Exploring the history of the Australian Army through biography

Chris Clark

This article is an edited extract of a paper given at a one-day seminar "The Australian Army: Researching 100 Years of Service" organized by the Friends of the National Library of Australia, Canberra, in March 2001.

{1} Biography is a medium of special value in studying the history of the Australian Army. While other literary forms - such as unit and campaign histories, or institutional and organizational studies - all have their uses, in the life story of a particular commander (or some other notable military figure) the reader gains a more complete sense of the society and times in which events took place and people played out their role. A great many aspects and issues demand our attention if we are to fully comprehend the experience of war in all its complexity, but the human factor - social background, educational base, personal motivation and so on - is central to achieving any sound understanding. What is an army, after all, but first and foremost an organization of men and women?

{2} It was, fittingly enough, General Sir John Monash who described a "perfected modern battle plan" as:

nothing so much as a score for an orchestral composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments, and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases. Every individual unit must make its entry precisely at the proper moment, and play its phrase in the general harmony.1

Building on this vivid musical metaphor, biography can be regarded as the equivalent of grand opera. Just as a Verdi masterpiece (Aïda, say, or Nabucco) represents a glorious linking of theatre and music - a blending of orchestra, stagecraft and vocal bravura, all against a backdrop of high drama and a cast seemingly of thousands - a good biography usually combines a fascinating combination of elements which result in an effect much more powerful than any one of its constituent elements taken individually.

{3} The official histories of the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, and Southeast Asian conflicts 1948-75 satisfy many needs, covering operational as well as political and strategic, medical, economic and scientific aspects - mainly in separate volumes. In a biography, however, it is possible to find most of these elements present, and much else besides. In the course of taking a subject from the cradle to the grave, the biographer often has to embrace aspects of social and geographic or local history, and even genealogy. In short, biography offers rewards to readers and students of military history that other genres do not.

{4} Of course, many of these same qualities can also be found in autobiography too. Accounts written by key figures undoubtedly provide unique perspectives on great events and issues in the life of the Australian Army. And there are certainly works in this category which come readily to mind. From the chronicle penned by Major General Joseph Gordon in the 1920s,2 through to the memoirs published by Major General Sir Kingsley Norris3 and Lieutenant General Sir Rowell4 in the 1970s, there is a tradition of such writing. But works of this kind are different again from biographies, which provide interpretation by someone other than the subject. Autobiographies are like oral histories: valuable, but very much more so when refocused through the lens of a skilled historian capable of providing context and objective analysis. In other words, autobiography is but grist to a biographer's mill.

Survey of titles

{5} As a distinct field within military writing in Australia, biography is a relatively recent and limited addition. For the Army it is barely fifty years, while the other two services are in no better position. As late as 1990, Professor Peter Dennis at the Australian Defence Force Academy could identify only five biographical works commenting on the command and administration of the Australian Army in the First World War, while military biography for the period of the Second World War was, he complained, "particularly disappointing".5

{6} In fact, the position was not quite so grim as then portrayed, with there being at least 20 works in this category available in 1990, and another 21 which have appeared since then. While the number may be greater than generally realized, it must also be admitted that - with respect to scope and quality - this is a very mixed bag indeed. The list may also not be complete, considering the difficulties of keeping abreast of all the products available through desktop publishing. This survey of titles should still be adequate, however, to make observations and draw conclusions regarding patterns and trends.

{7} A problem with any list is whether the criteria against which it is assembled are sufficiently encompassing. Within the list of biographical titles presented here are many which are less than whole-of-life studies of their subject. Books such as David Horner's General Vasey's war, based on Major General George Vasey's wartime letters to his wife, and Rosemary Derham's The silence ruse, which she pointedly sub-titles "a record and memories" of her father, General Sir Brudenell White. Each of these - and others which deal with just one segment or aspect of a military life, like Mark Clisby's exploration of Lieutenant-General Gordon's Bennett's culpability over Singapore, Guilty or innocent? - is nonetheless essentially biographical in both focus and flavour, and hence worth counting.

{8} A more recent work is Anne Blair's account of Brigadier Ted Serong's time in Vietnam, There to the bitter end, based upon interviews with Serong and his diaries from the early 1960s to the fall of Saigon. Although one reviewer declared that this was not a biography, because "so much of his persona remains in the shadows - mysterious, quixotic, one-dimensional",6 the author does briefly trace Serong's early life and career prior to his involvement in the Vietnam conflict. It therefore merits a place on this list, even though Blair is presently engaged on a full-length biography of the same subject.

