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On War: Fighting the Kaiserreich
Lecture with Bruce Gaunson
Talks / Lecture
Lecture with Bruce Gaunson
18 February 2019
Author Bruce Gaunson discusses his third book, Fighting the Kaiserriech: Australia’s Epic within the Great War, exploring Australia’s involvement in the First World War. From a citizen army sailing across the globe to fight in a clash of superpowers, the Australians were transformed into a well-respected and formidable force.
Gaunson’s book provides a clear picture of the Great War and its key issues, as it draws on the sources of 13 countries, describing the struggle with the German Empire, Deutsches Kaiserreich, and the role of the Australian Imperial Force in one of the most immense struggles the world has ever seen.
In association with Hybrid Publishers and the Canberra Great War Study Group, the Estaminet.
staminet Lecture_ Bruce Gaunson_ Fighting the Kaiserreich
*Speakers: Peter Stanley (P), Bruce Gaunson (B)
*Audience: (A) – no microphone
*Location: National Library of Australia
P: Well the next talk will be a very talented young woman who’s about to start a PhD at UNSW Canberra called Ashley Brown and she’s done an MA on Australian brigade commanders and she’ll be talking about brigade commanders so that’ll be a worthwhile talk. We’ll let you know when that will be on. Now in order to do that - there are several ways to find out what’s on the Estaminet program. The first way is that the National Library promotes the talks and many of you will be here because you got the brochure or saw the notice on the National Library website. Another way is worth of mouth and the third way is that we send out an email, we send out the National Library’s notices.
Now this is where the attendance book comes in. The Estaminet has two attendance books ‘cause I basically lose one and then I find it again. What I’d like you to do is circulate it. If you’re new to the Estaminet and you would like notices of future Estaminet meetings write your email address in there. If you already get notices or you think we’ve already got your email address just write your name so that in future we’ll be able to say well actually on the 18th of February 2019 we had 100 people and we can prove it ‘cause here’s their names. So it’s just a bit of a record, really. So I’ll give this – not to you ‘cause you’ll be busy – I’ll give this here and if you could sign it.
Right, are there any other parish notices from people who've been here before and know that we promote people’s books and things? Anyone? Anything? No? I got my advance copies of my book, Terriers in India the other day which is about British territorials in the first world war in India but of course I didn’t bring a copy along so I can’t wave it at you but I’ll show you a copy next meeting, whenever that is.
Now onto the business of this evening which is a talk by Dr Bruce Gaunson. Now this is a great pleasure to introduce Bruce who’s here in the front row. He’s originally from Victoria but he did a degree in Queensland and was a student of Professor John Moses here so there are some connections here. Went off to Britain to do a PhD in the 1970s, became a schoolteacher, became a public servant working in a hush hush job during the time of the end of the cold war which is when I met him ‘cause he used to be my next door neighbour in Ainslie but I didn’t know what job he did, of course, because he was a spook.
Then he went off and became a history teacher again, he was head of history at Sydney Grammar School and along the way he’s published three books, one on Anglo French collusion or collision in Syria and Lebanon in the second world war, a book called College Street Heroes which is about the – basically the role of honour of Sydney Grammar School and the book that we’ll be hearing about tonight which is Fighting the Kaiserreich which is his latest book and which is one of the three lucky door prizes that we will draw – or Bruce will draw at the end of the talk.
So Bruce will talk for a while then there’ll be opportunity for questions and discussion then we draw the lucky door prize and then Bruce will sell copies of his excellent book – did I mention it’s called Fighting the Kaiserreich? He’ll be selling copies from a cardboard box at the back of the theatre at about 6:30.
So with no more ado ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to welcome Bruce Gaunson.
B: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for that friendly welcome back to Canberra. I’ve been escaping down at the far south coast for quite some time now so when I saw that it was going to be 35 degrees today I wondered if that would make any difference but clearly it has not and that’s really good to see.
Peter mentioned the title of this book, Fighting the Kaiserreich, the sub – a word dropped out of the subtitle if you looked at the Library website. It says Australia’s something or other within the great war, was supposed to say Australia’s epic within the great war. Maybe they don’t want to use the word epic for the next 10 years ‘cause too many people have been using it wrongly but as I like to dip into Homer’s Iliad and things like that I thought I didn’t want to be having that word taken away because Professor Annette Becker in France likes to say to people, ask yourselves why those Australians came right around the world to fight here? Meaning in France. It is a modern epic in that sense.
