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

the crying yearsTitle: The Crying Years: Australia’s Great War

Author: Peter Stanley

Genre: History

Publisher: NLA Publishing

Published: 1st August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 264

Price: $44.95

Synopsis: The Great War of 1914-1918 affected all Australians and decisively changed the new nation. They were ‘The Crying Years’ according to writer Zora Cross, who lost her brother in 1917.

This visual history of Australia’s Great War offers a different perspective on a period of time familiar to many. It helps to connect the war overseas – the well-chronicled battles at Gallipoli, Fromelles, Passchendaele and Villers-Bretonneux – with the equally bitter war at home, for and against conscription, over ‘loyalty’ and ‘disloyalty’. Men faced life-changing choices: volunteer to fight or stay at home; join the revolutionary unionists or break the strikes. Women bore the burdens of waiting and worrying, of working for charities, or of voting to send men to their deaths. Even children were drawn into the animosities, as their communities fractured under the stress.

Prize-winning historian Professor Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra uses documents, photographs, artefacts and images from the collections of the National Library of Australia to evoke the drama and tragedy, suffering and sacrifice, pain and pity of Australia’s Great War.

~*~

Peter Stanley’s new book, The Crying Years, coincides with the one hundred years since the Battle of the Somme. Rather than just being about the battles, and the statistics, it delves into the war they many fought at home – not as violent or deadly as the battle that the men who volunteered and those who were eventually conscripted from 1916 onwards had been –but a war none the less. Back home, people in Australia struggled with losing loved ones, not knowing where they were or where they had fallen, or been injured. Back home, those who hadn’t volunteered or were not eligible to serve were often thought of as shirkers, especially conscientious objectors.

The war that we know in most history books, whilst it deals with statistics, they also talk a lot about the Anzac legend and how it was formed, and what it means to be an Anzac and an Australian and the importance we give to it. Stanley’s book makes mention of this too, but highlights the darker side, the more tragic side of the war that led to the formation of the legend. We should still be proud of the men and women on the front, in hospital ships, and behind the lines and in the trenches who gave their lives for Australia during our early years as a nation, and also those back home, who lost family and loved ones, and by honouring their sacrifice, we do. But at the same time, we should remember it was not always heroic, that these brave men and women who returned home came with more than just physical wounds. Stanley states that when the last Anzac died in 2002, John Howard, the then Prime Minister, revived the Anzac legend – the idealistic one that seems to hide the dark and grim reality of the war, and presents the heroic image of a young nation and the sacrifice of 60, 000 men as what Stanley suggests was seen as worthwhile by a patriotic middle class – his interpretation of the fervour of war that perhaps did a disservice to the reality these men and women had faced. Stanley recognises the reality and the mythical legend in this book, and I felt he carefully balanced them out to give a more holistic understanding, through visual artefacts from collections and text, to the war and the Anzac legend.

The sombre images of battlefields, of war worn soldiers and nurses, reproductions of letters and other communications between officials contrast with the patriotic images of commemorations of Australia during the war and propaganda, and the profiles interspersed throughout of men and women who aided the war effort or protested it also give a more rounded view than some other books might. Stanley has attempted to be inclusive in this book as well, but as it is a visual history, acknowledgement must be given to what was available for him to utilise and write about during the research process.

An interesting book for anyone interested in history, and war histories, I think it is an important reminder that war has darker sides that were not as obvious back then, as it can be patriotic to those involved.

Advertisements

Billy Sing by Ouyang Yu

Billy-Sing-front-cover-for-publicity.jpg

Title: Billy Sing: A Novel

Author: Ouyang Yu

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Transit Lounge

Published: 1st April 2017

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 144

Price: $27.95

Synopsis: William ‘Billy’ Sing was born in 1886 to an English mother and Chinese father. He and his two sisters were brought up in Clermont and Proserpine, in rural Queensland. He was one of the first to enlist in 1914 and at Gallipoli became famous for his shooting prowess.

In his new novel, Billy Sing, Ouyang Yu embodies Sing’s voice in a magically descriptive prose that captures both the Australian landscape and vernacular. In writing about Sing’s triumphant yet conflicted life, and the horrors of war, Yu captures with imaginative power what it might mean to be both an outsider and a hero in one’s own country. The telling is poetic and realist, the author’s understanding of being a Chinese-Australian sensitively informs the narrative.

