Book note: Ross McMullin’s book Life So Full of Promise: further biographies of Australia’s lost generation

Sometimes important books slip through the reviewing net, for various reasons. There has been more of this in Honest History’s case recently; after ten years, we are winding back a bit (see separate note). In the case of Ross McMullin’s Life So Full of Promise: Further Biographies of Australia’s Lost Generation, the slack has been taken up by many other reviewers and following is a sample:

Just over a decade ago, Ross McMullin published Farewell, Dear People (2012), a magisterial biography of ten remarkable Australians killed in World War I. The book met with much acclaim, including the award of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History in 2013. Life So Full of Promise, a sequel to this volume, provides three more biographies of men whose early lives suggested that they would have made extraordinary contributions to Australian public life, had they survived the war.

In this book, McMullin adopts a similar approach: although the main focus is on the individual men, their stories are situated within detailed accounts of the families and communities from which they came. His aim is to highlight not just the ‘radiant but unfulfilled promise’ of these relatively unknown Australians, but also to illuminate what the war was like for Australians at home. (Raelene Frances, Australian Book Review – paywall)


McMullin’s story focuses on the lives of three young men: Brian Pockley (Sydney medical establishment), Norman Callaway (rural working-class/small business) and Murdoch (Doch) Mackay (Bendigo middle-class). Pockley attends the exclusive Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), Callaway the Hay Public School, and Mackay, St Andrews College, Bendigo. Pockley’s father is a leading ophthalmic surgeon and Brian follows family tradition (as does elder brother Guy) by studying medicine …

When war is declared in August 1914, many young Australian men enlist thinking it will be the greatest adventure of their lives, an opportunity to travel the world in the expectation that the conflict would be over by Christmas. Christmas, 1914! What are the motives of these three young men for enlisting? As McMullin points out there were multiple reasons. (Bernard Whimpress, Newtown Review of Books)


The rich cast includes a talented barrister whose outstanding leadership enabled a momentous victory in France; an eminent newspaper editor who kept his community informed about the war while his sons were in the trenches; an energetic soldiers’ mother who became a political activist and a Red Cross dynamo; an admired farmer whose unit was rushed to the rescue in the climax of the conflict; the close sisters from Melbourne who found their lives transformed; a popular doctor who was more fervently mourned than any other Australian casualty; and a bohemian Scandinavian blonde who disrupted one of Sydney’s best-known families.

A feature of the book is its coverage of cricket and cricketers of the era. It reveals the untold story of a keen all-rounder who was chosen in an Australian team to tour England, but surprisingly did not go. There is also a superb biography of a brilliant yet practically unknown cricketer whose stunning feat has never been matched. Other prominent characters include the most versatile top-level sportsman Australia has ever known, and a Test prospect whose violent postwar death shocked the nation. (History Victoria)

David Stephens

18 December 2023

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