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Men of Mont St Quentin

Posted by on Jan 18, 2012 in Books | 0 comments

Men of Mont St Quentin coverMen of Mont St Quentin: Between Victory and Death (Scribe Books, Melbourne, 2009)

After delivering the manuscript of Quinn’s Post in about October 2004 I started to become curious about the other end of the Great War. Quinn’s had been about men who had enlisted at the beginning of the war and had fought in Australia’s first substantial campaign. But I wondered whether another book might reveal what the war did to these men and those who followed them, and what the effects of war service might be. The Memorial’s management liked me to write about battles, and knowing this I obligingly cast about for a battle in 1918 that would provide an opportunity to say something about the end of the Great War. I soon settled – for instinctive rather than rational reasons – on Mont St Quentin, for no better reason than it was the only 1918 battle that Charles Bean identified in his list of the high points of the AIF’s war.

I quickly did two things. One was to find a publisher. The main aspect of the production of Quinn’s Post that I found unsatisfactory was that I had spent so long arguing with the designer about the cover that I neglected the typography, which I’ve never really liked. I thought that I’d give another publisher a go and asked Ross McMullin, author of Pompey Elliott, what he thought of Scribe. He gave them a wonderful recommendation, so I contacted Henry Rosenbloom, pitc0hed the idea of a book on Mont St Quentin and immediately scored a contact. Then came the problem. By this time I had realised that I had worked at the Memorial for rather longer than was good for me, and for a time I fell out of love with military history. So even though I had gained a grant from the Army History Unit to conduct the essential field work I found that I had lost the motivation needed to get cracking on a major study of a battle – a very complicated battle, I began to realise.

I did what seemed to be the best thing in the circumstances; that is, nothing. It wasn’t until shortly before I was due to leave the Memorial that I realised that I had to make a decision to either get stuck into or drop this project. While I had radically changed tack before on a book (such as the DCM book that became Quinn’s Post) I hadn’t ever actually abandoned or not finished a project, and I didn’t want to start now. So late in 2005 I did what had worked for me before – I went (as the History Workshop true believers had always cried) ‘Back to the Documents! Amazingly, serendipity worked for me yet again.

I ordered the first of the ‘Mont St Quentin’ files in the papers of Charles Bean and had a look at it to see if it would spark any inspiration. Bingo! The very first file comprised a bunch of accounts written by men of the 21st Battalion – mostly of the same platoon. They had described just one day of battle – 1 September 1918, the day on which the Mont finally fell, and the day on which Frank Roberts, an orchardist from the Dandenongs, died.

Frank’s death explained this file’s existence. His father, Garry, had responded to Frank’s death by trying to find out everything he could about the circumstances in which Frank had died, along with three other members of the dozen men of 9 Platoon. As the surviving members of 9 Platoon returned to Melbourne, Garry sought them out, shouting them lunch and inviting them to dinner at his house in Hawthorn. Most of the survivors had written Garry accounts, the shortest just a page long; the longest many thousands of words. Together they comprise the most detailed single narrative of the experience of one platoon in one battle in Australian military history. Although the accounts had been in public hands for up to 90 years, and although half a dozen historians had looked at the vast lode of paper that constitutes Garry’s papers in the Ste Library of Victoria, no one had previously actually paid them much attention. To me, though, 9 Platoon’s narratives broke the log jam that had stopped progress on my Mont St Quentin book. This book would not deal with the battle as a whole, but would examine it and its meaning by looking at the experience of just one Australian platoon.

By this time I had left the Memorial. I continued working on the book once I shifted to the National Museum, though what with the business of starting the Centre for Historical Research it was mid-2007 before I resumed work. A visit to Mont St Quentin in July and the first encounter with the Garry Roberts papers at the State Library of Victoria later that year confirmed that the ‘micro’ approach was feasible. I then sought to identify and contact descendants of the men of 9 Platoon, and as with other projects found families both trusting and co-operative in advising of family histories. The Castles (Ray and XXX), the McLeods (XXX) and members of the Roberts families (Vivienne Lewis, and especially Jilba Georgalis, daughter of Frank and Ruby Roberts’s daughter Nancy) were especially helpful.

Once I knew that the book would tell the story of the Robertses and the men of 9 Platoon the manuscript fell into place over 2008 and I delivered it to Scribe just before Christmas. In the course of writing I became intrigued by the coincidences and oddities unearthed in research. For example, an analysis of Mont St Quentin exposed the way in which John Monash, commander of the Australian Corps, shaped the master narrative of the AIF in 1918. Garry Roberts, who searched out, read and reflected on accounts of the battle, reached the conclusion that Monash exaggerated the ease with which his force took the Mont. But amazingly, there in the Roberts papers was a photograph of Monash standing beside Frank Roberts’s grave.

Reviews

‘This is a nicely written book that provides a wonderful insight into the Roberts family … a moving story of one small group’s experience’
Chris Roberts, Wartime 48

‘What a page-turner!  It’s terrific to read a book like that.  It feels like it’s a sad novel, it’s written so well.  And to think it’s non-fiction.  Great!’
A reader

‘Some books hit you between the eyes, not because of their violence … but because of the very ordinariness of the drama they tell … thanks to Peter Stanley – and to Frank’s dad – the story of Mont St Quentin is now visible through the fog of war’
Ian Mathews, The Order, Summer 2009-10, p. 23

‘Stanley does not make the best use of his source … Even in the more pertinent sections of the book, the author maintains an unerring eye for irrelevant detail … This is a frustrating read. The promise of a fascinating story is never fulfilled’
Seumas Spark, Reviews in Australian Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3, 2010

Links

Buy on Scribe website

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