Gammage, Bill: The Broken Years

Bill Gammage

The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Vic., 1975; first published ANU Press 1974; illustrated edition Penguin 1990; illustrated paperback edition Melbourne University Publishing 2010; other editions

The groundbreaking use of 1000 soldiers’ diaries and letters makes this a central testament of the Australian experience of war. The book covers the experience of service at Gallipoli, in Egypt and Palestine and in France. Here, the author discusses the thesis which became the book and a review of a recent edition is here.

The review includes a quote from Gammage’s introduction to this new edition. ‘History’, he says, ‘is never simply a story of the past; it is also a shaping of the future. The Broken Years is an attempt to write an emotional history of the AIF, a story of citizens at war. I hope no one will think it more than a start. The future of Anzac, and therefore its past, is still being contested.’

In another review of this edition, Peter Stanley writes, ‘It is extraordinary for a work of history to endure for half a lifetime. The Broken Years remains, to use an overworked complement, an Australian classic. An artefact of its time, it also speaks to generations of readers not even born when the last edition appeared.’ The themes running through the book include the motivations of the soldiers (see, for example, pp. 82-87 in the 1975 edition), what people at the time thought was the significance of Gallipoli (rhetoric about national birth is prominent) and, most of all, the brutal reality of life in these theatres of war (see, for example, the descriptions of Gallipoli at pp. 71-80 and of France in later chapters).

Stanley also says: ‘The Gallipoli chapter, “Nationhood, Brotherhood and Sacrifice”, remains, I think, the single best thing written to explain what Gallipoli meant to Australia. It caught the imagination of David Williamson and Peter Weir, the writer and director of the great 1980 film Gallipoli, an indication of its influence in shaping popular as well as academic interpretation of the Great War.’ Ken Inglis writes of how Gammage’s influence helped shape the depiction of soldiers in the film as victims rather than heroes or killers. Inglis (p. 416) quotes Gammage about the war ‘destroying an age and generation to no purpose’.

Gammage’s opening chapter ‘Australia during the war’ is also a superb summary of the nation that was ‘broken’ by the experience of these four years. He returns to this theme in his epilogue, noting that the extremes to which the martial virtues and loyalty to Empire, Nation and race were carried during the war contributed to their decline after it, though not at first. No single quote could summarise this complex book but the epigraph to chapter 9, from Lieutenant JT Hampson MC, writing in 1917, goes some of the way:

Any soul who successfully surmounts the horrors of this war, this mad cruel farce, is forever above the run of ordinary men. He may be a vulgar brute; he may be a genius; he may [be] just a common man of the world; but he is worthy of the intensest admiration & respect just because he has suffered so much. The present generation is a super-generation. It is the bravest generation since Adam. What a terrible pity it is that it should bleed to death. (p. 264)


Click here for all items related to: , , ,