Book review: The Anzac Book

By Steve Scott

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The Anzac Book. Photo / Supplied
The Anzac Book. Photo / Supplied

It has been 95 years since a contingent of young Australian and Kiwi men "dug in" on the thin strip of beach that hugs a craggy peninsula at the easternmost edge of the Mediterranean Sea. While this inhospitable place would provide a home for eight months, it would forever be remembered as Anzac Cove, Gallipoli - a geographical monument for the thousands who perished in that flawed and bloody campaign.

This book was painstakingly put together by the soldiers in the cold and bitter winter of 1915, just before the evacuation, with Christmas approaching and death a real and constant companion. What is surprising, then, is the positive tone, the "she'll be right" attitude, that permeates the majority of the works.

The original editor, Charles Bean, sheds light on this when he points out the sole purpose of the book: to divert the men's attention, for however briefly, from the harsh reality that surrounded them. Thus, it was never destined to be a "warts and all" account, filled with the grim and bloody realities of war, but a light-hearted, humorous take on the tragic situation they found themselves in - at its core, it is a book about friendship, loyalty, and fond thoughts of home.

It should also be noted that this book was never designed as a collection of literature and, therefore, cannot be judged as such. It is, simply, an historical artefact, allowing a glimpse into the minds of those placed in an alien and terrifying landscape. The stories, poems and drawings do, though, provide an unexpected bonus: they add a greater piece of the puzzle to the formation of our national identity. From the jagged-edged shrapnel produced by "Beachy Bill", the constant sniper fire, and endless quantities of a particular oat biscuit, a growing antipodean spirit began to blossom.

The meat of the book is not the bully beef the men consume with a growing aversion, but is provided in extracts drawn from Sir Ian Hamilton's official summary. Here we see the campaign through the eyes of its dispassionate commander, safe by his fireside with his port and cigar, maps and running tallies - yards gained, lives lost, enemy kill ratios. To him, this whole affair appears merely a strategic game no different than the board game "Risk", where men are counters to be lost, at times sacrificed, and reinforced at will, because the hills, he believes, must be "taken" at all costs - 100 yards viewed a victory no matter how many lives lost.

The men at Anzac Cove gave their lives in great numbers. Thankfully, they also gave their thoughts and feelings in this assortment of creative works. When reading beyond the text, searching between the lines, in the no-mans-land of this beautifully presented work, the reality of the campaign becomes all the more clear - they may not have won the battle, but they did win a sense of identity.

They became Anzacs.

* The Anzac Book, edited by the Australian War Memorial, Univ of NSW Press, $69.99.

Steve Scott is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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