{9} Also included are works on subjects whose Army service was but a brief part of a life spent in other fields. Here can be counted books about Army nurses: Williams & Goodman's Jane Bell, OBE, the story of the Lady Superintendent of the Royal Melbourne Hospital 1914-34 and a one-time Army matron; and Norman Manners' Bullwinkel. Equally, this applies to Colleen McCullough's Roden Cutler, VC, about an army life which was but a prelude to an even more distinguished career in government administration and diplomacy; or my own McNamara, VC, which tells the story of a Victoria Cross winner of the First World War whose subsequent career belongs at least as much to the history of the Royal Australian Air Force as it does that of the Army.

{10} Not judged as meeting the criteria is Peter Edgar's study of Brigadier General (later Major General Sir) William Glasgow in his command of the 13th Australian Infantry Brigade in France 1916-18,7 on the grounds that, although Glasgow's background is discussed, the focus of the work is somewhere else entirely. Also excluded are Stan Krasnoff's account of the action in which Keith Payne won the Victoria Cross in Vietnam,8 which is listed as "fiction" in library catalogues despite its "true story" sub-title (and even the author insists it is "not a biography"), and Ian Walters's monograph on another VC winner from Vietnam, Kevin ("Dasher") Wheatley,9 which is more a reflection on the politics of Australian involvement in that conflict.

{11} And what does one make of the three biographies on war cameraman Damien Parer, the first published in 1963, the other two in 1994?10 Parer's name is indelibly linked with the Second World War, and without doubt the books about him reflect important facets of the Army's life and history. But he was not primarily active in the military sphere, even if he does frequently appear in photographs in army uniform. For this exercise, the list has been deliberately confined to books about clearly identifiable military figures.

AWM P02126.011
Middle East c.1940-11. Damien Parer (right), with another war correspondent
AWM P02126.011

{12} An especially interesting aspect of the list produced concerns the fairly narrow range of subjects, split roughly one-third/two-thirds between the First and Second World Wars. Only in the account of Ted Serong in Vietnam is there anything which deals with the last 55 years of the Army's history. As will be noticed, there is actually a number of "repeat offenders": Monash, Blamey and Bennett appear three times; Bridges, White and Howse twice. The result is that out of the 41 book titles included in the survey, there are actually only 33 individuals being written about.

Rate of production

{13} Another striking feature is the picture which emerges in regard to the rate at which new titles have appeared. From very modest beginnings in the mid-1950s, it can be seen that the flow only really began in the early 1970s. This remained constant through the 1980s at eight titles a decade, before nearly doubling during the 1990s. In the first eighteen months of this decade there have been five new titles already, suggesting that by 2009 we can expect there will have been a bumper crop of additions to the field. While this growth appears healthy, it is probable that most fields of publishing have experienced similar or better rates of expansion over the same period. Perhaps the most balanced view to take is that military biography, while growing, still remains a minority interest in this country.

{14} After a century of the Australian Army's existence, we might well ponder the reasons for the pattern which has emerged. Considering that such a major conflict as the First World War began barely a decade after Federation, why did it take another forty years before anyone bothered to write seriously about the men who directed or featured in its great events? Although the evidence upon which to base a response to this question is hardly firm, any answer probably involves two factors: readers and writers.

{15} In Two men I knew, Charles Bean - Australia's official historian of the First World War - wrote that his twin subjects "deserved that Australians should know more of them" than the sketches he provided could portray. His hope "was that, for the benefit of our countrymen, some later biographer may paint these portraits life size". But, he went on:

there are at least half a dozen others of whom - if the years and my other work allow - I should like to leave similar sketches. Unfortunately they can only be sketches; in Australia, with so limited a number of readers, the cost of producing full biographies is usually beyond the powers of writers and publishers to sustain.11

For Bean, the problem was essentially practical. Despite Australia's population of nearly ten million in 1957, there were too few potential readers of military biography to make books of this nature viable.

{16} It might also be suggested, though, that an underlying cause for this situation was one of Bean's own creation. As is well recognized, Australians have had a deep fascination with the legend of the "Digger" - a regard which Bean himself played no small part in fostering. It might reasonably be argued that the process of apotheosizing the front-line soldier reached the point in this country where for a long time there was little interest among the wider community in portrayals beyond the view of the man in the trenches. Ex-members of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) might still have held their wartime commanders in high regard, affection even, but they did not particularly want to read how generals' decisions and planning contributed to winning battles, rather than their own actions. A biography of Captain Albert Jacka - the man described as "Australia's greatest front-line soldier" - probably did not have to wait until 1989 for publication, but it probably needed the creation of a regular army in 1947 before Australia began developing a sufficient body of readers with an interest in military matters.

Who writes Army biographies?