The result is a short novel of great beauty that impacts way beyond its size. A novel that is searing yet fresh, delicate yet brutal, a masterful habitation of another life. Billy Sing is arguably one of Ouyang’s finest works to date.

~*~

Billy Sing tells the story of one of the first Australians to sign up for the First World War in 1914. In the days before the army policies of not admitting non-whites to the AIF, Billy Sing’s story is brought to life, illuminating the rush of war alongside racial tensions and assumptions of a society where to many, skin colour was more important, though this importance seemed to melt away in the trenches of Gallipoli, where Billy Sing became known as the Murderer or the Assassin due to his skill as a sniper. This novel tells his story – of his family, his own feelings and his war time experiences and the years that follow in a first person narrative that allows the reader to enter Billy’s thoughts and feelings.

The son of a Chinese Father and English Mother, Billy spent his life trying to balance his Chinese heritage, and the beliefs of his father, with the English heritage and beliefs of his mother, as well as an Australian upbringing, and a feeling of home not really being China, but not really being England – whereas his war bride wife longs to remain in her home in Scotland, pushing Billy to forget that his home is truly Australia in a way. He questions his Chinese-Australian identity, which is where the similar heritage of the author comes in, informing the experiences with care and in a way that illuminates what it means to straddle two very different cultures in a country that whilst these days, is rather diverse, in the early twentieth century, was not as welcoming of the diversity we see today.

Ouyang Yu’s experience as a Chinese-Australian informs Billy’s story and gave him an authentic voice, especially to a figure in Australian history that I did not learn about during my history studies, despite the contributions he made to the fight at Gallipoli and during the First World War. It is an eye-opening book, revealing how some soldiers weren’t viewed as valuable at times during the war and after based on something like race, and highlighting the differences between what it was like in the trenches – where Billy’s mates didn’t seem to care he had Chinese heritage, only that he had their backs compared to later treatment post war and how that impacted on Billy as a person, how he saw himself and the way he devalued his contribution later in the narrative.

Written without chapter breaks, it is a fairly quick read, but no less powerful than something twice its length. Perhaps a good read for students studying the First World War in history to compare with some of the other tales and legends of figures during that time.

Between Enemies by Andrea Molesini

Between enemies.jpgTitle: Between Enemies

Author: Andrea Molesini

Publisher: Atlantic

Category: Fiction

Pages: 348

Available formats: Print

Publication Date: 18/11/15

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: November 1917. When Austrian forces advance into Northern Italy, the aristocratic Spada family finds their estate requisitioned by enemy soldiers. A cruel act of violence against a group of local village girls sparks their desire for revenge. The whole family – from the eccentric grandparents to the secretive servants – have their own ideas about how to fight the enemy, but their courage is soon put to the test and it seems that some are willing to compromise. Seventeen-year-old Paolo Spada, the youngest member of the family, is forced to bear witness as his once proud family succumbs to acts of love and hate, jealousy and betrayal.

~*~

Between Enemies is a different kind of war story. Most war stories, whether they are set in The First World War or the Second World War, have a focus on major events or major players in the war, such as Gallipoli, or specific battles, or when set in World War Two, a focus on Nazi-occupied territories and themes of the Holocaust and resistance, just to name a few common themes that are utilised effectively. These books and stories give valuable insight into how the world operated during wartime.

In Between Enemies, the effect of The First World War, and in particular, the relationship between the Italian and Austrian forces occupying a small village where the Spada family live. The seventeen year old protagonist, Paolo, bears witness to the enemy taking over their villa, and enacting violent attacks against young girls in the village. Through these events, he is exposed to the atrocities of the war that have plagued his teenage years, and his family’s varying responses to the events that have led to the occupation of their home, and its transformation into a hospital for the wounded.

The theme of war is dark yet it is Paolo’s light heart and vision for a future beyond the war, death and blood that surrounds him that shines through the novel from beginning to end, keeping the story alive.

Though it is slowly paced for the vast majority of the book, apart from the closing chapters, the pacing works for the story. It is about a family coping with the consequence of an invading power in their country, their village and their home. It is about how they come to deal with this, and what becomes of them towards the end of the war and their fight against these people.

A translation from Italian, this book wove an intriguing tale about how one family managed to cope with invasion, and what it meant for them at the end of the war, when the invasion was over.