But anyway to move on. This is two books or at least two big narratives in one but their themes belong together originally so they are as far as possible interwoven. One narrative is the great war itself from its outbreak to the armistice. The other is Australia’s military effort and experiences in the great war. These two narratives have never – had never been reintegrated and published in a single book and I thought there were strong reasons for this to be done.
Another feature of this book is that it uses sources from 13 countries to provide both depth and breath. Its events and personalities include the well known, the lesser known and literally the unknown. Most of the time the text obviously has to be pretty concise ‘though I hope if you should read it you’ll also find it lively.
Now after so much material here it’s not practical today to refer to every chapter and stage of the war which is after all five years of modern world history not to mention its decades of terrible repercussions. But I’d like to give you today an example or two of some less familiar things which deserve more attention. There’s one specific and fascinating element in this book that’s almost entirely unknown and it should not be to Australians so we really ought to start there.
Its context is Australia and the reality of German power in the Pacific. In the 1880s imperial Germany, he Kaiserreich, became another European power in the Pacific. It acquired [Chingdale] 6:56, a naval base in north China but above all it had a great band of islands running right down to the southwest Pacific to Kaiser Wilhelm’s land as they called it, meaning northeast New Guinea, Rabaul, the whole Bismarck Archipelago in fact and the adjacent Bougainville, Solomon Islands and places further east, even Samoa. The Coral Sea’s northern boundary was now drawn by a 3,000km cordon of German islands. These became linked by very powerful wireless stations even to Berlin itself but especially to Germany’s East Asian cruiser force to which in 1912 Admiral Graf Von Spee was posted.
This German Pacific project worried the new federal Australia. British naval power was so overstretched that by 1902 Britannia had signed away some of its waves and signed a modern alliance with Japan. This eased Britain’s burden but it gave Australia a more acute defence problem. For the next 11 years this country lacked its own credible naval defence and German’s upgraded cruiser squadron was a potential threat Australia could not cover.
Also you’ll recall the whole pre-war era, the same years, saw great power tensions escalating due to yes, various causes, many different causes but big problems. The big problems were often aggravated by Europe’s loose cannon himself, Kaiser Wilhelm II. His folly had already for instance driven Tsarist Russia into the arms of republican France and later Australia watched closely when the Kaiserreich began a frenzied battleship-building race but this failed. It failed to make Britain’s North Sea supremacy doubtful but it did create a much more intense Anglo-German antagonism.
In Australia this deepened suspicions about what might be brewing just across the Coral Sea. Australia’s top naval adviser in just one of his examples had long been warning that in a war roving German cruisers could stand off the coastline at night outside searchlight range and shell certain Australian ports and cities. They could do worse to coastal and international shipping and what about the safety perhaps one day of troop ships?
In its first 14 years then the new Australian Commonwealth increasingly saw itself in the presence of a general naval threat. But so far I’ve only mentioned what Australia did know about German capabilities. Something else however was happening in this country, it was secret and it was never exposed. The evidence in fact gathered dust for 75 years in German archives. It shows conclusively that in the pre-war decade the Kaiserreich really was looking at Australia with predatory intent so what was going on?
Some respected German citizens - not I hasten to add to be confused with Australian-born descendants of early German migrants – some respected German citizens were sworn members of a secret network, the [Kriegs Night Richter Vasen] 10:51, really naval intelligence. Like the Sydney agent of the north German Lloyd shipping line these men all had good cover and they were smart. In all state capitals and major ports they obtained naval intelligence, useful information, they had updates on coastal gun batteries, warships, port facilities and defences, coastal trade routes and our overseas shipments of grain, wool etc. At the outset of war such information could give Von Spee’s heavy cruisers the ability to select and strike targets that would maximise their impact on Australia’s war effort.
This naval espionage story helps to complete our grasp of the real situation here in the years up to 1914 or August 1914. The evidence from the Kaiserreich archives is both authentic and immensely valuable because it’s the German agents’ very own reports and papers and files securely passed back to Germany. None of these spies was ever caught red-handed. Why not? Because their security and their professionalism was just too good. By day one of the great war they’d all obeyed their standing orders and destroyed any compromising materials they had.
The [Kriegs Night Richter Vasen] papers show us all sorts of things including you’ll be glad to hear the identities of all the top-level spies. They included all six of Germany’s honorary State Consuls and the Commercial Attaché in Sydney and about 30 shipping, commerce and industrial figures and they were just the top layer of the organisation. Even the Consul General himself in Sydney was involved and gladly, gladly because he told Berlin in 1912 among other things that Australia was, quote, one of the most glittering prizes they could seize when they won the war. He had diplomatic immunity and of course went home on a neutral ship but his A team of spies were all interned either on individual suspicions or as a reasonable wartime precaution. They may have been lucky to be detained here when an espionage suspect in Europe might have been dealt with more harshly.
