Beaumont, Joan: Broken Nation

Beaumont, Joan

Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2013

The Great War is, for many Australians, the event that defined our nation. The larrikin diggers, trench warfare, and the landing at Gallipoli have become the stuff of the Anzac ‘legend’. But it was also a war fought by the families at home. Their resilience in the face of hardship, their stoic acceptance of enormous casualty lists and their belief that their cause was just, made the war effort possible… A century after the Great War, Broken Nation brings lucid insight into the dramatic events, mass grief and political turmoil that makes the memory of this terrible war central to Australia’s history. (blurb)

Reviews are here, here, here, here, here (Marilyn Lake), here and here. A later review which makes some perceptive comments. Review on World Socialist Web Site. The book won the NSW Premier’s Prize for Australian history, a Queensland Literary Award and shared the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian history.

The author talks here about her book, noting how rising casualties led to intense divisions, particularly over conscription, how there was ‘an explosion of repressed grief’ which fed these conflicts, how returned soldiers battled with unionists during and after the war as the labour journalist Henry Boote conspicuously led the opposition to conscription, along with Archbishop Daniel Mannix, and how Prime Minister Hughes responded with repressive legislation. Then, when the war was over, 12 500 Australians, many of them young men, died of Spanish Flu. The author makes also some interesting points about the ‘manipulation of memory’ and the difference between history and memory.

Another talk by the author about the book. ‘Why then did I write [it]? Quite simply, because there was no single, comprehensive history of Australia in World War 1 which integrated battles, the home front, diplomacy and memory.’

The Bibliography and Notes in the book are a mine of information. Beaumont’s style is concise, making the inevitable descriptions of battles relatively easy to bear. She deftly interweaves descriptions of events on the battlefront with those at home. Her final chapter shows how much the war impacted on Australia. Occasionally, she surprises with an obviously deeply felt comment, like this one:

By this stage of the war [April 1918], the 15th Brigade had perfected the “throat jab” – a thrust of the bayonet up through a man’s throat into his spinal cord. As Elliott [General ‘Pompey’ Elliott] put it, this killed a man “easily, quickly and painlessly, often without a cry or movement”. Clearly by 1918 these Australians were highly efficient killers, a fact that twenty-first century commemoration with its high diction of “sacrifice” and “deeds of valour” elides.

Beaumont uses the academic word ‘elides’. ‘Glosses over’, ‘leaves out’, ‘forgets’ would do just as nicely to describe the way we avoid the more brutal aspects of war.

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