Tagged: history

“The Battle of Coral” by Lex McAulay

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The crew of No. 6 gun, 102 Field Battery, photograph by Greg Ayson: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P01769.010

More Anzac Day reading …

This book tells the story of the largest unit-level battle involving Australian and New Zealand soldiers in the Vietnam War. A series of actions were fought over 26 days in May-June 1968 around Fire Support Patrol Bases Coral and Balmoral, north-east of Saigon. The North Vietnamese Army actively took the fight to the 1st Australian Task Force positions and even artillery gun positions fought close-combat actions.

It is an appropriate book for the Anzac Day period because the Patrol Bases included both Australian and New Zealand Army forces (as well as US Army units and elements).

Lex gives the background to this period in Vietnam and introduces us to all of the major players and the units involved. I don’t think I read this book until about 2003 or so, but over the course of my earlier time in both the Army and within the Department of Defence I had already met many of the characters mentioned. What surprised me was that over the two decades before reading the book, none of those people had sat me down and told me about what happened at ‘Coral’ in 1968. Even after 2003 as I started researching Coral and meeting with some of the battle’s veterans, most seemed very reluctant to say a lot about what happened, particularly with respect to the major NVA assault and battle on the first night (12/13 May 1968). None were boastful of their own actions and many told me that certain individuals deserved, but disappointingly never received, major bravery awards.

So all that makes Lex’s book a pretty essential record. He tells it in a typically laconic Australian manner. Lex covers the stories of most of those Australians who were wounded or killed during the battle. One well worth reading is the saga of Gunner Mal Hundt who was hit six times during the Battle for Coral on 13 May, at least two of which came from his comrades. Even as he was being evacuated, as Lex puts it “His troubles were still not over.” Mal continued to serve in the Army as a gun sergeant later on and I am pretty sure I met him during a Coral veterans’ 50-years on reunion in Canberra in 2008. He seemed pretty well adjusted to me. I like the way Lex manages to relate the way some of the soldiers kept their dry sense of humour and their ability to make massive understatements in even the darkest of circumstances.

“Anzac to Amiens” by Dr CEW Bean

ART03022“8th August, 1918” by Will Longstaff: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/ART03022/

More Anzac Day reading …

This single volume narrative covers the entirety of all Australian forces and their involvement in the First World War. It is based on the 12-volume “Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18”, of which six were written by Dr Bean himself. He observed first-hand many of the battles fought by the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) as Australia’s official war correspondent during that war and is noted by theUNSW historian Dudley McCarthy in the Foreword for his “capacity to convey the feelings and qualities of thousands of ordinary soldiers”.

Dr Bean was wounded at Gallipoli in 1915 and also mentioned in dispatches there. In 1916 he suggested the idea for a national museum to the Minister for Defence and in 1917 he urged the systematic collection of records which, with the formation of the Australian War Records Section marked the birth of the Australian War Memorial.

In the final chapter of this book Dr Bean says what caused Australians to enlist in the AIF was “the principle of protecting their homes and their freedom by sustaining a system of law and order between nations”, but he also recognises (in 1946) that this war did not end war itself. Later in that chapter, he writes that “only in conditions ensuring freedom of thought and communication can mankind progress”: words that ring true today.

“Prisoners of War: Australians Under Nippon” by Hank Nelson

More reading for Anzac Day …

This 1985 publication is based on an award winning ABC Radio series of the same name that was first broadcast in 1984. It was presented by Tim Bowden, AM (war correspondent, journalist, broadcaster, documentarian, author and oral historian) and Hank Nelson, AM (historian, author, mentor and ANU Professor). I listened to that series week-by-week, on Saturdays as I remember, because I was named after Dad’s older brother who was killed as a POW when the Japanese ship the Rakuyō Maru, transporting over 1,000 Australian and British POWs back to Japan, was torpedoed by the USS Sealion II in September 1944. My family would never tell me much about my uncle’s tragic experience as a POW when I asked and this radio series and book helped me to understand why. They simply did not know. Some earlier accounts had been published, such as Russell Braddon’s “The Naked Island”, but I think this broadcast and publication really helped us to understand the experience of those POWs because it was made at a time when so many ex-prisoners were finally more willing to talk about their incarceration. That the stories were brought to life is also not least down to the skill of both Tim and Hank.

