Brian Dickey reviews Geoffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia

Jeffery Grey, A Military History of Australia, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1999, , pp xii + 300, with maps, tables and figs, $90 hb, $29.95 pb, revised edition.

The first edition of this study appeared in 1990, one of the first grouped under the ‘Studies in Australian History’ series. It was produced in a large harback format, supported by a number of well chosen and less familiar illustrations. The present (paperback) print is a familiar and handier size, but the illustrations have gone. More’s the pity.

Let me say first, for those who have read or own a copy of the original edition: this version is effectively the same text, modified only here and there by additional sentences qualifying earlier judgements, correcting the very few errors of fact (the original Marines of 1788 are now properly not ‘Royal’), and adding some useful material covering largely the reorganisations of the last ten years. Grey has also benefited from the flow of useful theses he and his colleagues at the Australian Defence Forces Academy (ADFA) have supervised in these last ten years. Their findings strengthen the presentation considerably. Grey now has a valuable bibliographic essay to conclude his new edition, limited to published work but very up-to-date and judiciously done.

With those few variations, the book has been launched again to earn its keep, to inform students needing an overview of this large subject: one imagines Grey’s own students at ADFA and the growing number of officers in training in the Australian Defence Forces would be the principal readers.

Grey writes with authority and clarity. He takes the military endeavour seriously, but not yet pompously or with fawning approval. A realist, true, but not necessarily the typical backwoods conservative. Nor for that matter, a silly leftish critic out to deny virtue or value to all but the true believers. Many of his typical readers will find the book astringent, challenging, by no means approving of all that has been done by politicians, generals or even the rank and file.

There is a bit of a conceptual problem in such a full scale overview. ‘Military’ belongs to the formal deployment of armed force by the authorised government. Since the identity of that authorised state has varied over the history of Australia, ie during the period of white society since 1788, the activities here recorded vary in focus.

At first it was the forces of the British government deployed to sustain the early colonies. Then, with significant frankness and sustained anger, Grey reviews the way military force was deployed in aid of the civil power on the frontier, that is to kill Aborigines. While for the most part the soldiers could present the normal (or Nuremburg) defence (‘only doing my duty’), some local commanders stand plainly and rightly condemned by Grey’s account. There is the foolish, brutal Major Nunn of Waterloo Creek, there is the righteous but ill-judging Colonel Arthur of the Black Line.

But Grey moves on crisply to the role of the military under the self governing colonies: a tiresome tale told well. The story of the construction of the Commonwealth’s defence forces is well told, now supported by such fine scholarship published and in thesis form.. The treatment of the AIF in World War I likewise reflects recent scholarly debate: as in 1990, so in 1999 Grey refuses to support the old furphy about the unique, never to be imitated qualities of the Australian digger. He reminds us instead of the need for group solidarity common to all fighting forces, and more importantly, of the rising degree of professional skill combined with a growing flow of resources, constantly improved. Like most other modern commentators on World War I, Grey recognises the crucial war-winning role of the gunners and their boffins. Nor will he overestimate the special contribution of the Australian Corps in 1918.

Crisply then, the author reviews the interwar years, where both the military and the politicians blundered. The fairly familiar World war II tale is well summarised, drawing down on the continuing flow of work by such scholars as Horner and Brune.

Then follows the complex matters of the last fifty years, where Grey himself is often the leading published scholar. Reorganisations, military engagements, inter-service rivalries, full versus part time, bureaucrat versus military, these and many more tensions are well described. If in the later nineteenth century the Australian colonial governments could only afford part time soldiers, by the 1960s, there was a full time military force, which inexorably replaced the part time resource. Indeed, Grey might have been more forceful towards the end of his study to ask what the use at all is the Army Reserve as the ADF enters the twentieth century. It has been sidelined, marginalised, insulted, starved, and generally mucked about. Apart from the fun of being in it, I fail to see why the Australian government bothers at all.

So then, an admirable overview, strong, positive, informative, directing the reader on to further scholarship yet competently self contained. A model of what overview histories of themes in Australian history should be.

Brian Dickey, Flinders University, Adelaide.