isn’t it?

  2. artandarchitecturemainly

    A working man’s paradise? I suppose that compared to the trenches of WW1, working long hours in Australia for relatively poor pay was heaps better. Yet the decisions were always made for the working classes by wealthy, powerful men – who to send to war, where they would fight, who would look after their families, health care for the wounded, how many hours workers would work back at home, what their pay rates would be, could migrants get proper jobs etc?

    When some men survived and returned home from war, the poor sods hoped for a thank you and a better life.

  3. Thanks for the review and I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I have a confession to make. I originally tried to get my PhD thesis on the Great Strike published but had no takers. UNSW Press (now New South) was the only publisher that gave me an explanation for refusing rather than a form reply. They liked the sample chapters I sent them but didn’t think that anyone would “buy a book about a strike they’d never heard of”. Meanwhile, a fellow postgrad who was a military historian covering Kokoda had no problems getting a book contract. That’s what gave me the idea of covering the labour movement during the war as a whole, using the idea that this history was hidden “under the shadow of Gallipoli” as a way to put Gallipoli in the title. That much was brazen, but I still think my contention that the history has been hidden, particularly in the popular consciousness, history textbooks and so on, underneath the Anzac myth and a deluge of military history is valid. A point in case are the two conscription records. I was forced to do a lot of primary research into them because I simply couldn’t find any narrative treatment of either campaign. Even the books that have come out recently instead focus on the arguments made by both sides without describing what actually happened in the campaigns.

    • How ironic that they thought that there would be no readership for a “strike that nobody had ever heard of”, because it got quite good coverage after all (through the ABC etc). I know that publishers work a few years ahead, and I suspect that they were more Gallipolli-struck than perhaps their audience has turned out to be-( with the exception of the fat books with single-word titles). In relation to conscription, I found your book so useful because it was the ‘what happened during the campaign’ that I was most interested in at a very local level.

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