The book is quite simply full of almost unimaginable memories of endurance, mateship, courage, compassion, humour and the most beastly brutality. It begins with the fall of Singapore in February 1942, and then covers life in Changi, the infamous Thai-Burma railway, the capture of Australian Army Nurses, the decimation of ‘Gull Force’ on Ambon, the atrocities committed on Borneo and the Sandakan death march, escape and evasion attempts, forced repatriation of some POWs to slave labour Japan, the severity of punishments handed out in Outram Rd prison in Singapore, survival and eventual freedom and the legacy of wounded minds.

Now that the 16 parts of the series are available for download, I think that it is best to take the opportunity to listen their voices and then read their words, perhaps chapter-by-chapter. Together, the program and the book bring to life the experiences of many memorable prisoners such as Stan Arneil, George Aspinall, Keith Botterill, Vivian Bullwinkel, Dr Kevin Fagan, Don Moore, Ray Parkin and Snow Peat.

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A George Aspinall photograph of three “fit” workers on a camp on the Burma Thai Railway: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P02569.192

Nearly all ex-POWs would have passed now, but I had the opportunity to meet and talk with some while I was working at the Australian War Memorial. It always amazed me that so many went on to lead healthy, productive and reasonably long lives knowing what they endured and also what they went without for so many years as POWs. I think it would’ve been around 2004 that several ex-prisoners tracked me down at the Memorial and asked if I was related to a mate of theirs (they had enlisted, served and been captured in 1942 with my uncle). They were all in their 80s or 90s by then and I got to know them all. They marched together every Anzac Day in Sydney and had all survived the sinking of the Rakuyō Maru in 1944. They asked me if they could meet with my father and I remember getting them all together one Saturday morning in West Ryde at one of their homes. After all those years they had managed to track me down and finally my father and I knew what had happened to his brother so many years ago. For me it was just like meeting many of those who told their stories to Tim and Hank.

The Broken Years

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Image source: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P04604.016

Dr Bill Gammage AM, FASSA is an academic historian who wrote The Broken Years based on his PhD thesis at the ANU. First published in 1974 it tells the story of Australia’s involvement in the First World War through the private records created by a thousand Australian soldiers in their diaries and letters home.

At that time Bill was still able to correspond with some veterans of the Great War and he also  skilfully selected records that were mostly collected by the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in the 1920s and 1930s and ties them together to form a chronological story from 1914-1918, covering campaigns in Gallipoli (ANZAC), Egypt, Palestine and France.

I first read this book back in the late 1970s whilst training at RMC Duntroon and studying military history. It had an enormous impact on my attitude to war and made me fully aware of the awful realities, well beyond what I had heard from veterans, or seen in movies or on TV. I think the power of this book comes from the voices of those who served, who tell their own stories so powerfully. As the cover of the book notes, it is both a horrifying and emotionally moving account. What Bill Gammage does in The Broken Years is demonstrate the enormous importance and power of those archival collections at the AWM and he also highlights the vision of the historians, librarians, and archivists who created them so many years ago.

It is also worth noting that Bill Gammage is a highly respected historian and that he revived the tradition of Dr C.E.W. Bean, the official Australian historian of the First World War who focussed his story on the experiences of those who served rather than the battlefield strategies. Bean was also the founder of the AWM. Bill was later employed by Peter Weir as the military advisor for the film Gallipoli.

Bill’s book also seems to have had a not insignificant influence on at least part of my working life. I did not spend that long in the Army after graduating from Duntroon. I had a number of career changes and then somehow managed to wind up at the AWM as Head of their Research Centre (library and archive) in 2001. I was privileged to be responsible for the collections that this book was based upon and also for managing the addition of names to our Roll of Honour as we were again at war in the Middle East.

