Category Archives: ANZAC

‘The Crying Years: Australia’s Great War’ by Peter Stanley

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2017, 239 p. & notes

It’s a rather touching thought that even a historian as steeped in knowledge of World War I as military/social historian Peter Stanley could be inspired by a cache of Great War images.  After all, his thirty five year career spawned thirty publications, he worked at the Australian War Memorial for 27 years and has been involved in many of the debates about Australia’s military heritage.  But, as he explains in the introduction, he was introduced to a collection of images – many of which he had never seen before- in a talk given to the Canberra Great War Study Group by Nicola Mackay-Sim, the Pictures Curator at the National Library of Australia in 2012. The NLA featured many of those images in its Keepsakes exhibition in 2015, but this book, The Crying Years is not, as Stanley is at pains to point out, a catalogue of that exhibition.  Instead, this book that Stanley wrote in conjunction with the  NLA, draws on other images and artefacts held by the National Library of Australia and integrates them into an informed and nuanced chronological account of the Great War seen through the eyes of Australians as

civilians and soldiers, men and women, adults and children, rich and poor, pro- and anti- conscription, powerful and powerless, white and black, at home and overseas. (p.vi)

By widening the lens in this way, Stanley is arguing that the popular idea that the war can be equated with the AIF’s part is “egregiously mistaken” (p.vii). You’ve seen the shelves of such weighty paperback books that see the war solely in terms of men and battles overseas,( probably moved closer to the front of the store for Father’s Day), where the name of the male author is as big as the particular wartime battle that he’s choosing to focus on.  Instead, Stanley is one of several prominent historians, who under the Honest History umbrella, promote the precept of ‘not only, but also’.  The Honest History website proclaims that “Australia is more than ANZAC, and always has been”. Likewise, the Great War is more than men and battles, and it was here in Australia as well as overseas, and this approach underpins this book.

The book is arranged in six chapters, one for each year of the war.  He includes 1919, and extends beyond that year to touch on the soldier settlement schemes and ANZAC commemoration in succeeding years.  This approach is similar to Joan Beaumont’s Broken Nation, and indeed this book forms an excellent illustrated companion to Beaumont’s book.  Not only does a year-by-year structure emphasize the length of the war, but it also captures the emotional swells of the wartime experience as the news from the front filtered ‘home’ and the media and organs of power acted in concert to promulgate ‘unity’ in patriotism.  The tenor of the text closely follows the lines of Stanley’s section of The War at Home, in an even more accessible  format.

The text weaves between images of photographs, maps, letters, cartoons, newspaper articles, posters, artwork and ephemera, with bracketed numbers directing the reader to the image on that or the succeeding page.  In coffee-table books like this one (although the designation ‘coffee-table’ seems terribly inappropriate) the text and images often can become separated, but in The Crying Years the connection is maintained well.

There are breakout boxes that focus on some 28 Australian individuals who lived at the time, and whose affairs were affected by the Great War to varying degrees.  Walter and Marian Griffin’s vision of Canberra, for example, was challenged by the Government’s focus on the war and German internees; Sir John Hubert Murray was administrator in Papua; Justice Henry Bournes Higgins (of the Harvester case) was grief-stricken when his son was killed in Sinai in 1916 at the age of 29; the ‘bohemian’ writer Zora Cross wrote the poem ‘Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy’ after the death of her injured brother from the meningitis epidemic that swept the AIF, from which the ‘the crying years’ of the title for the book is taken.  Some of the people he has chosen seem rather tangential to the war, but this underlines his point that the war did not touch ‘every family’ directly (p. 182). Others selected for breakout treatment, like  ALP politician and anti-conscriptionist James Catts, demonstrate the complexities of political thought and allegiances of the time.

The quality, clarity and diversity of the images is impressive.  These are not your usual WWI warfront photos: instead, they are uncensored photographs taken by the soldiers themselves.  There are jarring photographs of the different manifestations of patriotism at home, like the Aboriginal children from the Point Pearce mission dressed up as ‘a Band of Loyal Workers’ as Japanese, nurses, policemen and sailors, brandishing a large Union Jack.  It is quite clear that not all men of fighting age enlisted, as the photograph of shearers playing two-up outside a shearing shed shows.  I have read about ‘button days’ as children and young women sold patriotic buttons as fundraisers, but I have never before seen such a variety of them.

