Gallipoli centenary special

'War in its authentic expression - as blood, suffering and death'

Reviewed by Janine Kitson

Once A Shepherd

By Glenda Millard and Phil Lesnie
Walker Books, 2014

And gentled off their fleece.

This children’s picture book gently deals with the tragic loss of life in World War I in a story about Tom, a shepherd, who must leave his peaceful and happy family life to fight and die on the Western Front.

On the frontline, Tom helps a German soldier but, while wearing “his darling’s hand-stitched coat ... fell, no more to rise”. When the war is over, the German soldier, or stranger, as he is called, travels to Tom’s village to find the dead soldier’s wife, Cherry, and return Tom’s coat to her. The German solider tells Cherry of:

deeds and daring
and he softly spoke Tom’s name,
while Cherry hugged the ragged coat against her aching heart.

There are three sections to the book: life before the war, the war front and after the war.

Life before the war shows Tom’s life as a shepherd and his courtship, wedding to Cherry and their simple but happy life together.

Life during the war shows the despair of soldiers waiting in trenches in a ruined landscape. Later, Tom kneels to help an enemy in the moments before his own death.

In life after the war we see the generous heroism of an enemy soldier who returns Tom’s coat to Cherry. She must deal with her grief and find the courage to face the future alone with their child.

The writer and illustrator work well together. Author Glenda Millard’s poetic and rhythmic language expresses the sadness of this tragic story but it is always hopeful and positive:

Once there sang a carefree shepherd
In a field of emerald green. He lullabied his snow-white lambs
And gentled off their fleece.
Once Tom’s world was all at peace.

Illustrator Phil Lesnie’s beautiful watercolours express subtle, strong and powerful emotions about life, love, death, and grief. The front cover shows a threaded needle in front of a backdrop of army green cloth — perhaps a metaphor for how we are all connected in the cloth of life?

A heartrending but beautiful book that is suitable for any age.

Small group/pair discussion

  1. Which illustration do you like best? Why?
  2. Look at the picture where Tom farewells his wife and unborn child. What might he have said to her?
  3. Look at the soldiers in the trench. What are they doing, thinking, feeling, saying to each other? Is this before or after a battle?
  4. What do you think was the debt the German soldier owed Tom Shepherd?
  5. What might have been Tom Shepherd’s last words to the stranger before he died in his arms?

Suggestions for learning activities

  1. Research what life was like fighting on the Western Front with its trenches, barbed wire, mud, bombs, machine-gun fire, weather, etc.
  2. In groups compose and perform back ground music whilst reading and performing this book. Sound effects might include drums, gentle singing, bell ringing etc.
  3. Write a letter that Tom might have written to Cherry when he was on the Western Front.
  4. Many of the Turkish soldiers in Gallipoli were farmers. Write your own illustrated children’s book about an Anzac returning to Turkey to find his enemy’s wife and tell her the debt he owes him.
  5. Write what Cherry says to her son when she gives a “small, soft toy: a new lamb from a torn coat for Tom Shepherd’s baby boy”. As well, write what she thinks and feels.

Broken Nation - Australians in the Great War

By Joan Beaumont
Allen & Unwin, 2013

In this prize-winning study of Australia’s involvement in world war, Joan Beaumont details the Australian Imperial Force’s (AIF) many campaigns and gives a measured understanding of how domestic politics affected the war.

World War I heralded the era of modern industrial warfare that involved powerful artillery, bombs, tanks, air force and chemical warfare.

Battles were characterised by heavy bombardments, high-velocity machine-gun fire that mowed down hundreds of men in seconds and brutal hand-to-hand bayonet combat.

The abysmal battle and weather conditions contributed to epidemics of dysentery, trenchfoot, and influenza. Stretcher bearers risked their lives to get the wounded to safety but once in safety the medical treatment was totally inadequate. Many soldiers suffered a slow and agonising death in no man’s land. Soldiers returned home with horrific injuries and suffered a lifetime of illness and despair.

Beaumont’s superb military history-telling is balanced with Australia’s domestic politics and how they affected each other.

Civilians mattered enormously in World War I. They had to be mobilised for munitions production, fundraising and charity work. Civilians also had to deal with the grief of mass casualties. From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted of whom more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.

The war repressed dissent, imprisoned opponents and demanded blinding loyalty to the British Empire. Those who opposed the war — including socialists, unionists, feminists, pacifists, German Australians and the Industrial Workers of the World — were accused of treason..

Beaumont argues that Gallipoli eclipses the memory of advanced pre-war legislative reforms. Australia succumbed to the forces of conservatism, imperialism, insularity and xenophobia. The two conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917 split the Labor Party and put its innovative social reforms back by decades.

