Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years of 1974 – one of the Ur-texts of the revival in Australian military history which has governed my professional career – included a group photograph which ten Australians deserters sent to the Provost Marshal (the senior military police officer) at Le Havre in 1917. They essentially thumbed their nose at military authority, daring the military police to come and get them. As far as we know, they got away scot free.
The photograph of the Le Havre deserters played on my imagination, and every so often I would look at their faces and wonder who they were and why they had acted as they had. Eventually the release of the AIF court martial files (the series A471 in the National Archives) made the decision to write about naughty Anzacs feasible, and I decided that the time was right to write about a subject that had been oddly neglected. (While there had been odd theses on aspects of discipline – one by my earliest War Memorial colleague, Jeff Williams, and a PhD in Western Australia that I haven’t read, and Geoff Barr and Glen Wahlert’s books on military policemen – no one had written a book about the AIF’s discipline.)
Clearly this would be a somewhat risky venture. Australians are wedded to the Anzacs of the Great War with what seems like increasing fervour. Writing a book bagging dead heroes would seem to be dangerous: it was clearly vital to get the tone right. Fortunately Diana Hill, my publisher at Murdoch Books, was amenable to taking that risk, and by mid-2008 I had signed up to write a book that was always going to called ‘Bad Characters’.
The more research I did (and the research went very intensively through 2008 and into 2009) the more I realised that the book was feasible and justifiable. While the A471 files were vital, it also became clear that the men of the AIF had been extraordinarily candid about the force’s disciplinary shortcomings, both at the time and in memoirs and battalion histories. I wasn’t saying anything that they hadn’t said before.
Getting the tone right remained critical. I needed to be honest – this story had largely not been told – but also sympathetic to the situation of young men who in many cases suffered death and wounds in circumstances that none of us experienced. Too sensational or critical would alienate readers; too sympathetic would unduly condone conduct that too often was reprehensible. My watchwords were candid and honest but empathetic and understanding. I remembered Madame de Stael’s aphorism ‘to know all is to forgive all’, and that became the book’s epigram.
I tried this tone out in Bathurst in August 2009. The ebullient Robin McLachlan (a colossus of history in Bathurst and beyond) invited me to deliver the Theo Barker memorial lecture there. (I had known Theo slightly – he had served in the British Army in India at the end of the Second World War – and I was glad to remember his work as head of history at Bathurst CAE for years. Talking about the AIF’s ‘bad characters’ to alarge audience of rural Australians would be a fair test. The 40-minute lecture went well – no one walked out. The 40-odd minute discussion session went even better. I found that people responded to the honestly and empathy I was striving for.
The reviews of the book, which appeared in August 2010, demonstrated the validity of this approach. To my secret disappointment no one burned the book, and it sold reasonably well and was reviewed very well. I think
‘While respectful of the achievements of the 1st AIF Stanley wants to give a warts and all account … This is a fine book’
Richard Trembath, Canberra Times, 28 Aug 2010
‘With its graphic subtitle, the book could be considered to be exploitative, but its author’s credentials are as good as one can find … his research and sources are impeccable …’
Alexander McRobbie, Courier Mail, 4 Sep 2009
‘Peter Stanley’s book … should be central in any picture of Australians at war. It is ugly but real. Children should know war is dirty, often obscenely so. And Australians in uniform did bad stuff.’
Christopher Bantick, Age, 8 Nov 2010
‘Peter Stanley’s meticulous research describes the dark side … stories vividly told’
Peter Beale, Newcastle Herald, 20 Nov 2010
‘This is not a dirt-raking mission, rather an attempt to present an honest picture of the AIF’
Alex Stedman, Daily Telegraph, 2 Dec 2010
‘This insightful book also explores the damaging effects on the soldiers after their return from the war … exposing answers to questions never posed before …’
Grafton Daily Examiner, 25 Sep 2010
Buy at Murdoch Books