This is a beautifully curated book, where the text is every bit as important as the images.  Even if you’ve decided to steer clear of all the World War I commemoration tsunami, you could read and look at just this one book alone and gain a nuanced, rounded and informed perspective on the war, not just on the front but in the suburbs and small towns of Australia as well.

Source: Review copy courtesy of NLA through Quikmark Media.

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‘The War at Home’ by John Connor, Peter Stanley and Peter Yule

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2015, 240 p& notes

It might seem a bit strange, but I’m starting off this review at the very last chapter of this book, where Peter Stanley talks about a book that could well be seen as a forerunner of this present volume. That earlier book was Ernest Scott’s Australia During the War, published in 1936 as part of the twelve-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, edited by Charles Bean. Having a volume devoted to the war at home as part of this huge undertaking was a bit of an afterthought, but Charles Bean was happy to accommodate it because it meant that he didn’t have to worry about all that political stuff happening back ‘at home’ in the volumes that he was writing. Historian Ernest Scott was brought in to write it after the first draft penned by the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald was felt to be lacking.  Although exhaustive, apparently it’s a very politics-based approach, penned as it was some five or so years before G.M. Trevelyan’s English Social History (1942) had suggested that a social history could be written ‘with the politics left out’.

So why am I talking about a book written 81 years ago? Like that earlier volume, The War at Home is written as part of a five-part series: in this case, the ‘Centenary History of Australia and the Great War’ by Oxford University Press.  The other four volumes all sound rather militaristic (Vol 1 Australia and the War in the Air; Vol 2 The War with the Ottoman Empire; Vol 3 The War with Germany; and Vol 5 The Australian Imperial Force) and they hold little appeal for me. But I’m preparing for a presentation in December on the conscription referendums from a very local (i.e. Heidelberg) perspective, and I’ve been enjoying the work that has been done in Melbourne this year related to Conscription (i.e. the Serenading Adela choir, and the Anti-Conscription conference I attended in May). I feared that this book might be full of Anzackery, but my fears were groundless. In fact one of the authors, historian Peter Stanley, admitted  -perhaps a little regretfully? – that his own work had contributed to the conventional interpretation of Australia’s Great War as a major and formative experience for both individuals and the nation.  The authors have deliberately chosen to talk of ‘the war at home’ rather than ‘the homefront’, which they explain was a term used at the time to talk about Germany, not Australia.

The book is divided into three parts, each denoted by a single word (Economy: Politics: Society) and written by a different historian. Within each of these themes, the chapters are arranged roughly chronologically. Part I, ‘Economics’ was written by Peter Yule and opens with ‘The Australian Economy in 1914’ and closes with ‘The Australian Economy in 1919′. I didn’t really expect to enjoy this section as much as I did, given my aversion to numbers, but I found it fascinating. He took some time to describe Billy Hughes’ actions  in trade negotiations- something that I hadn’t considered previously.  Nor had I wondered why all those bags of wheat were stacked up, being eaten by mice? (Answer: it was because Britain had ordered up all Australia’s wheat crop when it seemed that the Canadian crop would fail- and when it didn’t, they just left the wheat here rotting), or thought about why the Zinc industry became prominent in Tasmania in 1916? ( Answer: it was because a replacement needed to be found for the German supplies). This topic could be dry, but I liked the way that he interwove human stories into his analysis: the wealthy mining industrialists based in Collins House; the town of Warrnambool cheering the opening of the woollen mill; Leonard Dyer eking out an existence on a soldier settler farm in the Mallee.

Part II ‘Politics’ was written by John Connor, a historian whose work I’m not familiar with, I must admit. Although it is the most relevant section to my own Conscription Campaign project, it didn’t sparkle for me in the way that the other two parts did. This section followed the chronology of the war fairly closely, from the perspective of the different parties, exploring the personalities and political machinations that ran through WWI domestic politics. He spends considerable time on the conscription referendums, and the narrative is clear and insightful.

