Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Book Review - The ridge and the river by TAG Hungerford

The ridge and the river, a novel by T. A. G. Hungerford

Sydney: Pacific Books (Angus & Robertson), 1966

Tom Hungerford was a sergeant in the 2/8 Commando Squadron in the Australian Army in World War II. In his own words he "was one of a group of men all doing the same bloody thing. Sticking the head up, hoping to Christ it wouldn't be shot off." The 2/8 Commando spent the last 10 months or so of the war on the island of Bougainville, conducting small group patrols and ambushes, and generally keeping the Japanese army off guard and nervous.

The ridge and the river is a fictionalised account of one such patrol, consisting of a section of men from all across Australia, of many different types, and who don't necessarily all like each other. They are given a reconnaissance  task to undertake, which goes wrong, people are wounded, and the section faces a long march back through the jungle to get back to base.

While the description of the fighting pulls no punches, Hungerford is more interested in the interplay between the men of the section. Shearwood, the corporal  leading the group since their last officer was killed, and Wilder the new lieutenant, who needs to earn his stripes - not only because he is a new man in the group but because of his cowardice in an initial tussle with the Japanese has the men wary of him - are the leaders of the group, but we are also taken into the minds of Manetta, White, Evans, and Malise, who is the spoiler in the group. We learn where they have come from, what drives them, and how they cope with the constant fear and deprivation that jungle fighting brings upon them.

Along the way Hungerford tackles other issues - including colonialism, Aboriginal rights, and the burdens of leadership. This is all done in a way that brings the issues to mind without making too much of them. Given that this book was originally published in 1952, some of the things he has to say about the rights of natives were quite forward-thinking.

The style of the book is matter-of-fact, with plenty of rough talk between the men of the section - this dialogue brings the story alive, and given Hungerford has direct experience of the jungle war, is no doubt accurate (one of my great-uncles was a Bren gunner in the 2/6 and 2/9 Commando, and I was reminded of him more than once during this book). The story itself is tense, which makes it a page-turner, and which is why I don't want to give away too much of what happens - needless to say there are one or two twists and turns, and by the end of the book you as a reader are drained, as are the men in the story. There is a final piece of information in the last few pages of the book that bring home to the reader the futility of war quite powerfully.

I was once told that to get a feel for what Australian troops did in the jungles of Melanesia read The ridge and the river - I can recommend that you do the same.

The ridge and the river has been republished many times, and it should be relatively easy to find a copy at your local library (where I got mine), or at a second-hand bookshop.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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