The critical thing with archival collections is that one must not just concentrate on preserving, cataloguing and exhibiting or providing access to what is already there. Those collections need to be developed as time marches on. With my curatorial colleagues at the AWM in the early 2000s, we soon realised that we faced new challenges in order to do what the AWM had done in the 1920s and 1930s to collect contemporary records of war – in the form of both official accounts (like unit war diaries) and private records in the digital age. We soon began asking to make curatorial visits to war zones to see what was being created for ourselves and to tag or collect what the AWM would need for future exhibitions and research into the conflicts that were still being waged. This started to happen from about 2007-2008. A colleague visited Iraq to mark and collect military technology and paraphernalia and then in late 2008 I was sent to Iraq (Baghdad) and out to sea with the RAN in the Northern Arabian Gulf to collect war records before our forces withdrew from Iraq. I was able to mark or tag some items such as map collections and official records, find out how people were corresponding or keeping diaries, made many photographs and recorded oral histories for the AWM collections. I left the AWM for UTS Library in 2009, but those AWM curatorial visits to war zones have continued in places such as Afghanistan ever since.

The Broken Years will be part of our featured book display at UTS Library for ANZAC Day 2017. I am not aware of any volume like this that has been written about any conflict after the First World War, so it is still unique. As a librarian, curator and collection manager I think it reminds us of the important and continuing role of archives and collecting institutions to preserve public knowledge, even as formats change.

Land of Mine – review #sydfilmfest

Land of Mine is a very grim and sobering film. Set in 1945, it tells us a little known story of the de-mining of the coast of Denmark immediately after the Second World War. After Germany’s surrender we follow a group of teenage German boys, obviously conscripted late in the war, who were sent to Denmark to remove mines from its coastline. Apparently some 2,000 German ex-soldiers were forced to de-mine these beaches and over 1,000 of them died or suffered debilitating injuries as a result.

From the very beginning this film is brutally realistic in its approach. Perhaps it is necessary if the anti-war message is ever to be widely understood. So we are introduced to the consequences of war with an abundance of violence, destruction, revenge, loss of life, waste, blame, guilt and victimisation. Very little is held back and there are many graphically realistic scenes of sheer horror.

One of the keys to the power of this film is that the cast look and act so authentically, making in even more shocking. The Danish sergeant in charge of the group of the boys, played by Roland Møller, has obviously either seen the results of German excesses during the war itself, but we are not given any details. All of the young German boys look so innocent and somewhat ashamed of their country’s role in the war. It is so effective and powerful because I think they actually are teenagers, not 24 year olds playing teenagers as is so often the case.

As the film develops, it slowly introduces and explores other emotions and the consequences of war: loss, grief, empathy, friendship, love, sympathy and perhaps forgiveness.

The film is beautifully shot, from the scenery of the Danish coastline to the close-up shots of the boys nervous hands removing detonators from the mines.

It is such a powerful film that I wonder whether it should be compulsory viewing for any politician wanting to send young people off to war or willing to spend more money on the awful industries that manufacture these horribly destructive weapons.

My Bruce McAvaney Specialness Rating*: 4/5 (Most people would think this to be special.)

William Yang My Generation – Review

I saw this at its premier in the Dendy Opera Quays. William was there as were many of those featured in the images like Kate Fitzpatrick and Jenny Kee. George Gittoes was there too representing those from the Yellow House years who could not attend (like Martin Sharp) and those who had passed like Brett Whiteley. I caught up with George after the film as we had spent some time together in Iraq a few years back. He told me he was just back from Afghanistan and introduced me to a friend who was curating an exhibition of his work from those years. So, back to the film …

It is a film that documents one of his live performances, in this case 10/11 “My Generation”. I saw this live in Carriage Works back in 2009 I think and I still love it. I really like the way he carefully provides just enough context for his photographs, preferring to let his images talk for him. William has documented a fascinating period of Australian cultural (and gay) history that features those named above as well as many other significant figures including Patrick White, Jimmy Sharman, Rex Cramphorn, Little Nell Campbell, Margaret Fink, and Linda Jackson. This film is a visual potted history of that part of Sydney in the 80s and 90s.

I think it is wonderful and I think it is also being broadcast on ABC TV on 16 June, so don’t miss it. If you’ve not seen one of his performances and can remember the 80s and 90s it will ring many bells.

5/5 because I loved it and I think William is a national treasure.