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Bully Beef & Balderdash - Some AIF Myths Examined.

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Mal Murray View Drop Down
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    Posted: 23 Apr 2012 at 18:56

WHILE the scholars soldier on, popular perceptions of the Anzac experience in World War I are split on populist lines that have nothing to do with the history of strategy or soldiering.

Academic orthodoxy holds that militarists control the national past and have written out the real achievements of the Federation generation, social welfare reform, industrial arbitration and the like. So Anzac military achievements are ignored and the diggers dismissed as racist, sexist homophobes. The idea Australians under arms in WWI accomplished anything of note is ignored.

At the other extreme the populists take equally egregious liberties with the memory of the 60,000 Australians who died in the war. According to the Aussie exceptionalism of this school the Diggers were natural warriors who outperformed every other army. In 1918 they first stopped the last German offensive on the Western Front and then, led by military genius John Monash, won the war. It is triumphalist tosh, which in overstating the AIF's achievement underestimates the way ordinary blokes did their best, and it has nothing to do with the real record of Australians at war.

Which is what interests Graham Wilson in Bully Beef and Balderdash: Some Myths of the AIF Examined and Debunked (Big Sky Publishing, 601pp, $34.99). This is a book for serious scholars of the AIF rather than decriers and demeaners who belittle the AIF in the cause of contemporary politics or blaggards and boosters peddling simplistic stories of impossible achievements for their own reasons.

Wilson is intent on setting the record straight on what he considers the great myths of the war. To call some of these obscure overstates it. He destroys a myth I certainly had never heard of: that the corpse of Lieutenant Alfred Gaby was exhumed after he won the VC, dressed in uniform and propped up for an official photograph.

Some better known ones are demolished in such detail that there is now no excuse for their ever appearing again. For example C.E.W. Bean's founding legend of the Digger as a natural warrior blessed with the shooting and survival skills of the bushman is destroyed by a detailed analysis of the enlistment records and training performance of recruits.

And the nonsense that the dashing gallop of the Light Horse at Beersheba was the last great cavalry charge of history is despatched. That honour goes to Polish units fighting the Soviets in 1920, the Germans in 1939, even the Italians on the Eastern Front in 1942.

Other more credible claims, including some I must admit I had long taken as fact, are analysed out of existence. The AIF was not, Wilson makes quite clear, exclusively a fighting force, relying on the British for all non-combatant functions. The Royal Naval Division did not perform poorly at Gallipoli and the preparations for that campaign were not cursed by inadequate intelligence and poor preparation - in fact the intel was competent and comprehensive and the form of the staff work standard; it was the idea of the operation itself and the quality of the commanders that were at fault.

Regardless of the importance of the issue or otherwise, Wilson is scrupulous in making his case and generous to a fault in sharing his obviously enormous knowledge of the AIF.

The puzzle is why he demolishes some minor myths while ignoring more significant debates. The AIF's role in stopping the German offensive in March-April 1918 and the allied breakthrough in August are not in themselves myths but there are many claims about them that would benefit from Wilson's robust approach to the work of others and forensic analysis of the records. And the idea Australian commanders were invariably superior to the Brits is the one thing we all think we know about WWI, despite it being nonsense.

Perhaps Wilson has a second volume in mind. I hope so. The record of Australia in WWI, especially on the Western Front, is too important to be left to the drama-merchants.

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Peter Trounson View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Peter Trounson Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24 Apr 2012 at 16:24
Hmmm, Well I was debating as to whether or not this warrants a reply but I think the sentence that states that Australia relied on the British for all non combatant functions says it all about how some people no matter how well intentioned can get it wrong. Wonderful to get some the so called 'myths' sorted out but one has to be very careful with ones research. What you have to be very aware of is if you do debunk a myth and it might correct in doing so that at the same time you do not detract from the importance of what was achieved at the time. As far as achievement goes it doesn't matter if Beersheba was the first or last cavalry charge in history the outcome on the day is what is important and nothing can detract from that. I could safely say that not one of the light horsemen on the day would have been thinking that this was the last, second last or third last charge in history all they wanted was the Turks and Germans out of there and they needed that water! Don't think I will bother reading this one though I am sure it will appeal to some. 

Edited by Peter Trounson - 24 Apr 2012 at 16:26
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Mal Murray View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Mal Murray Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24 Apr 2012 at 17:59
Peter as always hit the nail squarely on the head.
 
He doesnt appear to be dealing fully with the issues from what I can see he may be playing to a narrow audience. And possibly the right time to publish anything that may sell.
 
But as they say we are here to show all aspects and views.
 
 


Edited by Mal Murray - 24 Apr 2012 at 18:11
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