CBCA Conference May 2014


100 Years of War, Anzac and Children's Books

Anthony Hill

CBCA Conference, Canberra, Saturday 17 May 2014


Thank you for inviting me to speak at the National Conference of the Children's Book Council of Australia, and let me add my own welcome to Canberra in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, and the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second. Indeed, more than one commentator has noted the quite eerie parallels in many respects between events leading up to those conflicts and the current news coming out of Russia and the Ukraine, and wondered if we are not rather dangerously heading towards the brink of a third. One prays not ... that political, economic and diplomatic measures will resolve those disputes, or at least prevent them spreading to a wider international context.

However that may be, the commemoration of those earlier wars is everywhere in the media and in the bookshops ... and not least in the children's bookshops, where recent months have seen a considerable increase in the number of picture books, literary novels, graphic novels and information books for the young ... sometimes the quite young ... about the subject. And with next April marking 100 years since the Gallipoli landings, I assume that the output and the degree of interest among both young and old will only increase.

The present surge of publication of course builds like a wave on the swell ... on the remarkable revival of interest in Australia's history – and especially our military history – from around the time of the Bicentennial in 1988. Those of us who thought, when we were young and saw Alan Seymour’s play The One Day of the Year, that Anzac Day would disappear when the last of the Great War veterans died, have been shown to be quite wrong. Anzac Day has grown in significance and acceptance by young people ... and not just as a celebration of militarism but also as recognition of the sacrifice made by earlier generations ... to the point where I think it has become our true national day.

If you go to any primary school in Canberra, you'll find most of the kids have been to an Anzac Day service ... and even among Years 3 and 4, quite a lot have been to a Dawn Service at the War Memorial, where we'll be tonight. No doubt it’s fairly similar in your own States.

Bill and Dallas Hayden, Anzac Cove, 25 April 1995

I first really became aware of this change in perception when I went to Gallipoli in 1995, at the time of the 80th anniversary of Anzac Day. I was working as a speech-writer for the Governor-General, Bill Hayden. What struck me, as it does most other people, was the vast number of young Australians and New Zealanders at Anzac Cove, where the dawn service was then still held. And it wasn't just their presence. It was their silence. Whatever Anzac Day was saying to me, it was speaking to them too. And I remember thinking: I wish I could find a story that said something to you not only about the Gallipoli campaign, but also about the nature of war. Is it really an exciting adventure ... or something else?

After a couple of false starts, that idea led to my book Soldier Boy, about the 14-year-old Anzac James Martin ... who told the great lie, said he was 18, went to Gallipoli, and lasted for all of seven weeks until he died of typhoid. There was nothing heroic about it, except I think the courage with which he stuck it out: there's no evidence he ever confessed his true age or sought to come home. But the manner of Jim's death was squalid and awful, as war always is. So far as we know he was the youngest of the Anzacs – though you can't be sure for the amount of lying going on. But he is almost certainly the youngest Australian soldier to die. If there were a younger I think we'd know about it by now.

The book has been successful. Soldier Boy is still widely read in schools ... and has led to many invitations. Well, a few years ago I was visiting a local secondary school and had just finished a Year Eight class, when a girl about 15 came up and said: "I always thought war would be exciting ... but I didn't know it would be like THAT!"

Naturally one part of the author was chuffed. At least, I thought, I've got through to one reader. But then the other part of me argued: how could you possibly think war was exciting? After years of seeing the horrors of conflict and suffering and devastation on the television set at home ... much of it in living colour? Or is that dying colour? How could you still think it a glamorous adventure after reading books by the present generation of writers ... people like Jackie French, David Metzenthen, Mark Greenwood, Morris Gleitzman among others ... where we are trying to depict the terrors as well as the bravery of the battlefield in a more realistic manner than in years gone by. You might think that war is sometimes necessary – and I'm not a pacifist. But how could anyone still think it was anything other than brutal and bloody and barbarous?

