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War Remembrance and Research - Two Book Reviews

Sunday, 26 April 2015  | Keith Sewell

Jonathan King, Gallipoli Diaries: The Anzacs’ Own Story Day by Day, Melbourne: Scribe, 2014, paperback 426 pages. ISBN: 978 1922070913.

Peter Cochrane, Simpson and the Donkey: The Making of a Legend—Anniversary Edition. Melbourne University Press, 2014, paperback, 296 pages. ISBN: 978 0522866032.

Reviewed by Keith C. Sewell

We are living through a decade of sombre centenaries. Last year marked the centenary of the Sarajevo assassinations, the outbreak of the Great War, the retreat from Mons and the battle of the Marne in defence of Paris. Now Gallipoli is upon us. Before us lie commemorations yet more terrible: Verdun, the Somme,
Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, and more besides. It is hardly surprising that these centenaries have brought forth a rush of new publications and re-printings. What the Somme does for England, and Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele does for Canada, Gallipoli does for Australia and New Zealand. The experience—visceral and interpreted—has left its mark on the national consciousness, perhaps indelibly. These two titles are both timely republications of earlier works. King’s book first appeared in 2003, Cochrane’s in 1992. Both men have written extensively on Australian history. 

King’s subtitle is wholly accurate: “The Anzacs’ own story day by day.” King sifted through the extensive notes, letters and diaries left by soldiers and others and by judicious selection provides the reader with a connected depiction of events and experiences for each of the 240 days of the campaign. The relevant references are provided at the end of the book. The central focus of this title is the “diggers” themselves. Characters such as John Monash (1865-1931), Keith Murdoch (1885-1952) and inevitably Charles Bean (1879-1968) figure in the narrative, but the central focus is the experiences of the fighting men themselves. 

The last surviving ANZAC died in 2002. Next to actually handling the documents and photographs themselves this is as close as we can now get to the raw experience of men in the field. It is all here: trenches, tedium, terror, wounds, stench, depravation, lice and flies. The memorialization of those lost in war is a complex matter. It can be all too easy to harness grief to legitimize self-justification arising from self-righteousness. In their crudest forms such tendencies can amount to the glorification of war. King is well aware of this, and one of the most valuable portions of the book is the initial section entitled “Listening to the Anzacs.” Here long-term survivors reflect on their involvement so long ago. Here we encounter a constant theme: defend Australia but avoid distant military adventurism, especially at the behest of hegemonic powers. Of course, they speak with the wisdom of hindsight, but theirs is a sensibility all too easily lost when history is neglected by educational systems oriented exclusively to materialism and profitability. Certainly this volume is indispensible for those wanting to understand the Australian spirit. It undoubtedly deserves a place in every high school library. 

Where King addresses the immediate experiences of men under threat at Gallipoli, Cochrane assiduously explores the formation and evolution of one of Australia’s most famous legends. If the Anzacs at Gallipoli became a legend, “Simpson and his donkey” became a potent legend within a legend. The initial focus is on John Simpson Kirkpatrick (1892-1915)—the famed Simpson—who, it turns out, was English-born; a Geordie from South Shields. He was no fervent devotee of King and Empire. On the contrary, his whole outlook was that of a radically inclined social democrat (7). 

If the Simpson of the patriotic and humanitarian legend is an altogether different character from the man himself, this is largely attributable to the omissions and misrepresentations of Clarence Irving Benson (1897-1980). Benson was a Yorkshire-born Methodist who migrated to Victoria in 1916. He was ordained in the Methodist ministry in 1922. In due course he achieved an international reputation as an engaging preacher. In this detailed study Cochrane does much more than discuss Benson, but in many respects the backbone of his work is his assiduous exploration of Benson’s role in the formation and growth of the Simpson legend, and his exposure and analysis of the ideological commitments that underlay and drove that process. Benson was a man on a mission: nothing less than a crusade against totalitarianism—and especially communism—requiring courage and moral strength, in which the Simpson legend might function both to instruct and inspire. 

According to Cochrane, Benson espoused a “biblical version of the editorial line of the conservative press which argued that just as diggers had fought against tyranny in two world wars, so they would carry on that tradition in South East Asia … the Anzacs … had turned military disaster into noble and meaningful defeat. When he likened them to martyrs, he also spoke of ‘the spiritual affinity in the nearness of Good Friday to Anzac Day for the Crucifixion and the Resurrection speak to us of the success of failure’.” (39-40). Benson was not above harnessing the powerful language and imagery of the English Bible in an attempt to legitimize his pro-imperial, anti-communist view of the world. All this and more is attested in his The Man with the Donkey: The Good Samaritan of Gallipoli (1965). 

For this reason alone Cochrane’s study merits the careful consideration of serious Christians. The harnessing of biblical language and concepts to validate the waging of total war in the name of a moral crusade seems to have arisen first in the American Civil war. “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” It reappears in British memorialization of the South African War of 1899, and reaches its apogee in the extensive monuments of remembrance erected after 1919 to “The Glorious Dead.” Here the Christian language of redemption and deliverance through blood sacrifice is utilized in public monuments of remembrance in such a way as to simultaneously channel the grief of those left behind to mourn and offer moral justification for war and its consequences irrespective of the actual grounds for taking military action in the first place. Of course, the clergy can become enmeshed in this other web of meaning when they officiate at services or ceremonies of remembrance.  

In these latter days Australian Christians are confronted with the secularization of church and society. In many settings the language and symbolism of Christianity seem to have lost all persuasive power. It is as if our terminological currency has become so debased that it has lost all public purchase. Unquestionably, the roots of this situation are diverse. The devastating wars of the last century have taken their toll, and arguably the all too often self-righteous pseudo-Christian language used in war-dead remembrances have served to undermine the original biblical meaning of the terminology employed. 

In such a context, these two works merit serious reflection by all who are concerned about the public standing of Christianity in contemporary Australia. This is particularly so when the latter-day reflections of Gallipoli veterans provided by King are placed in the context of Benson’s shaping of the Simpson legend as presented by Cochrane.


Keith C. Sewell is Professor of History Emeritus at Dordt College in Sioux City, Iowa.

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