Though it was a ‘private’ (is a non-work) book, A Stout Pair of Boots was arguably the first product of my time at the National Museum of Australia. I numbered among my new colleagues one of Australia’s premier archaeologists – Dr Mike Smith. Late in 2007 Claire and I bought a car, and I had to go to Manuka to sign the papers for the loan. Arriving before the bank opened, I browsed in the excellent Paperchain bookshop. There I found a book that I thought Mike would like – the Royal Geographical Society’s expedition handbook. I bought it for Mike, but as I waited for the bank to open I read it and realised that here was an unfilled need in Australian military history.
Australian military historians (and indeed, people just interested in understanding military history) had begun using battlefields as sources or as places to learn and extend their knowledge. I decided that on the basis of my experience of field work I probably had something to offer by way of a how-to. During a research trip to Melbourne soon after I put together a pitch to Ian Bowring and wrote the manuscript over the next six months. I delivered it at Anzac Day (appropriately) and it appeared around Remembrance Day 2008.
One of the great pleasures of writing A Stout Pair of Boots was that it entailed asking military historians, most of whom were friends, about their experiences in research on battlefields all over the world. They included (in alphabetical order) Jean Bou, Phil Bradley, Craig Deayton, Brian Farrell, Jeff Grey, Ros Hearder, Mark Johnston,Michael McKernan, Ross McMullin, Michael Molkentin, Peter Pedersen, Aaron Pegram, Garth Pratten and Nigel Steel. I realised in the course of this project that military historians are an unusually generous and co-operative bunch: no one was jealous of ‘professional secrets’ about where to go, what to look for (and what to avoid), but shared their knowledge and experience in a wonderfully collaborative way. That was an unexpected bonus from the enterprise. Another benefit was that the book brought me into contact with people – mainly family historians – who had also travelled to battlefields and were glad to share their stories. They included the children of 2/48th veteran XXXX and especially Terry and Marianne King, who travelled to Egypt, Gallipoli, France and Belgium in the footsteps of Terry’s grandfather, and who produced a huge annotated transcript of his diary.
‘detailed and comprehensive yet very practical… an infectious enthusiasm about his writing and the book is warm and sometimes funny … a book both to enjoy and to give motivation.
Robert Willson, Canberra Times, 14 March 2009
‘a practical book that will encourage you to get out of your armchair’
The List, Canberra Times, 1 Feb 2009
‘Worth reading for the anecdotes alone … this book works for both the professional historian and the tourist
Sunday Mail, 8 March 2009
‘an antidote to every cheap and nasty military tour aimed at the bumbag-and-camera crowd … an earnest and sometimes stuffy tome best suited to the serious military buff’
Daniel Herbon, Sun Herald, 5 April 2009
‘… both concise and accessible and punctuated with personal anecdotes and asides … immensely enjoyable, yet practical book … indispensable’
Brian Geach, Townsville Bulletin, 24 January 2009
‘ a remarkable travel “aid” … an essential guide … the book you have to buy before you do the serious preparation for a comprehensive battlefield experience’
Bruce Elder, Age, 31 Jan 2009