An intimate war history with heart, spirit and drama Canberra Times: Saturday, 7 August 2004
'A HISTORIAN needs a stout pair of boots." Drummed into us in History
and Theory all those years ago and never better demonstrated than in this fine
book. This is military history, war history if you like, and therefore not
a book for everyone. But it shows, as well as anything I've come across recently,
that with something as physical as war you simply can't write about it if you
haven't been there. You know after the first few pages that the author has
crawled over every bit of land he writes about.
The blurb tells me that this is Phillip Bradley's first book. It also tells me that he is an "ardent researcher" of Australian military history. Blurbs are such a mixed bag, aren't they? You wouldn't need to read much of this book to confirm the second statement. Nothing in the book would suggest the first.
For a first book this is a remarkable, indeed, to other writers, a humbling achievement. Phillip Bradley has given us narrative history at its best; put simply, he tells a good story very well indeed - with pace, with flair, with insight and with a control of the detail which is at times quite astonishing. If I were asked to put together an anthology of Australian military history writing I'd certainly want some of this book's Chapter 4, "Pallier's Platoon".
Why? The attack on a strongly entrenched Japanese position is modest indeed in the total picture of Australia in World War II. Here we are down to platoon level, something most historians would stay well clear of. But for nerve-tingling drama, for intense description based on an intimate knowledge of this remote and minor battle site, and for lessons about Australian leadership, spirit and skill there can be little to equal On Shaggy Ridge. In the account of this platoon's engagement, you come to know the lip of the ridge along which these Australians crawl, right under the noses of the Japanese defenders; you hear them encouraging one another to keep going on; you feel the tension as they are about to launch themselves at the foxholes of the defenders; you suffer the intensity of the attack and the sadness of the sacrifice on both sides. All in a couple of thousand words. If military history is sometimes bloodless and remote, this is anything but.
Writing at platoon and section level carries enormous risks. Too many names to hold in our heads, none of the "span" historians try for, too little of a strategic or even a tactical sense. These are criticisms of this book. At times I wanted to be told what these battles meant for the bigger picture; why these men had to fight so doggedly for these remote and modest gains. You'd go elsewhere, to the official history perhaps, for that. Here you'll get the essence of fighting for individual Australians at this level and at this time of a world war. In knowing the detail, you'll know something of the reality.
Which is not to say that On Shaggy Ridge steers clear of judgments, another of the historian's responsibilities. Of Lindsay "Teddy" Bear, Phillip Bradley will tell you "he was undoubtedly one of the finest soldiers his country ever put into the field, in any war". That's just slipped in when summing up one of these intense battles. From what has gone on just before, the reader may be inclined to accept the call, enormous though it is. In the company of Harry Murray, Percy Black or Albert Jacka from the earlier war; or "Diver" Derrick from this? Yet it is the achievement of this first-time writer to give you the confidence in judgements of this nature. I'd now put "Teddy" Bear up with any of them.
The blurb does not tell me who Bradley is or how long he worked on this first book. Yet between 1996 and 2003 he interviewed or corresponded with 147 of the participants of the battles he writes about (I know, I counted them at the back). This gives the book its intensely personal feel. But it is not a book of old soldiers' tales strung together with an author's loose connecting thread. To give you an example. One man, "Lofty" Back, a Queensland shearer going to his death as they crawled up the ridge, called to his cobber, "See you at the Winton races." Apart from a blood-curdling cry to urge his mates on in the attack that's all Lofty says in this book. But it's enough to fix him in my mind for a long time yet.
This is not a book for everyone; the detail may weary the general reader. But if you want to know about Australia and its soldiers, about battle at the closest range, and possibly about the way we once were, then On Shaggy Ridge should be on your bookshelf. I'll treasure my copy.
Michael McKernan is a Canberra historian and broadcaster.