But then I realised, of course, that we're all invincible at that age. We're all bulletproof! And even the most mature soldiers, aware of the risks and dangers of a battlefield, must think in their deepest being that death won't come to them. "Somebody else might die but I'll be alright." After all, as my friend Billy Young points out – and he joined up at 15, was captured when Singapore fell and spent the rest of his teenage years in some of the worst of the Japanese prisons – Billy still says nobody would enlist if they knew they were going to be killed.

True courage, I think, is shown by carrying out one's duty – in this case a military duty – knowing the odds may be against you but hoping always the dice will roll the other way.

Yet it remains true that the struggle, the valour, the grit, the very destructiveness of what Clausewitz called "the friction of war" retains its fascination for both young and old readers alike. In a sense it's a way of testing oneself, vicariously, at a remove on the page, with those primal forces of life and death and survival. And to writers, for whom conflict is the essence of every story, warfare offers that tension as a subject in its most elemental and protracted human form.

"Think what we will about the rights and wrongs of war" Arthur Fletcher wrote in an article in 1901 for the magazine Boys of Our Empire, "its daring deeds fill every man with pride. And there are many brave deeds of warfare which should make every boy proud of being young..."  

This was written during the Boer War. One may quibble about the emphasis or even wish it were otherwise, but it does seem to me there is a truth to this observation, as witness the response to the present literary outpouring over our military anniversaries.

I've been spending some time with the Marcie Muir and Kerry White collections at the National Library looking at the way children's literature in Australia has depicted war over the past 100 years, and the shifts that have taken place as I mentioned earlier. It's a vast topic, one worthy of somebody's PhD, if it hasn't been done already, and I can only touch on it briefly here.

But however (reluctantly) one may agree with Mr Fletcher's remarks about the fascination of war, the trouble with much of the work written for young people even up until the 1950s, is that it depicts a lot of the daring but very little of the individual risk. Not only might somebody else get killed ... somebody else usually is! And it is always jolly good fun.

Here's a description of the Gallipoli landings from a book called The Young Anzacs by Joseph Bowes, a Brisbane clergyman, first published in 1918. It's quite contemporary with the events it describes. It's 25 April 1915, the first Anzac Day. The boats are coming ashore in the stealthy dawn ... when they are spotted by the Turkish lookouts and the first shots ring out. Bowes continues:

“When once the spell of silence had broken the gallant Anzacs broke into a joyous chorus as they tumbled on shore. They were a parcel of schoolboys. School was over. The holidays had begun... With jest and quip, with snatch of song and weirdly sounding coo-ees and other antipodean cries they rushed to the attack of the beach trenches..."

And so on up the jagged deres and ridges, he tells us, went "these bronzed giants with the strength of Hercules and the winged sandals of Perseus." And if poor old Abdul or Yussef lingered a moment too long to pull a retreating trigger, "the amphibian monsters were upon them, tossing them on a bayonet point like a haymaker dealing with sheaves."

There you have it! Strange, then, the Turks were able to counter attack, driving the Anzacs back to a thin line of defence along the second ridge. And stranger still the author doesn’t tell us that by the first dreadful evening some 2000 of those bronzed Hercules had become casualties, dead or wounded.

The jagged deres and ridges... Gallipoli, looking towards The Sphinx

The classical associations with the ancient world strike everyone who thinks about Gallipoli, for the ruins of Troy are just on the other side of the Dardanelles, across "the wine dark sea." They're spoken of directly in the opening pages of Kerry Greenwood's recent novel in diary form Evan's Gallipoli. They were certainly an element in my first failed attempt at an Anzac novel. But surely nothing has been more explicit – or sillier – than Mr Bowes' diggers "with the winged sandals of Perseus".

Still, the notion of going to war as some kind of vacation did persist among certain writers. Dale Collins wrote a book Anzac Adventure, The Story of Gallipoli told for Young Readers, published in 1959 three years after his death. It's written in part in the first person, as portions of it are based on a diary to which he had access. Actually in 1915 Dale Collins was working as a copy boy in a newspaper office in Melbourne.

