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Lost in the detail

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I was up at the Nek the other day—no, really, I was. I’m on Gallipoli with a film crew, working on a documentary about the campaign. And of course we did a scene at the Nek in which I paced out the 15 yards that the light horsemen got before they fell to Turkish machine-gun bullets. Gallipoli in December is no picnic. But the crew—actually just Paul and Jaems, who combine a passionate mastery of the arts of sound and film recording with being funny and reflective blokes—beat the cold and the wind with non-stop repartee, an easy professionalism and a willingness to just keep batting on.

So we were up at the Nek and it rained as well as being windy and cold. But suddenly we stopped larking about and became very solemn, as if we recognised without having it pointed out that this was a place where the ground beneath us was as full of Australian bones as a fruitcake is of dried fruit. We’d seen a few cemeteries and battlefields by then, but the Nek was still something special.

John Hamilton’s similar feeling for the charge at the Nek can’t be faulted. Like all of us who know even a little about the charge—whether by having caught Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli on TV again, or having visited the little cemetery on Gallipoli itself—the event demands a passionate response. Who can think of the brave, hopeless, useless attack and not feel outraged, mournful or just pissed off that something like this should have happened?

Hamilton, a Walkley Award-winning journalist, encountered the story on a visit to Gallipoli and resolved to write a book about it. The result, its title taken from the last words of one of the 234 Australians killed in the charge, is a whopping 365 pages. It must be the longest book devoted to one of the shortest events in Australian history.

Hamilton’s task has been made much easier by the existence of books by his predecessors, notably my colleague at the Australian War Memorial, Peter Burness, whose 1996 book The Charge at the Nek also tells you about this event but at a third of the length. Hamilton acknowledges that he has used Burness’s citations to find more, but what he says doesn’t substantially add to our understanding of what went wrong at the Nek. Indeed, he has often lazily quoted great chunks of other writers’ words: this isn’t writing, it’s assemblage.

Of course the great stories of any group—and the Nek is one of ours—deserve to be retold as often as we can stand. We may get different insights out of these various renditions—one day, perhaps, someone might find some purpose in the charge—but it’s not a story that should be told just the once. But if they are to engage us they need to be written to meet readers’ needs and not just authors’ urge to gather and inform. Sadly, Goodbye Cobber, God Bless You throws away its chance to inform us in a thicket of detail.

Hamilton’s book raises several intriguing points about the way military history is being published in Australia today. It’s clear that it’s being written not just by its stalwarts—experts like Mark Johnston, Ross McMullin or Phil Bradley—but also by journalists whose main interest in past battles is to tell stories. It seems that publishers are choosing journalists who know nothing over historians who know their subjects.
Journalists are, we suppose, more skilful at telling the stories which are rightly at the heart of good popular writing about the past. But is that so? Journalists skilful at turning out a thousand words of copy on demand may not be able to control material over the length of a book: John Hamilton gives us detail but loses control of the bigger story.

Looking beyond Hamilton’s book, we might ask why journalists are apparently impelled to write great fat books of military history? Freed from the subeditor’s tyranny, are they like boys in a sweetshop, stuffing themselves? John Hamilton has decided that the best thing he can do is to tell us absolutely everything; to quote anything relevant (and much that is not)—every letter, diary entry, order and document he can find—at length. It’s not. He’s not telling a story, he’s showing us he can copy stuff out.

Sadly, the effect is to bore and alienate: the charge itself does not begin until about page 286. Long before then we weary of his detailed, fact-laden, slab-quoting narrative. Hamilton has been inspired by visiting Gallipoli to find out about it, but he hasn’t exerted the discipline to work out how to tell the story so his readers might be as inspired and informed.

I’m interested in getting a new angle on the details of the charge: in the seven-minute delay between the end of the bombardment and the first wave going over, and why—and so on. But what Jaems most wanted to know is the most important question: why the men who charged at the Nek were able to do what they did—to climb out of a trench and run towards certain death. The answer to that question, if it can be found at all, lies in who these men were and in the society they came from. For all that John Hamilton tells us about where these men lived and what they did for a crust and so on, sadly he doesn’t get within cooee of answering that vital question.  

Goodbye Cobber, God Bless You, John Hamilton. Macmillan, 2004. isbn 1 405 03624 9, rrp $30

Peter Stanley is principal historian at the Australian War Memorial. His own Gallipoli book, Quinn’s Post, Anzac, Gallipoli, comes out in April, and will be murdered in reviews by journalists.



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Peter I trust there are some journalists, who will find the clarity required to NOT murder the book, but actually see it for what it will be, a unique perspective offered by a passionate historian who really cares about history and the legacy he leaves for the future.

George Donikian | 24 August 2013  

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