Sunday, 19 July 2015

Book review: Goodbye cobber, God bless you

It is the centenary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. This is a review of Goodbye cobber, Gd bless you, by John Hamilton (2004 Macmillan, Sydney).

This was a painful book to read because it was about the senseless and unnecessary sacrifice of brave young Australians in the futile charge of the light horse brigades at The Nek in Gallipoli on 7 August 1915.

But it is a great work of scholarship and storytelling by John Hamilton, an award-winning Australian journalist from WA. The dust cover calls it a work of “meticulous research” which it certainly seems to be. I liked a lot of things about Goodbye cobber. I liked the telling of the Anzac journey - from enlistment, to training (at Broadmeadow in Victoria), to the sea voyage to Egypt, to training and life in Egypt, to Lemnos and Gallipoli, to life and combat in the trenches, then to the awful climax – the charge at The Nek where so many good young men died. That has become a kind of hero’s journey or legend now.

Hamilton researched the background and the experiences of the officers and men at a very detailed level, so that it is a very personal account of their experiences. He uses the official war records as well as the diaries of many of the men. I felt that he painted a vivid picture of their lives – in the ships going over, in the tents in the Egyptian desert, in the trenches and the hospitals. The sand, the flies, the creeping lice, ear-splitting gun and artillery fire and the gut-churning smell of rotting corpses.

I loved the details given of their army uniforms, the weapons, the dugouts, the food, how the Light Horse was organised.

Hamilton describes the growing tensions between the officers commanding the 8th, 9th and 10th LH regiments and the commander of the 3rd LH brigade, Hughes, and his “martinet” 2IC, Jack Antill. The slaughter of the dismounted light horse troopers and their officers seems to be something that should have been avoided. Hamilton blames Hughes, who was absent (sick), but mostly Antill who stepped in to command. Antill refused to listen to reports that the attack was hopeless. But lack of communications between the regimental commanders and the heroic but fatal decision of the CO of the first line of attack, Maj. White to lead his men to certain death, also contributed.

With hindsight, it was suggested that if White had not sacrificed himself, he and the other COs might have banded together to have the attack halted. After the murderous fiasco, Antill covered his arse, shifting the blame for what had happened to others. In today’s terms, we’d say there had been a catastrophic failure of management. The army did not punish Hughes or Antill, but swept the carnage under the carpet, and the propaganda machine downplayed it, it focusing on the victory at Lone Pine. They still needed as many new recruits as they could get and The Nek was not the kind of story they wanted the Australian public to hear.
(July 2015)

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