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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

History - not so 'safe' for those who live it. A Review of Les Carlyon's Gallipoli and The Western Front by John Tognolini

The soldiers in this picture are top row; Sergeant Norton Niblet Mentioned in Dispatches, Wounded in Action three times, Lance Sergeant Stephen Tognolini Military Medal and Bar, Wounded in Action twice, Lance Sergeant Victor Edwards Military Medal and Bar,

Middle row; Sergeant J.S. Sheringham Wounded in Action, Company Sergeant Major George Hunt, Distinguished Conduct Medal, Wounded in Action twice, Killed in Action July 4 1918, Company Sergeant Major William Trevascus Distinguished Conduct Medal and Bar, Mentioned in Dispatches, Wounded in Action and Boer War Veteran,

Bottom row; Lance Corporal J.H. Cotterell Military Medal, Died of Wounds September 18 1918, and Lance Corporal J.J. Craigie Military Medal

Gallipoli Les Carlyon Macmillan, 2002 600 pages, $35 (pb) The Great War Les Carlyon Macmillan, 2006 880 pages, $55(hb)

Les Carlyon’s books The Great War and Gallipoli are “safe history”. They don’t delve deep enough into class and power of a society at war. Moreover, Carlyon doesn’t even look at race properly. He touches on one German ANZAC in The Great War but Aboriginal ANZACs don’t even get a mention in either of these major works. Carlyon’s books fall into the tragic adventure scenario.

If you’re looking for a book that can concisely tell the tragedy and slaughter of World War I, well you have some of that from Carlyon’s description of the battles that Australians endured in the bloody years of 1916-18 on the Western Front. Unfortunately, you also get a pack of pathetic justifications supporting Australia’s involvement in the war.

Ludicrously, Carlyon also makes a big thing about PM John Howard’s father and grandfather serving on the Western Front. One of the results of Howard’s militarisation of history is that the stories of ordinary soldiers and people on the home front are swept to the side. They become smothered by this “safe history”.

In The Great War, Carlyon becomes an apologist for the infamous British mass butcher General Douglas Haig. It’s Haig who said of his former allies in 1919, “The French! They’re the fellows we shall be fighting next.”

Even Charles Bean, the official Australian historian of World War I said of Haig, the commanding general at the infamous battle of Passchendaele, “A general who wears down 180,000 of the enemy by expending 400,000 men … has something to answer for.”

As a socialist and Marxist I tend to be on my own, with my research into Australia’s military history. The more I’ve delved into it and studied its blood-spattered carnage in detail, the more I feel convinced of the need of socialism as an alternative political system to the one that produced the horrors of World War I and II and imperialist adventures such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

As for World War I, what was it for working people but a bloody slaughter that would later produce another world war, one more slaughterhouse of a global conflict on an even bigger scale than the first one? World War I was driven by imperialist rivalry. Germany wanted a colonial empire, just like the British and French.

It is apt to say that it was one of those wars, like so many others, where a bayonet was a weapon that had a worker on both ends of it. If that was the case for workers, what was it for an Indigenous Australian such as George Hunt? He had no rights at all as an Aborigine. Officially he didn’t even exist in Australian society.

When my uncle Stephen returned from the war to his job on the Melbourne waterfront as a wharfie, he found his union outlawed, his wages cut in half and a non-union workforce doing his work. During World War II the Italian origins of our family name would lead to him suffering racist abuse, despite his own military service, his brothers’ service — Andrew, (both Stephen and Andrew served at Gallipoli as well as France and Belgium) and Jack who was killed in action at Villers Bretonneux, France, and having his two younger brothers, Bill and Vic (my father) over in the army in the battles of Greece and Crete against the Nazis.

I often wonder what went through my Uncle Stephen’s and Andrew’s minds when Billy Hughes, Australian Prime Minister from 1915-23, said “Are we to be subservient to the dago … We believe in the White Australia Policy and a British White Australia Policy at that.”

Carlyon’s books have achieved significant sales, but holes can be poked into the cracks of his imperial parchments. You won’t find in Carlyon’s books any mention of Australians (along with New Zealand, English and Scottish soldiers) being a part of the mass mutiny of 20,000 soldiers at the British army base at Etaples in 1917, nor Australians shooting British military police and training instructors (who came from the British prison system and were widely hated as sadistic, front line/trench dodgers). The English war poet Wilfred Owen called Etaples “the bull ring”. Nor that many of those mutineers were killed at Passchendaele. That wouldn’t be “safe history” would it?

From: Cultural Dissent, Green Left Weekly issue #728 24 October 2007.

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