Part III ‘Society’ by Peter Stanley was organized thematically, with each chapter heading starting with a gerund (see…learning another language has been useful after all- who knew that there was such a thing as a gerund!)  e.g. ‘Cheering: Outbreak, Shots and Loyalty’, or ‘Understanding: Faith, Propaganda and Culture’. There is a chronological progression here too, moving from Cheering to Mobilizing to Enduring to Remembering etc. and within each theme there is a chronological progression as well. Although it doesn’t identify itself as such, this section is very much a history of the emotions of a community whose men are so far away fighting and I very much liked it.  I was surprised that by the end of this section, Stanley seemed to be distancing himself from the Capital Letter War approach that he, among many other military historians, had championed:

Even if the war is not interpreted as a great national epic, as Charles Bean’s official history portrayed it, it is seen as a great human drama, or as a great national and human tragedy. There is much to commend these views, and abundant evidence of how the war actually was a profound, tragic and deeply significant event  in both the life of individuals caught up in it and in the story of the nation, for which it represented a major – even a formative- experience. This is the conventional interpretation of Australia’s Great War (and I have myself contributed to creating it).

But there is another way of thinking of the experience of the Great War, without denying the power, the significance or the poignancy of the conventional interpretation. For many people, possibly even an actual majority, the war was neither a great personal tragedy nor an experience that shaped life for decades to come. For many- those who did not enlist, those who did not become involved, those whose immediate family did not enlist or did not return wounded, those whom the war passed by those who actively opposed it- the war was not central to their lives or their collective history. These people have been largely overlooked in the war’s historiography, which remains seriously skewed towards the drama of conflict; partly because the records of organized violence are better arranged and preserved. (p.228)

I very much enjoyed this book- far, far more than I expected I would. The chapters were short, mostly 8-9 pages in length, and the book was well illustrated. I’m sorry that in a field dominated by male historians, a female historian could not have joined the triumvirate. Although women are mentioned, especially in the third section, they tend to still tend to form an amorphous other, with a special section devoted to them in Section III under the chapter ‘Supporting’.  The book has footnotes but they are not obtrusive, and there’s an informative bibliographic chapter at the end which points out the most significant literature.  It seems to meet that sweet spot where it is engaging for the general reader, but with sufficient grunt and referenced support for the academic reader as well.

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library (yes, I’ve finally activated my alumni account there!)

My rating: 9/10

 

‘Refurbishing’ memorials

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The memorial in 2005 . Image source: Wikimedia

So, I see from a report in the Guardian (16/6/17) and on the Honest History website that the Ataturk memorial in Turkey is undergoing ‘refurbishment’.  Australians have often felt a warm inner glow when contemplating Ataturk’s words, previously emblazoned on the Ataturk memorial  at ANZAC Cove, Wellington and in Canberra:

Those heroes that shed their blood
And lost their lives…
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly Country.
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side
Here in this country of ours…
You, the mothers,
Who sent their sons from far away countries
Wipe away your tears,
Your sons are now lying in our bosom
And are in peace
After having lost their lives on this land
They have become our sons as well

Except, as the Honest History website has been discussing for some time, there is real doubt whether Ataturk ever uttered these words at all.  I have always been impressed and surprised at the generosity of the Turkish government in accommodating the hordes of Australian and New Zealand tourists who flock to ANZAC Cove, although I’m sure that their tourist dollars are welcome. I can’t, however, see the generosity being reciprocated if the descendants of an invading force wanted to commemorate their battles on Australian land.

It will interesting to watch the politics of this- on both sides.

Recordings for ‘Democratic Opposition to War’ conference

You might remember that a fortnight ago I attended a conference hosted by the Brunswick-Coburg Anti Conscription Centenary people (among others).  When I hear about a conference that I would have liked to have attended, I’m always delighted when the presentations are put online afterwards. That’s the case with this conference, so if you thought it sounded good, have a listen yourself!

Details of the recordings can be found at

https://brunswickcoburganticonscription.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/recordings-democratic-opposition-to-war/

A book launch at Trades Hall

Tonight I went to the Melbourne launch of the The Conscription Conflict and the Great War, edited by Robin Archer, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot and Sean Scalmer.

