The Australians in Nine Wars by Peter Firkins

From Waikato to Long Tan, Pan, 1973, 524 p, including i p acknowledgements, ii p list of illustrations, i p list of maps, vi p index of military formations, xv p general index, vi p bibliography.

The Australians in Nine Wars cover

The book covers Australian soldiers’ exploits from a time when Australia wasn’t even Australia but only a collection of various separate colonies. Some of these first sent men overseas to New Zealand to assist against the Maoris, then to Sudan in the aftermath of Gordon’s death in Khartoum and to China during the Boxer Rebellion. Its military prowess came to flower in South Africa in the (Second) Boer War – during whose duration Australia as a country was constituted – where, being used to the bush, they were able to play the Boers at their own game blending in to the countryside and showed for the first time their flair for unconventional warfare. The other wars covered are of course the two World Wars, the Korean War, the “Malaysian Emergency” and Vietnam.

The book’s thrust is that the Australian fighting man is unique, forming a citizen army there to do a job and get back to normal life as soon as possible, consisting of individuals full of initiative. In it we discover that it was Australians who won in Palestine and on the Western Front in the First World War, were essential in holding Tobruk, won at El Alamein, were the first to defeat the Japanese on land in World War 2 (which General Slim wrote was an inspiration to those in Burma) and even won in Vietnam! British Generals were crap (due to the class system) and prejudiced to boot. Moreover they apparently systematically underappreciated and failed to give credit to Australian contributions and leadership due to the “Union of British Generals”. Douglas MacArthur comes in for equal criticism for being insufficiently grateful for and appreciative of their efforts.

There is considerable force to this argument when you consider General Hunter Weston’s reply to a comment at Gallipoli that a third attack on Achi Baba peak was sure to cause heavy losses. “Casualties? What do I care for casualties?” he demanded, but Firkins’s strictures do no justice to the difficulties of prevailing in an age when defence had the advantage over attack and no-one involved had sufficient experience of the problems to be overcome. He asserts that the tank was at first “used so unskilfully that the one weapon which could have ended trench warfare was frittered away as an infantry support or wasted in its unsupported success at Cambrai.” Maybe so, but where were experienced tank generals to be found? Conjured out of thin air, perhaps? This point is ironically underlined later in the book when one of Firkins’s heroes of WW2, General Morshead, is quoted as saying of his early experiences in that war, “I didn’t handle my tanks well. I should have kept them concentrated and them all together. I didn’t know enough about tanks then as I do now.” Australian generals it would seem are to be cut slack not afforded to others.

In WW1 all Australians were volunteers, most of whom saw action in the frontline. Support services were provided by the British army as a whole as was the greater part of their weapons, ammunition and supplies. In the next paragraph Firkins says their “contribution to the successes of the British army was quite disproportionate to the numbers involved” and they, along with the New Zealanders and Canadians, did not receive due credit for their deeds till late in the war. Notwithstanding their valour and the very real downplaying of their role, how much could they have achieved without support, weapons, supplies and ammunition? But they were used as the spearhead of every attack after Gallipoli. The Australian casualty rate was 68½%; double that of the British Empire’s troops as a whole. They did however develop the tactic of peaceful penetration which dispensed with the usual preliminary heavy artillery bombardment.
Australians were “accustomed to judging their officers by their personal qualities and not by their badges of rank” and gained a reputation for indiscipline among British officers, an attitude which Firkins says was a main factor in their contributions being undervalued.

The book covers the heavy Australian involvement in the all but forgotten campaign against the Vichy French in Syria in WW2 – where more men were lost than in Greece and Crete combined.

Elsewhere the author pours scorn on “Churchill’s overriding concern for British Imperial interests, to the detriment of an Australia fighting for her life,” saying it “cast a grave reflection on his judgements.” It’s an odd injunction. Churchill wasn’t Australian; he was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It was his responsibility to preserve British Imperial interests. Ultimately of course he failed in that, but the roots of that failure did not lie with him, they originated in the Great War, and perhaps in the tides of history. And has Australia’s subsequent cleaving to the US served it any better?

Firkins includes an illuminating aside uttered by a US liaison officer in Korea of the Australians’ former foes now allies, “When the Turks ran out of bullets they unsheathed their knives. They are as tough as their reputation. They obeyed only one order: Advance. Any other order confuses them,” and he sees the war in Vietnam as a necessary one against an enemy which perpetrated “vile cruelties and civilian slaughter” but he does predict (the book was first published in 1972) the final North Vietnamese victory when the US and its Allies‎ withdrew. He quotes approvingly Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies’s subscription to the domino theory. An additional forty-five years perhaps yields a different perspective.

Pedant’s corner:- Bridges’ (Bridges’s,) Gavril Princep (usually Gavrilo Princip,) Saint Stephens’ (Saint Stephens’s,) Colonel Holmes’ detachment (Holmes’s,) “until there were no infantry remaining to carry on” (Firkins has previously treated infantry as a singular noun, which it is; so, until no infantry was left,) Gheluvet (Gheluvelt, this was on a map,) Smuts’ (Smuts’s,) von Sanders’ (von Sanders’s,) Cairo headquarters were laying plans, (headquarters is usually treated as a singulsr noun,) the Australians forward positions (Australians’,) Larisa (Larissa,) Churchill’s staff were not enthused (staff was?) twleve (twelve,) Churchillean (usually Churchillian,) Mohne and Ede dams (Eder,) “it was estimated … about 5,000 Japanese had landed… In fact it was considerably less” (fewer,) Clowes’ (Clowes’s,) Potts’ (Potts’s,) of an enemy who were swarming past (was,) Japanese force with numbered more than (which numbered,) had showed (shown,) no more that a form flitting through foliage (than a form,) Mindano (Mindanao; on a map,) the rest were (was,) this area included……. and covers … (keep the tense the same.)

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3 comments

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  1. Denis Cullinan

    Jack–

    You nailed it with the “Churchillian” gloss. Cf. “Shakespearian.”

    What I ought to do is chase down the difference between the suffixes “-ean” and “-ian,” but I don’t have the reference materials to do a satisfactory job. I have the print edition of the OED, of all things, but it has been messed up by the computer people, who accept too much trivial stuff. For instance, I noted the inclusion of “feng shui” in my copy. Since I’ve given up cursing and blaspheming, I now have nothing to say.

    —Denis

  2. jackdeighton

    Denis,
    Thank you again.
    Life’s too short to chase up the difference between -ean and -ian. I know it when I see it though.
    (Having said life’s too short I just googled “suffix -ean” and got a site listing suffixes. (https://www.learnthat.org/pages/view/suffix.html#h))
    It only gives -ian. I suppose Shakespearean is because his name ended in e but it definitely suggests “Churchillean” is way off beam.

  3. Yet More Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – A Son of the Rock -- Jack Deighton

    […] Australians in Nine Wars by Peter Firkins I reviewed here, The Great War Generals on the Western Front by Robin Neillands here, David Fraser’s And We […]

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