{17} The second element in determining the rate at which biographies have been written has been the availability of writers who were willing and able to tackle the sometimes delicate and demanding task of sitting in judgement on a prominent military figure's life and achievements. So, who were the authors of the 41 books on the list, and from where and with what qualifications did they emerge? One point which leaps out from considering the list of authors is the fact that, here too, we have a number of "repeat offenders". No fewer than four (including two speakers at this seminar) have produced two or more books in the field, so that we are actually looking at 38 writers (note that the biographies of Dougherty and Bell were both jointly authored).

{18} Data concerning the backgrounds of this group may well be incomplete, considering that jacket blurbs are in many cases less than helpful. Even allowing for gaps as may exist, an interesting feature nonetheless emerges from what we do know. It is striking, for instance, that all the early biographers (that is, at least up to 1980) had been in the wartime Army, except for two. The exceptions were Bean and John Hetherington, and both men had been war correspondents so neither could be accused of lack of familiarity with things Army.

{19} Of those that followed, William Russell had spent five years with the 2/14th Battalion in the Middle East, New Guinea and Borneo and Frank Legg served in the 2/48th Battalion at Tobruk and El Alamein. Frederick Howard was with the AIF in the Middle East and New Guinea, and at General Headquarters, South-West Pacific Area. A.J. Smithers was commissioned in Britain's territorial forces before the Second World War, became a regular officer in the British Army and served in France, West Africa, India and Burma. Ivan Chapman was a prisoner of war in Germany for four years. John Moore was an officer in the Citizen Military Forces. Alec Hill was commissioned in the pre-Second World War militia before serving with the 9th Division in the Middle East (also at Tobruk and El Alamein), and as brigade major of the 20th Brigade in New Guinea and Borneo. What Legg and Chapman shared with Hetherington and Bean was a background in journalism, with Legg having been a war correspondent too. So, it is no less remarkable that, for the first 25 years, the profile of an Australian Army biographer was typically that of being a journalist with wartime experience.

{20} From the late 1970s, the baton began to be passed to academics (who equally often had Army experience) and ex-military professionals, although it is possible to still come across the biographer with Second World War credentials. Fearnside and Clift are both in this category (the former served in the 2/13th Battalion, the latter in AIF signals), and Goodman was with the 2/4th Australian General Hospital in 1940-45. So too is Stan Arneil, who was serving in the ranks of the 2/30th Battalion when he became a prisoner of the Japanese at Singapore. Prominent in the newly emerging group of professionals are a significant number who received a formal education at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in the late 1960s and 1970s. Interestingly, this includes three of the four authors who have penned more than one biography: David Horner, a graduate of 1969; myself of 1972; and Brett Lodge, who resigned from the Army in 1978 without completing his final year as a cadet at the college. Peter Pedersen graduated in 1974.

{21} In the last few years, an increase has been seen in the number of authors who possess a background in neither the Army nor academe. And in Sue Ebury, Judith Ingle, Phoebe Vincent, Rosemary Derham, Colleen McCullough, Judy Thomson and Anne Blair we see the emergence of women authors for the first time (apart from Jennifer Williams, who did not write the military section of the biography of Matron Bell). Perhaps it is too early to point to a new shift in the pattern; nonetheless there certainly appears to be something new happening.

{22} Is there a conclusion that can be drawn from any of this? Are the books produced by ex-military men better for the element of familiarity with the Army which the author possesses? It may be unwise to take too firm a view on such questions, but in general it must be said that a knowledge of military organization and terminology is no bad thing, even if not essential to producing a sound work of military history. One certainly would not suggest that a good biography cannot be written by someone who lacks an Army background - the example of the magisterial study of Monash produced by academic Geoffrey Serle is clear testimony to that! Equally, possession of such a background does not save some of the biographies from being less than inspiring or satisfactory, or from making the occasional slip. It would still be fair, though, to express the hope that descendants of our major military figures will resist the temptation to ask family friends to undertake that biography which they want to see written.

Who publishes?

{23} A final aspect worthy of comment about Army biography in this country concerns who has been putting out the books to be read. The first point to be made is that, with a small number of exceptions, the majority have all been produced in either Sydney or Melbourne. And even within these two hubs of activity, the actual number of publishing houses involved have been incredibly small. Two stand out, both for the frequency of putting out titles in this field and for the length of their association with it. Between 1978 and 1992 Melbourne University Press was responsible for publishing five Army biographies. Since first entering the field in 1986, Allen & Unwin can boast the not inconsiderable achievement of eight titles.

{24} Although the Australian War Memorial is no longer active as a publisher itself, other leading names are still noticeable. If anything, therefore, it might be judged a healthy sign for the future that in the last decade houses such as Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Hale & Iremonger have been producing titles in this field.