But he must have read Bowes. Here’s his description of a pinnace returning to a troopship after the first landings, "...with two recumbent forms on her deck and a small figure, pale but cheerful, waving his hand astern. They were one of our midshipman, just sixteen years of age, shot through the stomach but regarding his injury more as a fitting consummation of a glorious holiday ashore than a wound, a chief stoker and a petty officer, all three wounded in the first burst of musketry."

Stoic and gritty they were, maintaining a grim humour. But "a fitting consummation of a glorious holiday"? To be shot in the stomach usually meant a slow and agonizing death. The poor lad. I might add that Dale Collins’ brother was Admiral Sir John Collins, who became Chief of the Naval Staff, after whom the Collins Class submarines are named. Dale should have known better.

Ernest Buley, an English author, wrote more accurately of the landing in A Child's History of Anzac published in 1916, before Bowes. Of how the Turkish Army rallied to "meet the bold Anzacs" ... cutting off and destroying or taking prisoners some of those who had advanced so far forward to the third ridge ... forcing the rest to retreat, until they were ordered to dig in along the second ridge from which, after eight months of fighting, the Anzacs didn’t advance much further inland.

Buley is correct enough, but it is curiously bloodless. There's no body count. There is nothing descriptive of the sound and the fury of a battlefield, or the human cost and suffering. At least when he's talking about the landing. The pages are a lot more active dealing with the terrible orders given to the 8th and 10th Light Horse to attack the Turkish trenches at The Nek on 7 August. It's the subject, you'll recall, of Peter Weir and David Williamson's film Gallipoli.

Of the 600 men who ran against machine guns and rifle fire in four waves across an area the size of a couple of tennis courts, nearly half were killed – their bones still lying in the sun four years later. The 10th had to charge across land strewn with their dead and wounded comrades, Buley writes, yet " they never hesitated to follow into the very grip of death, and most of them shared the fate of the gallant 8th."

This is true ... and so is their bravery. Those of you who have been to Gallipoli and visited the little cemetery at The Nek will have been moved to tears, as I was, by the inscription on the headstone of Corporal Rush of the 10th. “His last words were ‘Goodbye Cobber, God bless you’."

Which is what I meant about courage being the capacity to face danger knowing the severity of the odds against your own survival.

Gravestone of Corporal Rush, The Nek


Buley spoke of the Gallipoli campaign in fairly broad narrative terms. So, too, did T.A. Miles in The Anzac Story for Boys and Girls published in 1957. But Miles also focused on the experience of war for the individual soldiers ... the adrenalin rush of the battlefield, but also the suffering, the wounds, the death ... admirably caught in the black and white illustrations by John Curtis.

If I can stay with the landing for the purpose of comparison, here is Miles directly quoting a soldier caught up in a terrific fire fight on the ridges within the first few hours ... bullets flying past in a steady stream, he says, cutting the scrub and holly bush to ribbons.

"Men on both sides of me were hit, and at last my turn came. I was hit in the left thigh by a bullet. I crawled out of the firing line as best I could, afraid to stand up to see if I could walk, in case I should be hit again. It seemed to be a long time getting to the rear and away from the firing, which seemed worse when I was crawling away from it than when I was facing it."

Down to the dressing stations on the beach with dozens of other soldiers, hobbling along, using his rifle as a crutch, the doctors working with little shelter from shell fire ... and then leaving the beach in the pinnaces to the hospital ships "through a hail of shrapnel, and some of the wounded were hit a second time."

There's nothing here about their wounds being the cheerful "consummations of a glorious holiday ashore."

Miles goes on to talk about Simpson and the donkey, which I'll mention in a moment. But if we are really to consider a soldier's view of the Gallipoli campaign as it settled down to the eight months of trench warfare … sniping, shellfire and stalemate, to which were added the attractions of poor diet, lack of sufficient water, vermin, flies, disease and dysentery ... consider these words famously written in a diary and published in his 1932 book The Desert Column by Ion Idriess, then serving as a trooper with the 5th Light Horse.