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And who should be there to launch it than Bill Shorten, the ALP Leader of the Opposition, with a very fine speech. He started by drawing some parallels between Billy Hughes in 1916 with the present day…a new Prime Minister, unable to take his party along with him, who changed his mind on a political stance that twelve months ago he had vehemently attacked and who foisted onto the people an expensive opinion poll in the form of a referendum.  Sound familiar?

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While not at all disputing or undermining the recognition of the sacrifice at the front, he pointed out the international uniqueness of the referendum as a way of resolving the conscription question. In the setting of the oldest operating Trades Hall in the world, he noted that this was the geographic, political and emotional centre of the ‘no’ vote in  a debate that certainly did not exemplify the much-lauded ‘golden age of civility’. To the contrary, it was bitter, vindictive and spiteful and far worse than what passes for debate today.  It was really an excellent speech, (whether he wrote it himself or not) – I wish I’d taken notes- and it was very well-delivered. Excellent. [Update: here’s the speech]

He was followed by Robin Archer, one of the editors.  He emphasized that WWI was not, as has been promoted, a period of consensus.  Far from being ‘the birth of a nation’, there was already existing in Australia a precocious progressive environment. Nor was ‘mateship’ on the front a uniquely Australian phenomenon, even though the referendum was.

Then a couple of songs from the Trade Union choir, including Eric Bogle’s ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘I Didn’t Raise My Son to Be a Soldier’.

Out into the twilight we went, stopping to admire the replica banners that adorn Trades Hall at the moment.  There’s a picture here of Trades Hall in 1917 festooned with banners.

And here’s the 2017 version:

And you’ll just have to wait for my review of the book!

‘Victoria at War 1914-1918’ by Michael McKernan

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2014, 221 p.

I always think it’s interesting when a writer returns after many years to something that they had created much, much earlier in their career, and takes up the topic again with the benefit of years of experience, reading, and later research.  This is the case in Michael McKernan’s book Victoria at War which was commissioned by the (then Liberal Party) Victorian Government of Victoria to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in 2015.  McKernan had written Australians at War over thirty years earlier (which I reviewed here), a book that had been reissued unchanged in 2014 albeit with the author’s own awareness of its inadequacies, but no major rewriting.

However, with this 2014 book, McKernan had the opportunity to revisit his earlier book, within the specific context of Victoria and in the wake of the deluge of World War I research that has been undertaken in recent years, especially leading up to the Gallipoli centenary.  Not only was the scope and purpose of the book different, but he himself as a historian and writer would have been influenced- as have most of us- by the trend of using smaller stories to tell larger ones and the emphasis on emotions.  I finished this book with a deep sense of what a good writer McKernan is; something that did not particularly strike me with the earlier, more utilitarian, book.

McKernan starts this history by reminding us that, at the time war was declared, Melbourne was the capital city of Australia.  The parliament sat  here; the governor lived here and the federal bureaucracy was based here.  This, perhaps combined with early twentieth century ‘liberalism’, may have contributed to  a deeper commitment to the war effort in Victoria than in other states- something McKernan hints out but does not state definitely. Certainly the school effort was strongest here, and Victoria did vote ‘yes’ at the first conscription referendum (alongside Western Australia and Tasmania) although it rejected it by a small majority in the second 1917 referendum.  Melbourne was also the home of Archbishop Mannix, the most prominent anti-conscription voice.

Although Victoria may be more closely settled than other Australian states, with the seat of political power based in  Melbourne, McKernan places much emphasis on small Victorian towns and the impact of enlistment on the emotional and economic life of small country towns.  In particular, he looks at Casterton as a microcosm.  He brings forward the stories of specific families where several sons enlisted, or where older men left several children.  There are urban vignettes as well, but it is probably the country ones that seem most plangent. He notes the role of the local clergy who were charged with delivering the telegrams bearing bad news, and your heart sinks at the thought of families receiving two, three, four such visits.

It hadn’t really occurred to me that battalions were broadly geographically based, most particularly the 14th Battalion.  He follows Victorian volunteers to the army camps surrounding Melbourne, most particularly Broadmeadows, and across to the theatre of war. His book does trace the progress, or lack thereof, of the Victorian battalions, but most particularly in regard to how the news was received back home.

