Here I go on my way

Most bookshops today devote an entire bookshelf to militaria. It’s a growth area. Much of what is on sale is almost unreadable: long-winded revisionism by armchair generals that tell where the commander of the day went wrong, or clumsy attempts to distil an essence of ‘mateship’, like an expedition for the source of the Nile. Other books focus on images and statistics.

On the Warpath is none of these things. It is a well-crafted little book which brings together mostly first-hand accounts of many aspects of Australians at war and arranges them in a way that reads well and allows each piece to breathe, to relate its tale on its own terms. Its authors are soldiers, officers, nurses and journalists. Its subtitle markets the book as ‘an anthology of military travel’, but this sells the book short, for there are insights into the human condition contained here that you would be hard pressed to detect in most travel literature.

There are 57 individual contributions to On the Warpath and almost none of them focus on the fighting. Instead, we hear from Louise Mack, a correspondent in World War I, who resists calls to evacuate the threatened town of Antwerp and wanders through a fallen, deserted city, awaiting the new owners.

Elsewhere, we see a different side of General Sir John Monash, as he writes in letters to his wife Victoria of his days spent in France travelling from village to village; personally organising farmhouse billets for his troops while ‘making friends with the children, or the dog, or in one case the pet pig’. From the other side of the world, in another war, Army nurse Jessie Simons recalls lazy tropical days spent sightseeing in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca. Six months later, with Singapore fallen, her ship would be sunk and she and other survivors would spend three and a half years as prisoners of the Japanese in Sumatra.

On the Warpath offers good descriptions of the physical conditions in which these men and women toiled each day. Perhaps nowhere is this environment more confronting than in the jungle campaigns of New Guinea and the islands. Kenneth Slessor writes:

‘the jungle has deadlier adversaries than the Japanese; it hits back at the fightingman with sharp claws, with matted roots and vines and thorns, with tiger-toothed branches and barbed undergrowth; it mocks him with tremendous ribs of mountain, with vertical peaks, deep torrents, agonies of rock and marsh; it soaks him to the hide with whipping rain, it saturates him with sweat, it burns him with incandescent heats and fevers, and it cakes him with a pulp of loathsome mud. It is full of malaria, ague, dysentery, scrub typhus, obscure diseases. It is full of crocodiles and snakes and bloated spiders, leeches, lice, mosquitoes, flies… ’

And yet, these trials were borne and victory came, in time. Each year around Anzac day, our media attempt to summarise the war in the jungle in neat, digestable packages for those of us sitting in front of the television or radio; a bit of stock Pathé footage here, a few arrows advancing on maps there, perhaps some interviews with veterans who are mostly (understandably) reticent about their experiences. But it is first-hand accounts like Slessor’s, penned by people who could write well and candidly, that provide us with a necessary context for appreciating the terrible ordeals that these men endured.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of On the Warpath is the writing that reveals a transcendence of these ordeals. In the midst of suffering, fear and uncertainty, the human spirit emerges at its most beautiful: the passages from Ray Parkin’s Burma-Siam Railroad diaries are perhaps the book’s finest example. Parkin was a POW on the railroad with ‘Weary’ Dunlop (in fact, it was Dunlop who smuggled Parkin’s entire manuscript back to Australia, after the author had been sent on to forced labour in Japan before the war ended). The first excerpt from his diary tells us of the beginning of captivity and transport to the railroad. The second entry presents us with a man emaciated and racked by malaria, who has watched his colleagues suffer and die for the past eight months in captive labour. Yet amidst all of this, Parkin the naturalist emerges. On lone duties away from the camp for a short time, he paints watercolours and writes what, under the circumstances, are breath-taking passages:

‘the crows are noisy tonight. Two large black ones sat on a bamboo and eyed me with what I thought was professional interest, as I ate my supper … I was able to make a watercolour of a plant like a multiple Venetian pole this afternoon. I have seen a lot of flowers here I should like to paint, if I get the time. As I eat or cook by the fire, I watch hundreds of small bronze lizards with a black stripe down each side … I feel a contentment which makes me burst out singing and whistling. I talk to myself … telling myself to buck up, get a move on, do this, or that. I have ants and lizards for company and occasionally, a small lizard cocks me a friendly glance’.

Whether the result of conscious editorial choice or not, there are linear progressions discernible in the excerpts in On the Warpath and they make for instructive reading. As we progress through different conflicts over time, the way Australians write about themselves in the world and the way they write about their adversaries changes. Tom Gunning, a veteran of the Sudan campaign reminisces that ‘we were eager to be off to this mysterious Sudan, where 50,000 Arabs were embarrassing Britain at an awkward time’.

‘Banjo’ Patterson voices what must have been an overwhelming collective need for affirmation (at least as far as the newspapers were concerned) in recalling the acceptance by the British of an Australian unit fresh from its first action against the Boer: ‘We were no longer outsiders … we were of the brotherhood and could hold up our heads with the best. The kangaroo was himself again! And once we have gained an entrance to the Briton’s scheme of the universe we will not lose our position … This morning we were nobodies; now we are full-blown soldiers and can ruffle it with the best of them’. Such jingoism might be a natural growing pain, after all, but it peters out through the pages of On the Warpath. Along with Parkin’s diaries and the brilliant, incisive prose of Osmar White, Tom Hungerford’s account of his garrison duties in occupied Japan are particularly fine. He befriends an elderly Japanese man, an English teacher before the war, and enters intimately into the world of the Japanese countryside. At one point, he finds out what his gentle host thinks about Australia: ‘He’d read a number of Australian books, among them Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life. I asked him what he’d thought of them and he said they’d given him a mixed sort of picture of Australia … he imagined Australians to be happy, a bit simple, secure, immature and sometimes vicious’.

On the Warpath encompasses writings from the early colonial campaigns in the Sudan and South Africa, through the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam to small selections from East Timor and Afghanistan. The book ends with attempts by those who were not there to understand the experiences of Australia’s military past. As you might expect, the standard of 57 separate contributions varies, but there is some very good writing laced throughout the book and each excerpt measures a handful of pages at most; as such, there’s little chance of becoming bored before the next cameo. Parts of the book will tell stories that might only be guessed at: for young men abroad for the first time, there are always new sights to see, new places to get drunk or start fights and exotic women to possess, in between the fighting. But here and there, the editors have set before the reader elegant writing, full of humanity and wisdom. They deserve our congratulations. 

On the warparth: An anthology of Australian military travel, edited by Robin Gerster and Peter Pierce.
Melbourne University Press, 2004. isbn 0 522 85087 1, rrp $39.95

Luke Fraser lives and works in Canberra.



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