He's in the trench, trying to eat a biscuit and jam, and finding the flies beating inside his very mouth. His response is to hurl the jam tin away and to scribble: "Of all the bastards of places this is the greatest bastard in the world. And a dead man's boot in the firing-posy has been dripping grease on my overcoat and the coat will stink forever...” Writing about war does not get much more expressive than this.

It is true that The Desert Column was not written for children. But many young people read Idriess – I still meet people who remember vividly reading Horrie the Wog Dog in their childhood – and I've little doubt that many would have also have come to The Desert Column in their youth.

The interesting thing about the present generation of authors writing about war, is that while we acknowledge the bravery and comradeship of the soldiers, we do on the whole try also to depict the suffering and the horrors of warfare. Sometimes in the broad through gun-flashes and falling cartoon soldiers in many of the comic strip-style illustrations of a number of recent books … realistic enough, but perhaps somewhat detached from the individual as this genre tends to be.

At other times, though, the perspective is intensely personal. Here’s Mark Greenwood in the picture book Simpson and his donkey, illustrated by Frane Lessac: "With the rising sun behind him, a Turkish soldier took aim and slowly squeezed the trigger. His target was leading a donkey up a steep incline at the junction of Dead Man's Ridge. The bullet struck Jack in the back and passed out through his heart. Soldiers dragged their mate to the side of the track, and word passed down the line...”

Sometimes the words are even more graphic, like Idriess. Consider Jackie French’s description in The donkey who carried the wounded of Jack Simpson (John Simpson Kirkpatrick as he was in life) looking after the dying. “Men muttering. Men screaming things that never should be repeated, not the last words you’d send to any family. Nah, thought Jack, you’d tell them the poor blighter died peacefully in your arms, not with his guts hanging like Mr Punch’s sausages over the stretcher’s edge…”

Simpson and the donkey, Peter Corlett,  AWM

… Some things that were often not mentioned in books written for adults – let alone children. If I may quote from my Soldier Boy and the onset of Jim’s disease. “A day or two later dysentery started. His bowels, cramped and constipated before, let loose. Jim could scarcely haul himself to the latrines before he seemed to void half his innards down the pit. Every half hour or so the searing pain returned, until it was easier to lie wrapped in his blanket and his own faeces on a groundsheet by the dunnies than go back to his dugout. Until the cold and rain returned in the third week of October and drove him underground.”

There have of course been a great many other books written for young Australian readers about other wars and other aspects of the Great War which I've not been able to consider here... Elyne Mitchell's excellent Light Horse to Damascus, about the campaign in Palestine where her father Sir Harry Chauvel, commanded the Australian Light Horse ... Mark Wilson's evocative and beautifully painted picture book from the Western Front My Mother's Eyes ... Norman Jorgensen and Brian Harrison-Lever's In Flanders Fields...

From the Second World War there's an abridged version of Russell Braddon's story of Nancy Wake, Woman in Arms ... a slightly condensed chapter from Paul Brickhill's The Dam Busters in a 1961 collection Danger, Danger, Danger ...a wonderfully foolish little illustrated book from the Second World War Tiny's Air Adventures about a RAAF officer shot down over New Guinea it would seem, surviving crocodiles, snakes and enemy soldiers until he's rescued and given a medal ... Morris Gleitzman’s Once and Then, about children and the Nazi Holocaust … Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, on a not dissimilar theme…

And there is John Schumann’s I was Only Nineteen, based on his immensely popular song from the Vietnam War, and illustrated by Craig Smith. It stays in my mind not least for the letter at the back from Schumann reminding that however unpopular the politics of a particular war might be, we should always support the men and women the nation sends to fight it. Which did not happen for most of the Vietnam veterans when they came home.

