Lions led by donkeys

Steve Kendall | Bendigo Weekly | 24-Apr-2014

It has often been said about World War I that it was a case of lions led by donkeys.

The bravest of the brave sent against impossible odds by generals away from the front.

With the hindsight of history it seems to be in so many cases quite correct.

The books written today use that hindsight to great effect, and some of the contemporary World War I books hold back a bit for the sake of the reader.

Penguin, the bastion of spreading affordable reading to the population, has come up with a winner in the re-releasing of a number of titles written just after and during the war to end all wars.

It certainly gives an insight into the world as was.

Robert Graves was a British poet who saw service as an officer in the war and it had repercussions on a grand scale.

His book, part of the Penguin release, is calledGoodbye To All That and is a modern classic. Written in 1929, it charts his life until then. He wrote it at 33, before leaving England to live in Majorca, where he died in 1985.

The title refers to his life to date, but really shows the war changed things for everybody for ever.

As a front line officer he was quickly thrown into the maw of trench warfare. His first night in the line he was given command of 800 metres of the front.

He did not know the area at all, and spent the night learning the important parts of his role.

He survived the war but paints a candid picture of the true horror. There is no need to embellish, the truth is hard enough.

He tells of nearly all men hoping for “a cushy one” a light wound which will get them home. That or death, anything but a stomach wound left to die in no man’s land.

I have read many war books, but this had an impact all of its own.

The description over time of the varied discolouration of a dead fellow officer brings home what these men went through on the front line.

Well done Penguin.
The Australian part of the war is finally broadening beyond Gallipoli, but if you want to find out about the Dardenelles campaign there are plenty of old and new works on the subject.
The newer titles have the benefit of modern research, and two which shine out as worthy of a read are 36 Days by Hugh Dolan  and the Battle for Lone Pine by David Cameron.

Cameron charts the four days of the Lone Pine battle in minute detail, seven of Gallipoli’s nine Australian Victoria Crosses were earned in this one battle, it’s easy to see why.

Stories of intense hand-to-hand combat with bodies of wounded and dead comrades underfoot makes reading not for the faint hearted. But it tells of the action with an eye on the need to know what these men went through in our name.

Dolan’s 36 Days focusses on the intelligence in the lead up to the invasion. Australian airmen flew over the peninsular spotting for the British (Commonwealth) army, and in most cases their intelligence was not used. The “Donkeys” trusting to lessons they learned in the open plains of the Indian and African wars.

The “Lions” paid the price.

The Battle for Lone Pine
David Cameron
Penguin Viking $23.95
36 days
Hugh Dolan
Macmillan $34.99
Goodbye To All That
Robert Graves
Penguin $9.95

Plus a whole collection of other Penguin titles.
CEW Bean’s
Anzac to Amiens
Patsy Adams-Smith’s
The Anzac
Phillip Schuler’s
Australia in Arms
Leonard Mann’s
Flesh in Armour
Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed
Roy Kyle’s
An Anzac’s Story
Frederic Manning’s
The Middle Parts of Fortune
George Walter, editor of
The Penguin Book of First World Poetry
Ernst Junger’s
Storm of Steel


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