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Stevenson: The War With Germany: Review


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Book Review (first published in the Journal of Military History Vol82, No.1 Jan 2018, pp 267-269)



The War with Germany by Robert Stevenson. The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, volume 3. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-1955-7677-1. Photographs. Maps. Tables. Graphs. Charts. Appendices, Endnotes. Bibliographic Essay. Index. Pp. xvi, 303. A$62.95 (hardback).





Stevenson’s ‘The War with Germany’ is the third in a set of five volumes that comprise ‘The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War’, and it is important to remember that when reading this volume. Although very capable of standing alone as an insightful and analytical review of the Australian contribution and participation in the war against Germany, the contents are enhanced when read in conjunction with the other volumes, especially the fifth volume, ‘The Australian Imperial Force’ by Jean Bou and Peter Dennis (reviewed in JMH Vol 81, No.2, April 2017, pp586-587).


Volume 3 takes the reader from the earliest considerations of the war from the Australian perspective, through the formation and deployment of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) and that force’s successful conquest of German New Guinea, to the participation of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in the war in Europe. Stevenson methodically works through the early years of the formation of the AIF and its learning the art of large scale warfare, through to the successful application of ‘lessons learnt’ in 1918. He well illustrates how the infantry divisions of the AIF integrated into the overall structure of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front, and especially how effective each AIF division was in comparison to others of the BEF, including those of the Canadian and New Zealand forces.


But in doing so, his analysis does not that seek to prop-up any of the mythology that has come to surround the ‘ANZAC legend’ – quite the opposite. Stevenson well demonstrates how much the leadership of the AIF depended upon British senior officers and British experience, and how both influenced the rise of Australian command talent such as General John Monash. He takes the same approach to the issue of discipline within the AIF. While acknowledging that the AIF was generally made up of good soldiers who never received a blemish on their service record, he demonstrates that the force was far from exceptional and still had more than a few issues with discipline to contend with. He spares nothing in his analysis, devoting a full chapter – Bad Boy of the Imperial Family – wherein he provides sound arguments that firmly place the AIF at the head of the miscreants list within the national contingents of the BEF.    


Stevenson also brings to the fore just how much the contribution of the AIF to the battles on the Western Front was so utterly dependant upon British logistics and supporting arms. He illustrates how virtually everything to sustain the force in the field, from bully beef to bombs, was supplied from British sources, along with the majority of the artillery and, later, tank support. The lives expended in each attack were Australian, but much of the means to make each attack possible were British.   


If there is any criticism to be levelled at Stevenson’s volume and to the series as a whole, it is the use of the Bibliographic Essay as a substitute for the more conventional list of references. The essay is in itself a very valuable chapter, surveying as it does the current state of the various specialised areas of study that comprise Australia’s involvement against Germany in the First World War. Stevenson’s commentary makes evident the over-abundance in certain areas such as the number of books about Australian nurses, compared to the dearth of campaign histories. But what the chapter doesn’t provide is a readily useable, alphabetical list of the books, papers and histories referred to in the text – a must for a series that is intended to stimulate further reading and research. The issue is further compounded by the use of abbreviated forms in the Endnotes, where a reference is given in full only at first use, then abbreviated thereafter. For example, ‘AIF Data’ as an endnote on page 283 is meaningless unless you remember endnote 22 on page 232 where the full reference is given.   


While the five volumes of ‘The Centenary History’ provide a comprehensive review of Australia and Australians in the Great War, it could perhaps have been enhanced by a sixth volume on the Australian naval and maritime contribution. A number of the authors, Stevenson among them, make reference to the fledgling Royal Australian Navy and the movement of Australian forces overseas in hastily converted commercial ships, but these are generally in the context of other matters, and are at times in error. Bou and Dennis in Volume 5, for example, state that ‘no nurses left Australia for service overseas until the third convoy ...’ Yet that convoy, which departed Australia in February 1915, carried no nurses. However, by the end of 1914, some 198 nursing staff had embarked from Australia – 194 for Egypt and four for service with the AN&MEF in Rabaul. The only nurses who departed Australia in February 1915 were six aboard the Osterley on a routine voyage bound for England via South Africa – the first nursing staff to travel directly to England.   


Stevenson’s volume barely makes mention of the massive and sustained maritime effort involved in conveying AIF troops half way around the world to fight the Germans, yet the force could not have deployed and been re-enforced without it. He covers the initial deployment of the AN&MEF to German New Guinea in some detail, and devotes a paragraph as to how that force was initially supplied, but sums up the sustainment of the force over the next several years in just two sentences.   


These criticisms are, however, small – almost insignificant – when compared to what is available in the series as a whole, and Stevenson’s volume in particular. Concise, very well written and logically presented in an easy style that will appeal to the full range of readers, Stevenson skilfully steers us through the ups and downs of the AIF fighting a resolute, well-trained and determined enemy. In doing so, he places the AIF in its rightful place – that of a small but important part of a much larger British-led force. This volume, like the other volumes in the series, compliments the Australian official history and has become a primary reference for understanding Australia’s involvement in the Great War. Stevenson’s volume, indeed the entire series, deserves a prominent place on the bookshelves of everyone interested in the subject.



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