I cannot canvass all the recent picture books, graphic novels and information books published about the Anzacs and Gallipoli. Almost all of them, however, while praising the bravery and resilience of the soldiers who fought it ... some of them even offer a Turkish perspective ... nevertheless attempt to give a more or less honest view of the disasters of war (to use Goya's phrase) depending on the age of the readership.

Picture books for the very young are an exception – understandably. It’s not really a subject for them, I think. I wouldn’t really want to read a book about war to my five-year-old grand-daughter. But for the rest, I remember photographs of men after a gas attack in France ... a soldier carrying a wounded comrade to the dressing station on his back ... nurses tending the wounded in hospital. A couple of graphic strips refer to Mustafa Kemal's famous command as he rallied his retreating troops on that first day, "If you don't have ammunition you have your bayonets", and "I do not order you to attack, I order you to die."

In all of this, and by concentrating on the events surrounding the Gallipoli landings, I've tried to demonstrate how the general depictions of warfare in children's books have shifted over the past century, from those bronzed Hercules leaping ashore like schoolboys regarding their wounds as mere holiday scratches, to a more accurate, realistic and more human literature ... human in its undoubted valour ... and human in its suffering amid the squalor, brutality and inhumanity that is the essence of war.

Author and subject: at Jim Martin's commemoration stone, Lone Pine, 2012

"I thought war would be exciting ... I didn't know it would be like THAT!" I come back to the schoolgirl who'd just read Soldier Boy, and my own internal response, "After all these books and two generations of warfare live on the television news, how could you not know it was like that?" But I'm no nearer an answer to my question, beyond the observation that we're all bulletproof at that age ... and that however often youngsters see battlefield footage on the TV screen, it is always happening to somebody else, never to me ... and even if it were I'd be all right. And in any case it's just pictures ... it's not real!

Studies have shown that while many parents in particular are concerned about the amount of unnecessarily graphic images of death, bodies and war on television news, along with all those other depictions of violence and distress in the media, it is difficult to measure with any accuracy the extent to which it may influence children to act more aggressively, or to be fearful, or indeed by repetition to become desensitised to violence.

I remember, for example, how horrified I was the first time I saw newsreel footage of the 1937 burning of the Hindenburg airship and had to hide my eyes ... and yet I can watch the same footage when it appears these days with a degree of detached equanimity.

The effect of media violence may be difficult to quantify, but the gut feeling remains that it is real enough. After all, as a 2009 paper by Desai and Jaishanka points out, if a TV ad can persuade us to buy a bar of soap, who could argue that television violence does not affect some impressionable youngsters.

Certainly a quarter of the people surveyed in a year 2000 paper by Margaret Cupitt on Attitudes to Television Content in Australia, reported their concerns that children – and adults too – were becoming desensitised to so much of the violence being shown. "Oh no, not the news again Mum!

So for those of us who try to depict war as it is – are we simply wasting our time? I don't think so. As writers, illustrators and creative artists, all we can do is to be true to ourselves and to our readers, and trust to their response. Eventually.

Even after 100 years of books about Australians at war, during which the authors’ point of view mostly has matured from the fantasy of a battlefield to its bloody reality, today's youngsters still largely have to find out for themselves and from their own experience what war is really like, just as every generation before has done. Those soldiers of Joseph Bowes who jumped ashore on Gallipoli that first Anzac Day like schoolboys on holiday wearing "the winged sandals of Perseus" discovered very quickly that their feet were only made of mortal clay.

Though I might say that I'll be glad when the centenary of Anzac Day is behind us, and we can contemplate other things. Indeed I've long been of the view that we Australians commemorate the wrong day. It's not the Gallipoli landing with the eight months of futility and dread that followed, but rather the evacuation in December we should remember.

When even the commanders-in-chief realised the folly of remaining, it was feared that up to half the army could be lost as they were taken off at Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay. In fact as the 75,000 men were evacuated in secrecy over the 11 nights to 20 December, there were only two minor casualties.

