Diggers In France by Richard Travers
Reviewed by ausrossH
There is history and then there is… history.
All too many people when writing history, think it is necessary to try and bore us to death with reams of facts, figures and something so dry that you feel your cheeks puckering in sympathy as if you were sucking on raw limes. Then there is history that informs, engages and tells a real story which grips the reader, making them want to keep on reading and learn more.
Facts and an entertaining account do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive.
When I first picked this book up, it was while researching something quite specific – the Battle of Fromelles. But the book is simply so engaging that I found it near-impossible to put down.
Almost every page directly quotes from the soldiers themselves, from letters, diaries etc. This puts you practically right there with the diggers themselves.
Unlike say Patrick Lindsay’s account of Fromelles, there are plenty of detailed footnotes that add authority and point the reader in the direction of further reading if they are so inclined.
There is plenty of real information in here but combined with human touches. An early example is describing the break-up of the existing 1st and 2nd Divisions In Egypt following the Gallipoli withdrawal, creating the 4th and 5th Divisions (the 3rd was formed back in Australia). It describes how Albert Jacka, one of our most famous soldiers in World War 1, then a hard-nailed company sergeant-major, was so very unhappy at breaking up the existing companies but did his duty all the same.
The book does not glorify war. After reading of the chronic debacle of Fromelles, the reader cannot help but wonder ‘why?’. Nor does it try to paint the Aussie diggers in sugary depictions such as the flower of our nation and similar phrases that the likes of official War Historian, Charles Bean, was known to do.
That said, for some reason, Travers could not resist using the old ‘who called the cook, a bastard – who called the bastard, a cook?’ gag as something that was supposedly said on parade, although a footnote admits that this may not have been more than a story (I first heard it as a story about shearers). Similarly he quotes an account of a dead soldier, laying next to a dead German, the enemy’s greatcoat draped over him, with the suggestion that the dieing German removed his coat to cover the injured enemy. But a footnote admits that it might just as well have been someone else who simply took the German’s coat and draped it over the Digger. But these romanticisms are the exception rather than the rule.
This is real history, as history should be written. It engages, informs and even entertains. I thoroughly recommend it to all. The only reason I did not give it five stars is because I am a miserable sod. (4 stars).