Although Gallipoli was a multinational imperial campaign it is today seen as a uniquely Australian campaign. C.E.W. Bean, official war historian, was in many ways responsible for shaping the Anzac legend that defined Australia as a nation with its myths of mateship and heroic sacrifice.

The national obsession with Anzac also erased from modern memory the Great Strike of 1917 that has been described as “arguably, the most cataclysmic event in the class struggle in the early twentieth Australia”.

As David T. Rowlands is quoted as saying: “While Australians are routinely exhorted to remember the ‘mateship’ of the ‘diggers’, they are seldom encouraged to reflect on the solidarity displayed by working-class Australian civilians who banded together in a collective effort to resist a campaign of acute industrial oppression.”

Traditional gender stereotypes were reinforced by the war — Australian men were expected to fight while women remained at home, “waiting and weeping” and “keeping the home fires burning”.

A fantastic history to be read during this centenary of Gallipoli.

Broken Nations, Australians in the Great War, is Winner of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Australian History; winner of the History Prize in the 2014 NSW Premier’s History Award and winner of the History Award in the 2014 Queensland Literary Awards.

Jack's Journey

By Kit Cullen
Allen & Unwin, 2013

Kit Cullen, English teacher at Illawarra Sports HS points an accusing finger at World War I official historian C.E.W. Bean’s “unscrupulous” reporting in this book about a virtually unknown Anzac action in the bloody days after the April 25 Landing on Gallipoli.

This history revolves around Jack Collyer, a 23-year-old country boy from Mudgee and his section (No. 12 Section, No. 15 Platoon, D Company, 4th Battalion) during his first week at Gallipoli where he, like many hundreds of Anzacs, fought and died.

This book is based on Collyer’s three war diaries as well as other diaries, letters, service records and official documents from Jack’s battalion. His diaries describe the long sea journey on the Euripides, his military training in Egypt and his experiences as a “six bob a week” tourist visiting the Sphinx, climbing the pyramids and touring the beautiful Citadel that dominated Cairo’s 1914 skyline.

Typical of his time, Jack was eager to enlist when war was declared on August 4, 1914 as euphoria for King and Country gripped the nation. Reading Jack’s diary entries engenders a feeling of sadness because the contemporary reader knows his destiny.

Little did Jack know that his life would be so brief at Gallipoli. Kit Cullen’s painstaking years of research uncovers how, on May 1, Jack and some 50 other men from his platoon were ordered to rescue a group of about 60 British Royal Marines trapped in an outpost in a valley overlooked by Turks. Most of the men, including Jack, who entered the valley were exposed to heavy enemy machinegun fire. There were heavy casualties.

On May 2, the seventh day after the Landing, Jack was seriously injured along with hundreds of others and died through lack of medical treatment. The medical teams were overwhelmed by the huge number of casualties.

Author Kit Cullen follows up what happened after Jack wrote his last diary entry on his first evening at Gallipoli. He gathers the evidence to surmise:

“Jack’s story and that of his mates in the 4th Battalion in Death Trap Valley over the first weekend in May has remained hidden, largely because of C.E.W. Bean’s unscrupulous treatment of it in his published works, notably in the revised second edition of Volume 1, The Story of Anzac, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 - What the men of No. 15 Platoon and No. 3 Platoon, 4th Battalion did nearly one hundred years ago deserves to be told and

Cullen claims that “Charles Bean and his staff deliberately altered the historical record regarding the events in Death Trap Valley on 1 and 2 May, despite a reputation second to none for detail and accuracy”.

He believes the reason Bean and senior members of his staff erased the 4th Battalion’s significant role in rescuing the British marines on the 1 and 2 May, 2015 was because “he was upset by the 3rd Battalion’s lack of medals” — Bean’s brother had served in the 3rd Battalion.

Jack’s Journey is one Anzac’s story. His death was multiplied thousands of times over throughout the war. As Jack’s admired chaplain later wrote — “War is Hellish! No one, even with the most vivid imagination, can really grasp its full details until they have seen it and been in it”. Or as Tolstoy wrote:

”You will see fearsome sights that will shake you to the roots of your being; you will see war not as a beautiful, orderly and gleaming formation, with music and beaten drums, streaming banners and generals on prancing horses, but war in its authentic expression — as blood, suffering and death.”

Congratulations to Kit Cullen, teacher at Illawarra Sports High School, for this magnificent history on Jack’s journey to Gallipoli.

Janine Kitson is on long service leave.