It was a triumph of military planning. The most successful manoeuvre on this scale in the history of war. And nobody among the Anzacs was killed. No need, after all, to be bulletproofed. We should be celebrating that instead!


References and Further Reading:

This is not an exhaustive list, but includes the principal books I consulted:


Alexander, Goldie, Gallipoli Medals (Anzac Day Comm. Committee, Aspley Qld, 2013).

Anderson, Matt, A is for ANZAC (Anzac Day Comm. Committee, Aspley Qld, 2010).

Bowes, Joseph, The Young Anzacs (Humphrey Milford, OUP, 1918).

Braddon, Russell, Woman in Arms, the story of Nancy Wake, special edition abridged for young readers (Collins, London 1956).

Brickhill, Paul, The Dam Busters, chapter in Wilson, Dorothy (ed.) Danger, Danger, Danger (Chatto and Windus, London, 1961).

Buley, E.C. A Child’s History of Anzac (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1916).

Collins, Dale, & Norton, Frank (ill.) Anzac Adventure, The Story of Gallipoli told for Young Readers (Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1959 ed).

Cupitt, Margaret, Attitudes to Television Content in Australia (in Children and Media Violence Yearbook, 2000).

Desai, Megha & Jaishankar K, Impact of media violence on children (in Occasional Series in Criminal Justice and International Studies, Feb 2009).

Fletcher, Arthur, Boy Heroes on the Battlefield in Boys of our Empire (Arthur Melrose, London, 1901).

French, Jackie, & Wilson, Mark (ill.) A Day to Remember – the story of Anzac Day (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 2012). A fine view of Anzac Day over the years. April 1915: ‘They lived under the hail of mortar debris, with the dead around them and with rats that feasted on rotting flesh...’

French, Jackie, The donkey who carried the wounded Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 2009).

Gleitzman. Morris Once and Then (Puffin, Melbourne 2005 and 2008).

Gott, Robert, The Making of the Anzac Legend: Gallipoli (Pearson Heinemann Library, Sydney. 2009).

Greenwood, Kerry & White, Annie Gallipoli (Scholastic, Sydney, 2014).

Greenwood, Kerry, Evan’s Gallipoli (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013).

Greenwood, Mark and Lessac, Frane (ill.) Simpson and his donkey (Walker Books, Newtown, 2008).

Guerin, J.A. (ill.) Tiny’s Air Adventures (no imprint c.1945).

Guile, Melanie & Mutard, Bruce (ill.) The Anzacs and the Battle for Gallipoli (Macmillan Library, Melbourne, 2010).

Hill, Anthony, Soldier Boy, The true story of Jim Martin, the youngest Anzac, Penguin, Melbourne, 2001).

Idriess, Ion, Horrie the Wog Dog (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1945).

Idriess, Ion, The Desert Column (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1938 ed).

Jorgensen, Norman & Harrison-Lever. Brian (ill.) In Flanders fields (Sandcastle Books, Fremantle, 2002).

Metzenthen, David, Boys of blood & bone (Penguin, Melbourne, 2003).

Miles, T.A. & Curtis, John (ill.) The Anzac Story for Boys and Girls (Shakespeare Head, Sydney, 1957).

Mitchell, Elyne, Light Horse to Damascus (Hutchinson Australia, 1971).

Pearson, Jane, Anzacs at Gallipoli: Creating a Legend (Echidna Books, Melbourne, 2006).

Pictorial Social Studies, The Story of ANZAC (Australian Visual Association, undated c.1960).

Saxby Claire & Berry, Max (ill.) Meet the ANZACS (Random House, Sydney 2014).

Schumann, John, & Smith, Craig (ill.) I Was Only Nineteen (Allen U Unwin, Sydney, 2014).

Wilson, Mark, My Mother’s Eyes, The Story of a Boy Soldier (Lothian, Melbourne, 2009).

Zusak, Markus, The Book Thief (Picador, Sydney, 2005).