He places much emphasis on the role of the Red Cross, which was organized through Government House, and for some reason I found this description of ‘comforts’ brought me to the verge of tears:

How a man living in the barbaric conditions of the dugouts of Anzac responded when he received a parcel from one of these groups can only be imagined.  His normal food was hardtack biscuits, bully beef and tea- when there was water available.  Imagine opening a parcel from the Red Cross or the Australian Comforts Fund, to find clean, hand-knitted socks, a couple of lice-free, for the moment anyway, pairs of underpants, a fruitcake, possibly some tobacco or cigarettes, some dried fruit and ‘sweeties’, and writing paper for a letter to the folks at home.  The love and commitment that was poured into these parcels would have provided, to even the hardest lag on the Gallipoli battlefield, the whiff of home and of peacetime civilities, the gentler ways of life. (p. 121)

This is a beautifully presented book.  The idea of a coffee-table WWI book seems a bit glib, but the beautiful layout of the book and the large, crystal clear photographs that adorn nearly every page are a form of tribute in themselves.   The end of each chapter is marked by a khaki-coloured,stand-alone reflection on an individual or a specific theme.  Most of all, this book is marked by its respect for individuals, some of whom we have encountered several times in various places throughout McKernan’s narrative.  Their sacrifice is noted with humility and a sense of shared humanity, but not ‘celebrated’ with chest-beating or overt sentimentality.  It is a mature, thoughtful, appropriate response.

 

‘Australians at Home: World War I’ by Michael McKernan

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2014 (original 1980), 224 p.

No, I haven’t come over all ANZAC-y now that the Gallipoli commemorations are over.  I’ve taken over a column in the newsletter of my local Heidelberg Historical Society, which looks at Heidelberg 100 years ago, using the local newspaper. Of course, a hundred years ago in 1916, the newspaper was full of homefront war news and I found myself wondering how typical it was- hence reading this book.

This book was originally published in 1980 under the title The Australian People and the Great War.  In the preface to this new 2014 edition, McKernan, who was a doctoral researcher at the Australian War Memorial when he wrote the original book (rather than its Deputy Director as he was later to become), explains how he was distracted from his official research on Australian churches in the Great War by the newspapers and School Papers in the AWM’s collection.   It seems odd, given the deluge of ANZACery in the last few years, that he was writing in a scarcely-furrowed field. He writes that at least one publisher at the time had shown some interest in the war by publishing Patsy Adam-Smith’s The Anzacs in 1978 but that

Few others were at all interested and I was thought, by academic colleagues, to be a bit strange for working on a war topic. How times have changed! (p. v)

That’s for sure!  But given thirty-six years and the tsunami of publication that has taken place since then, this book stacks up pretty well. McKernan can see its shortcomings:

Many things are missing from this book, but such was the state of my historical understanding then. And the state of the profession, I might add. Today, most obviously, I would seek to include the story of Indigenous Australians on the homefront, as I have done for more recent books. I should also have written about Australian nurses in my chapter on Australian soldiers.  I might also have looked more closely at unemployment and the downturn in the economy that the war caused.  I apologize to those who look to find these important themes, but such were my limitations then. (p. VI)

As he goes on to say, there have been many books since devoted to what he dealt with in a chapter in this book. I think of Janet Butler’s Kitty’s War on nurses (my review here); Rosalie Triolo on Our Schools and the War; Bart Ziino’s A Distant Grief on war graves; Marina Larssen’s Shattered Anzacs (my review here) on injured returned soldiers, as a start.  But as a book “for the broad Australian community” this is a very good broad-brush treatment, well bolstered by identified sources.  McKernan doesn’t need to apologize too much.

In his opening chapter, ‘The War in Australia’ he points out that the war had an immediate effect on the local economy through a rapid increase in prices and a sudden increase in unemployment, with many men placed on reduced hours. He emphasizes the different experience of middle-class and working-class families at home during the war, and announces his intention to concentrate on ‘ordinary people’, drawing on School Papers, parish records, Red Cross reports of local charitable activity, letters, and local papers as a way of tapping into this class-based diversity of experience.