{25} A final piece of speculation about where military biography can go in Australia. Returning to the list of titles identified in this field, it can been seen that there are still many gaps in the coverage of the principal figures who have guided and shaped this nation's Army heritage. For instance, from the early Federation period we have yet to see a study on Sir John Hoad, our first locally-born major general. There are a number of major figures from the First World War who, prima facie, warrant attention - among them White, Sir James McCay, Sir Charles Rosenthal, Sir Talbot Hobbs, Sir William Glasgow, William Holmes and Harold Elliott. A work on the last-named by the Ross McMullin, who has previously written on the Australian Labor Party, is currently well down the path towards publication, and Glasgow's biography is being written by Peter Edgar.

{26} For the Second World War, biographies are still needed for generals Sir Vernon Sturdee, Rowell (despite his autobiography), Henry Wynter, Cyril Clowes, Arthur Allen, George Wootten, Sir John Northcott, William Bridgeford and Frank Berryman, among others. I know only of one work recently begun on Allen, and another apparently contemplated on Northcott. Other Army figures from this period for whom books are reportedly planned or underway are Harry Murray, VC, Colonel Frank Heritage and Major General Ken Eather.

{27} For the period of the post-war Army we will probably be waiting quite a while before we see biographies of generals Sir Henry Wells, Sir John Wilton (although at least we have the preliminary sketch left by the late Ian McNeill in David Horner's book The commanders)12 or Sir Arthur MacDonald. Others who might be considered suitable subjects, such as Sir Frank Hassett, Sir Thomas Daly, Sir Phillip Bennett, Peter Gration and John Baker, are still living. A biography of Daly, at least, is currently being written by Jeff Grey. My point is simply that the field is far from exhausted.

{28} It only needs to be added that many of the materials for carrying out the research essential for such projects lie here in this National Library. For instance, collections of private papers for several of the major figures already written about, such as Monash, Ryrie and Vasey, are held here, along with those of others who still await a proper biography. Included in the latter category are Sir Brudenell White and Bridgeford.

{29} The history of the Australia Army is not wrapped up wholly within the life stories of its senior officers and commanders. Biography is a field that reflects the full range of activities associated with operating a complex, evolving organization like the Army, and many facets of national life and society besides. There are, no doubt, numerous figures who might be thought suitable subjects for a life-study. One rich resource that should not be overlooked by those wishing to explore the field at greater depth is the Australian dictionary of biography, a continuing project to record the lives and achievements of notable Australians which next year enters its 40th year of existence. In the first twelve volumes published up until 1990 there appeared articles on 721 people who flourished in the British or Australian Army up to 1939. A further three volumes on figures who died between 1940 and 1980 have since been published, and a fourth is in preparation. Each individual who features in the pages of the A.D.B. has been carefully researched and written about at varying length with regard to family origins, upbringing, education, employment and career, marriage, private interests and death. The Dictionary is an invaluable resource for anyone who seeks to develop an understanding of the history of the Australian Army by studying the backgrounds, career paths and achievements of that service's people.

The author

Dr Chris Clark joined the Australian War Memorial as historian for Post-1945 conflicts in January, having previously been the Armed Services research editor with the Australian Dictionary of Biography at the Australian National University. He has written more than 20 books in a range of genres, including biography. His Encyclopaedia of Australia's battles is being reprinted in updated paperback in October.


1 Geoffrey Serle, John Monash: a biography (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1982), p.380.

2 J.M. Gordon, The chronicles of a gay gordon (London: Cassell, 1921).

3 F. Kingsley Norris, No memory for pain (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1970).

4 S.F. Rowell, Full circle (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1974).

5 P. Dennis, Introduction to International review of military history, no.72 (Canberra: Australian Commission of Military History, University College, University of New South Wales, 1990), pp.xi, xvii.

6 Weekend Australian, 31 March-1 April 2001, pp.R12-13.

7 Peter Edgar, To Villers-Bretonneux with Brigadier-General William Glasgow DSO and the 13th Australian Infantry Brigade (Canberra: the author, 1998).

8 Stan Krasnoff, Where to? for valour: a true story of Keith Payne, VC (Tewantin, QLD: Shala Press, 1995).

9 Ian Walters, Dasher Wheatley and Australia in Vietnam (Darwin: Northern Territory University Press, 1998).

10 Frank Legg, The eyes of Damien Parer (Adelaide: Rigby, 1963); Niall Brennan, Damien Parer: cameraman (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1994); and Neil McDonald, War cameraman: the story of Damien Parer (Melbourne: Lothian Books, 1994).

11 C.E.W. Bean, Two men I knew, p.xi.

12 D.M. Horner (ed.), The commanders: Australian military leadership in the twentieth century (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1984), pp.316-34.