Anzac Day marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War. rsk
As academics and revisionists tirelessly re-cast the Anzac story according to preference and political persuasion, the author’s account his experiences at Gallipoli and beyond has slipped from view. Yes, there are patches of Boy’s Own prose, but the sentiments are bracingly and thoroughly Australian.
Chatting with old friends the other day, the subject of “best-remembered books of our youth” came up. It came as no surprise that of six participants in the discussion, all aged in our late sixties or beyond, there was unanimity: the best-remembered book was The Desert Column by Ion Idriess.
I read The Desert Column when I was about fifteen or sixteen, and I can still remember being enthralled by it. I had been given a copy for a birthday, and I treasured it for ages before it went astray somewhere and I forgot about it—although I did not forget about Idriess, several of whose wonderful books I also read back then. I still have an old hardback copy of Lasseter’s Last Ride, and I re-read this recently and enjoyed once more the way Idriess so uniquely combined history, fiction and Australiana.
The discussions amongst friends about The Desert Column intrigued me, so I acquired a copy from the library. Again, I read it enthralled, staying up late on cold winter nights to finish it off and then, my interest piqued, following up references about the desert campaign in the Middle East during the First World War, the Australian Light Horse, the “waler” horses, and Idriess himself.
The Desert Column (sub-titled Leaves from the Diary of an Australian Trooper in Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine) was first published in 1932, and then, remarkably, was reprinted in 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1939, 1941, 1944 and 1951, demonstrating its astounding popularity with Australian readers of that generation. Re-reading the book in 2011, it’s not hard to see why, as it combines so many fascinating elements: history, war, mateship, horses, bushmanship, hardship, disaster, triumph. It is also well written in the simple language of the outback and the bush poet.
The Desert Column is not a conventional history nor is it fiction, but grew piecemeal as diary entries by the author, jotted down day by day. In a note at the beginning, Idriess says:
I began the diary as we crowded the decks off Gallipoli and watched the first shells crash into Turkish soil. Gradually it grew to be a mania: I would whip out the little book and note, immediately, anything exciting that was happening. As the years dragged on, my haversack became full of little notebooks. These memories … are my sole souvenirs of the War, except of course stray bits of shrapnel, bomb and high explosive splinters which nearly every soldier collected …
This approach gives the book immediacy, a sense that the author was writing a story in the present tense with no foreknowledge of what was coming, for better or for worse. There are characters, but no plot, just the unfolding of events. In other words, the usual situation is reversed: the reader, especially one with some knowledge of military history, knows the plot and the ending, and furthermore has access to the bigger picture, something denied the author in his status as an ordinary trooper on the ground at the time.
This essay was published in the September, 2011, edition of Quadrant.
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The diary commences on May 18, 1915, off Cape Helles in the Dardanelles, a few days before Idriess and his fellow troopers land at Gallipoli. The Australian Light Horse, it will be remembered, was sent to Gallipoli to fight as infantry, to support the troops who had landed a few weeks before and found themselves in an appalling debacle from the outset. Through these early chapters Idriess does not spare the reader; he writes with controlled emotion, almost matter-of-factly, but this makes the ghastly situation seem even worse. The Australians were repeatedly asked to do the impossible—to charge over open ground against entrenched defenders armed with machine guns and occupying the heights. The facilities for treating the wounded were totally inadequate, as were the water supply, the nutrition and the sanitary arrangements. After the first battle-lines had deteriorated into stalemate, Australians and Turks were eating, breathing, sleeping and fighting amongst decomposing bodies. Little wonder that septicaemia was rife. Indeed this is what threatened to end Trooper Idriess’s Gallipoli campaign—a scratch from a shell splinter to his knee was left untreated, became infected (there were, of course, no antibiotics in those days), and rendered him virtually a cripple. Eventually he was stretchered off to a naval vessel and to the Government Hospital in Alexandria.
idriess in uniformAs was always the case in the First World War, the moment he could walk again, Idriess was declared fit and posted back to Gallipoli. Here the situation for the Anzacs had deteriorated further, with the Turkish defence well entrenched and now supported by German artillery. Before long Idriess was even more seriously wounded when he was blown up by a bomb that landed directly in his trench. At that stage, the Australian and Turkish trenches were only a few metres apart, and grenades were being lobbed across by both parties, with terrible results. Again Idriess (right) survived. Again he was stretchered out and spent many weeks in the hospital and convalescing in Alexandria.
Reading about Gallipoli always makes me angry, and the early chapters of The Desert Column did it again. The gross incompetence of the British generals and their support staff stands in such stark contrast to the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers. Idriess’s descriptions are matter-of-fact, but the impact is blood-chilling. All these years later, I could smell the cordite fumes and the reek of the dead, hear the cries and clamour, feel the percussion of shells and the whistle of snipers’ bullets, and sense the exhaustion, the relentless danger and stress, and the constant loss of good mates, cut down on all sides.