Chapter 3 ‘Seedplots of Empire Loyalty: The Schools at War’ noted the gendered responses expected of children: that the girls would knit and the boys would play manly sports.  Victorian schools, under the influence of Frank Tate, were particularly active in fundraising.  The practice of saluting the flag daily began in late 1917 in Victoria.  Honour boards, particularly in private schools, were a form of pressure to enlist, and he notes that the Greater Public Schools were especially strong on conscription.

In Chapter 4 he examines the role of Australian women in war, and in particular the class basis of Red Cross activity. This is something that I’m noting locally in the Heidelberg district, where the very middle-class Ivanhoe Red Cross quickly outstripped the more working and lower middle-class Heidelberg and Fairfield. Because it was voluntary, unpaid work did not affect women’s status as it did in the United Kingdom, and it ebbed away quickly without trace when the war came to an end, thus confirming rather than challenging the place of women in society.

‘Muddied Oafs’ and ‘Flannel Fools’, Chapter 5, looks at sport and war. Many sports competitions halted for the duration, although class perceptions come in here too. There was strong criticism of working class ‘slackers’ who continued to play rugby and football, but the continuation of  horse-racing, a middle-class sport, was justified on the grounds that it improved the breed of the horse (and thus assisted the war effort). However, despite the heavy use of sporting analogy in promoting enlistment, sport was not a fixation amongst working-class people, and playing footy on the weekend was not the cause of the indifference to enlistment that the middle-class complained of.

Chapter 6 seemed a little out of place in this book which has the home front as its emphasis. ‘From Hero to Criminal: the AIF in Britain 1915-19’ looks at the behaviour of Australian troops in England during the war.  England was culturally familiar as ‘home’ through a steady diet of childhood literature, and the first Anzac Day march was held in April 1916 in London (not Australia)- the only march to honour a specific body of troops held like this during the war (and a cause of some resentment among the British troops who were at Gallipoli too). The march was only just one factor in the increasing wariness between British and Australian soldiers. There were misdemeanors committed in garrison towns by Australian soldiers. Those soldiers in turn were disgusted by the class distinctions and poverty they saw in Britain and the sight of women working.

The seventh chapter ‘Manufacturing the War: ‘Enemy Subjects’ in Australia’ examines the enlargement of the term ‘enemy subject’ to encompass any Australian natural-born subject whose father or grandfather was a subject of a country at war with the King. Many people had wildly exaggerated perceptions of the direct German threat to Australia. This chapter deals particularly with anti-German feeling, and here perhaps we do see the datedness of the book because it could easily have been extended to include peace activists and unionists who also came to be seen as enemy subjects.

Chapter 8 ‘The Other Australia? War in the Country’ questions the idea that country and urban Australia had separate interests. He points out that country regions felt that they had contributed to the manliness of Australian soldiers, but this is not borne out in the figures.  There was slightly higher enlistment from rural areas, but as he points out, in a face-to-face society like a country town, the pressure to enlist would be stronger. In many ways, war unified country and town, with the realization that despite all the bluster, city workers were not ‘soft’.  The referendum on conscription coincided with the first sittings of the exemption courts which highlighted how few men could claim exemption from enlistment and the severity of conscription, which may have contributed to the defeat of the referendum.

‘The Grey Years’ looks at the initial euphoria at the end of the war, but the creeping sadness of the influenza epidemic and the return of so many wounded and damaged soldiers. The celebration of the armistice on 8th November on the basis of a rumour was premature, and they had to celebrate all over again a few days later. A public holiday was called, but there was confusion over whether it was to be on Tuesday or Wednesday, so in effect, there was little work between Friday 8th November and Thursday 14 November. Three faultlines were to break open in society: i) the returned men  ii) the so called ‘patriotic classes’ and iii) the rest.  ANZAC day had a fitful start. In 1921 the Federal Government declared 25 April a public holiday, but state governments did not follow their lead. In 1925 the Victorian government made ANZAC Day a public holiday, but insisted that all shops, hotels, racecourses and theatres be closed lest it be degraded by secular pleasures. The other states joined in by 1928 and the first dawn service was held that year.

I enjoyed this book. It is generously endowed with many black-and-white pictures that take up often 1/2 the page, and I liked the vignettes of individuals and their families that are woven through the text.  It is narrated in a gentle, accessible tone, but well-supported in the footnotes.  It thoroughly stands up to republication more than thirty years after it first appeared.