Film and Book Reviews

War's toll sensitively explored

BOOKSThe horrific loss of life from every section of society during World War I, and the impact of this on the people of Melbourne, is sensitively relayed in this book, writes Bruce Kaye AM.

October 5 2016This is an excellent book. It is a tale of sustained sacrifice made by Australians from Melbourne on distant battlefields in a bloody and brutal war whose centenary we are currently marking. It is bookended with an introduction and an epilogue, both of which end with the memorial phrase “Lest we forget”. In between, the book sets out a story of great suffering and sadness. This rather suggests that what the author wants us to remember is the horrific loss of lives from every section of society and the unbearable sadness that tore at the spirit of the people of the diocese of Melbourne. He has tracked down so many stories of family life and tragedy: stories of clergy delivering the terrible news of a son or brother or father lost in battle, and the consternation at the arrival of the clergy with the dreaded pink envelope containing the news. This task for the clergy was so draining and difficult that for one poor man, it led to illness and death. There are so many people in this book whose stories are relayed with gentle sensitivity.

At the beginning of the war there was much optimism, and the churches supported Australia’s commitment to the defence of the Empire. Melbourne clergy encouraged enlistment. The diocesan synod passed a resolution supporting the war. At least in Melbourne, there does not seem to have been anything like the declaration of the Bishop of London that to save the world “We are engaged in a great crusade – to kill Germans… to kill the good as well as the bad; to kill the young men as well as the old.”

Support for the war waned and two referendums for conscription were defeated by the people. The author relates the social changes during the war, but he points to the major changes in attitudes to the old order of things. Empire Day faded away in Australia, but ANZAC day became a fixed point and in recent years has grown to be a central event in the Australian calendar. Soldiers wrote saying they longed to come home – but home for them meant Australia, not England, as had been the case for the previous generation.

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The stories in this book are set in relation to the great events of the time, the changes that were clearly coming in the British Empire, in Australia and in Melbourne.

They are drawn from the rolls of honour, windows and records of the churches in Melbourne. Bradly Billings has tracked this physical evidence with quite tenacious determination and respect. He has relayed the stories he has discovered with real sensitivity and directness. It is a great piece of vernacular history that puts the reader in touch with the personal aspects of the great and calamitous events of the Great War.

After the war ended many came to think it had been a terrible thing, but at the same time the soldiers and their families could not be told that their sacrifices were in vain. In time the war came to be regarded more as a disaster and a failure of public policy. The same question arises whenever there is war. It is now widely recognised that in Australia after the war in Vietnam we badly failed to make the distinction between public policy and the instruments of that policy.

Billings ends his book by reminding his readers that the churches and chapels of the Diocese of Melbourne are custodians of the material culture of the human stories of the Great War. He then returns to the phrase with which he began, “Lest we Forget”. But what should we not forget? Perhaps it must include what Billings gives us in his second last paragraph, in a quotation from Siegfried Sassoon:

But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game…

Have you forgotten yet?

Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

For God, King and Country: The Anglican Church and Community in Melbourne during the Great War, by Bradly S. Billings (Morning Star Publishing, 2016, $24.95)

The Revd Dr Bruce Kaye AM is Adjunct Research Professor at the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology at Charles Sturt University.