Monday, 21 March 2011

Book Review - Bad characters : sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australian Imperial Force by Peter Stanley

Bad characters : sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australian Imperial Force by Peter Stanley

Published in 2010 by Pier 9                             ISBN 9781741964806

This is an important and valuable book, and in many ways a very good book. Unfortunately in some ways it is also a disappointing book. Some of the things that make it disappointing are not necessarily the fault of the author, but the disappointments take the lustre from a great addition to the literature on the subject of the 1st AIF and Australia in World War I.

As the title suggests, Peter Stanley has investigated the more disreputable side of the AIF. We have certainly had many books written about the undoubted heroism of AIF troops, the horrible sacrifices they made in the Middle East and Europe, and the legends that have been created around ANZAC and the Diggers in general. Part of that legend is woven around the mythology of the larrikin Digger - Stanley's work helps us to flesh out this myth, and expose it - the larrikin tag came after the war, and many of the acts that served to form the legend were suitably "airbrushed" after the fact to reduce their criminality.

Stanley focusses on the "bad" side of the AIF, which can be pretty much divided into two parts - general criminality, or offences that would be criminal in civilian life, such as theft, assault, rape and murder - and military offences, that is, offences against the rules of the army such as insubordination, failure to discharge orders, absent without leave (AWL), mutiny, and so forth.

And here is where the first disappointing aspect of this work kicks in. Stanley has decided to treat his subject chronologically, to avoid "reprising the events of 1914-18 repeatedly and perhaps tediously". Unfortunately for Stanley, his choice has led to his subjects being split apart, so there are interesting chapters about VD in the 1914 section and in the 1918 section of the book. If the book had a comprehensive index this may not have been as much of an issue as it has been for this reviewer, but unfortunately for Stanley (as I'm sure it's not his doing or desire), the index is frankly appalling. As an example, I have a personal research interest in a base camp mutiny/riot that occurred in Etaples in 1917: Etaples is not mentioned in the index at all, but not only did I come across a few references to it in the text, there are even a couple of lines about the incident in which I'm interested. It really devalues the whole work to have such poor apparatus.

A thematic approach would have been a better one for a work like this, as I don't think repetition would be much of an issue, given Stanley is rarely talking about battles or campaign history, and it would be easier for readers to see how an issue, such as VD or AWL developed over the course of the war. Another slight disappointment is the lack of statistical tables, with stats spread about in the text, and again separated depending on where in the war they occurred. The chronological approach also leads to repetitions of it's own -VD in 1914 and again in 1918 - or omissions - did murders only happen in 1917?.

Despite these disappointments, Bad Characters is well worth reading. The AIF was for the time, an unusual force, being made up almost entirely of volunteers. Many of the officers were also militiamen, or civilian soldiers, and the "civilian-ness" of the force comes out time and again through Stanley's narrative. Many of the Diggers saw their service in terms of a workplace, and tried to settle their disputes through "industrial" means, rather than official army channels. Stanley is at his strongest when discussing this facet of the AIF experience and the friction this civilian outlook on soldiering caused with the British High Command, who could never get their head around the propensity for Australians not to salute officers (Stanley quotes a soldier from the 30th Battalion - "Navvies don't salute their gangers, so why should we?"), or for them to "take time off" when not actually at the front.

Stanley also deals well with the death penalty issue. Contrary to the myth that has built up over time, the AIF did have the death penalty on the books. The "problem" was, given the volunteer nature of the force, that approval from the Governor General of Australia was required to confirm any death sentences. By 1917, when AWL was becoming a big issue, the Australian Government was in the middle of a hard fought political campaign to introduce conscription, so the last thing it needed was soldiers being executed. Stanley points out that many Australian officers were actually in favour of the death penalty (as it turned out, three serving Australian soldiers were executed, all for murder, as well as one shot by his own side in the act of deserting to the enemy). At times, the Australian incidences of AWL were higher than in the other sections of the Empire forces by a factor of more than ten, and there is no doubt that part of the reason for this is the knowledge by the troops that they would not face the death penalty. In many ways the Australian commanders were lucky the war ended when it did, for the AWL issue, combined with the lack of new volunteers, would have compromised the AIF's ability to be effective if the war had have continued into 1919.

Bad Characters also marks out the difference between the true bad characters, and those who "crimed" as a result of too much pressure, including some winners of the Victoria Cross who were punished for insubordination and for catching VD.

VD was a scourge of the Entente armies in WWI, and none more so than the AIF. Stanley makes an important contribution to the literature of the AIF on this subject, which understandably has not really been tackled in a meaningful way until now. He shows how the authorities struggled to control infection rates and how they moved from treating infection as an offence to a problem that had to be managed. Again the lack of a decent index is painful - we simply have an entry "Venereal Disease" followed by a list of page numbers - not helpful to the serious student.

Despite these flaws, Peter Stanley has written an important account of "the other side" of the AIF, which will no doubt spawn other works that explore the reality of WWI for Australian Troops - where not everyone was a hero, some cracked under the pressure, and there was a leavening of true scoundrels to make life interesting.

Recommended for anyone interested in the AIF and it's achievements.

Bad Characters is available from Amazon, The Book Depository, or try your local bookshop or Library.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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