ANZAC Day is one of my favourite days of the year. I love taking the kids in to see the March near Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. It’s a good opportunity for them to learn about war and Australia’s role in it.
I know many people frown on ANZAC Day. They think it is a glorification of war, or a celebration of the military power of the State.
It depends on lens through which you view the world.
Wars are of course waged by governments. They get the bulk of their recruits from the working classes or via conscription. They target the young not because they are the fittest, but because they are the most malleable mentally. The young believe in the cause because they don’t really understand it.
So yes, war is waged by old men, who use young men to promote their aims. And yes, it’s mostly always men.
This is not something to be ‘celebrated’.
But ANZAC Day is a celebration not of war itself but of those who go to war, whether naïve or knowing. It simply seeks to remember those who lost or risked their lives for this country, and doesn’t try to make judgements about the reasons behind their actions.
So it’s a day I’ll enjoy, and I hope you do too. After the march, I’ll come home, have a few beers, and hopefully watch the Dragons take down the Roosters in the Rugby League.
Another thing I do around this time of year is read a war book. I’ve read a lot of books about the First World War, but until now I never got to one of the most famous from that era…Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That.
I’m looking forward to reading it, and it’s obviously a good book. But it will be doing well to better the one I want to tell you about today. I’ve read this book twice, and each time it has had an effect on me. You know when you finish reading something and you just put the book down and think about it for a while afterward?
Well, that’s what this one does to you.
The Middle Parts of Fortune, by Frederick Manning was published in the same year as Goodbye to All That and All Quiet on the Western Front, yet it hasn’t received anywhere near the accolades.
Manning was an Aussie who enlisted in the British Army. His story uses fictitious characters to describe the events he and his mates went through on the Somme in 1916.
What I find so amazing about the book is the way it paces itself. Most of the book is about army life behind the trenches. Not much happens, but Manning’s prose, through the observations of the main character, Bourne (who is based on Manning) keep you interested.
Then you can feel the tension build as the battalion gets ready for battle. And in the last few chapters, on the battle itself, the tension is almost unbearable.
I first read the book about 15 years ago. I lent it out and it never came back. So I bought another copy a few years ago, and this more recent version had an introduction written by Niall Ferguson, the economist and historian.
In it he said,
‘…it has a good claim to be considered the best ‘British’ book about the war on the Western Front — though, as we shall see, it is not strictly speaking a British book at all. Hemmingway himself called it ‘the finest and noblest book of men in war that I have ever read.’ The distinguished military historian Sir Michael Howard has described it ‘as one of the greatest books about soldiers in the whole of western literature.’’
Yet it has not gained in popularity over the years. Despite the high praise, it is still a relatively obscure book about soldiers’ lives in the First World War. Still, I highly recommend it. Make sure you get a copy; I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Here’s a sample. It’s from the start of chapter 16, just as the men are waiting to go over the top:
‘The drumming of the guns continued, with bursts of great intensity. It was as though a gale streamed overhead, piling up great waves of sound, and hurrying them onward to crash in surf on the enemy entrenchments. The windless air about them, by its very stillness, made that unearthly music more terrible to hear. They covered under it, as men seeking shelter from a storm. Something rushed downward on them with a scream of exultation, increasing to a roar before it blasted the air asunder and sent splinters of steel shrieking over their heads, an eruption of mud spattering down on the trench, and splashing in brimming shell-holes. The pressure among the men increased. Someone shouldering a way through caused them to surge together, cursing, as they were thrown off their balance to stumble against their neighbours.
‘Through the darkness the dripping mist moved slowly, touching them with spectral fingers as it passed. Everything was clammy with it. It condensed on their tin hats, clung to their rough serge, their eyelashes, the down on their cheekbones. Even though it blinded everything beyond the distance of a couple of yards, it seemed to be faintly luminous itself. Its damp coldness enhanced the sense of smell. There was a reek of mouldering rottenness in the air, and through it came the sour, stale odour from the foul clothes of the men. Shells streamed overhead, sighing, whining and whimpering for blood; the upper air fluttered with them; but Fritz was not going to take it all quietly, and with its increasing roar another shell leaped towards them, and they cowered under the wrath. There was the enormous grunt of its eruption, the sweeping of harp-strings, and part of the trench wall collapsed inwards, burying some men in the landslide. It was difficult to get them out, in the crowded conditions of the trench.
‘Bourne’s fit of shakiness increased, until he set his teeth to prevent them chattering in his head; and after a deep, gasping breath, almost like a sob, he seemed to recover to some extent. Fear poisoned the very blood; but, when one recognised the symptoms, it became objective, and one seemed to escape partly from it that way. He heard men breathing irregularly beside him, as he breathed himself; he heard them licking their lips, trying to moisten their mouths; he heard them swallow, as though overcoming a difficulty in swallowing; and the sense that others suffered equally or more than himself, quietened him. Some men moaned, or even sobbed a little, but unconsciously, and as though they struggled to throw off an intolerable burden of oppression.’
Happy ANZAC Day. I hope you have a good one.