The Consuls and their fellow Prussian-German patriots were sent to a relatively pleasant facility in northern New South Wales with its own beach, tennis court etc. After the war they were shipped home. The book gives a much fuller account of this whole affair and readers can meet some fascinating people. Sooner or later it seems that more than one agent must have had mixed feelings about his secret work. One man, a real VIP, had an English wife and a son in the AIF.
To sum up this theme, in the strategic context German espionage had to be expected but hardly this big, sophisticated network. Yet it was logical that Germany would seek information of such value to Von Spee and also to Berlin’s Wilhelmstrasse.
The Germans then had motive, means and opportunity and if they declined to do any serious espionage in that era then among all the great imperial powers they would have been uniquely saintly or uniquely dim-witted and they were neither. The greatest value of the [Kriegs Night Richter Vasen] documents is they’re solid proof that for a decade German power in our region harboured a genuine threat to Australia’s coming war effort and to Australian lives. Von Spee’s well informed and well armed cruiser force could have made that threat a reality if the war had just started a little earlier. But at the 11th hour the fortunes of war and sound Australian naval policy ruined the plans.
All that espionage work went for nothing. Von Spee fled the Pacific – some of you will know – and left behind only his light cruiser, Emden, to do its best as a disguised raider and in just two months the damage that Emden did in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific gives us some idea of what Von Spee’s heavier cruisers might have done had the war started a year earlier before Australia acquired its own new warships. One of those new ships had guns that could have sunk Spee’s two best ships before they got within range. That’s why he left the Pacific.
Now to move on but I’m afraid not to Gallipoli tonight, that is here, very substantially including its bizarre origins and the inexplicably bad leadership that the British suffered down at Cape Helles’ landing but this is mainly the AIF’s Gallipoli and it tackles some extraordinary issues surrounding day 1 at ANZAC Cove.
By the way it has been written that Gallipoli did the ANZACs one favour perhaps, it kept them away from the western front for another year. Indeed here is a coincidence that tends to illustrate the point. By the 25th of April 1915 not on ANZAC Cove but in the Ypres Salient the unlucky Canadians were trying to cope with the war’s first two gas attacks in the course of three or four days. Half their division became casualties.
But we must move along because we, like the book, have a bigger theme here today and that is the western front and it would have been the biggest – and it would become the biggest thing in Australia’s military history, that is, the struggle with the Kaiserreich. But as promised here’s another unfair theme. It’s been repeatedly misunderstood, omitted perhaps more often and seriously even misrepresented in some Anglophone books in the past, even in some volumes of the old original British official history. This theme is the French war effort.
France fought the great war with a most untypical unity. Yes, untypical for at least 400 years before 1914 all of France’s big wars sooner or later became crossbred with civil war – that’s a quotation from one of their best historians - crossbred with civil war, every one of their big wars for 400 years or more but not the great war. The French didn’t seek this war in 1914 but it certainly came as no surprise and they were decidedly not fainthearted. At the Marne in September 1914 and especially at the second Marne in July 1918 they were superb.
But displays of Gallic brilliance - some rugby fans out there – displays of a Gallic brilliance were very rare because the western front’s realities simply did not permit them. Like everyone else they usually endured fatigue, stubborn fighting and absolute horror and never more so than at Verdun, 1916, where their clever artillery and other countermeasures still depended on the deliberate courage unto death behaviour of their infantry. The ghastly stalemate that they achieved upset the enemy’s strategy completely because Verdun in early 1916 was supposed to bleed and blast France right out of the war. After that in von Falkenhayn's plan Haig’s isolated BF would either be destroyed or withdraw across the channel. End of war.
The Kaiser publicly boasted – by the way he said this on the 1st of April which turned out to be appropriate. The Kaiser publicly boasted that this war will end at Verdun but thanks to the quick and shrewd measures put into place by Pétain and the incredible tenacity of his rotated divisions none of the above happened. What did end at Verdun was the command of Erich von Falkenhayn who was eclipsed by Hindenburg and his go to man, Ludendorff.
Now for most of the last 100 years of course our main source of great war books has been England. But in reading these books over the decades as some of us no doubt have we’ve probably imbibed, mostly for the better, I hope, but sometimes for the worst some very English perspectives and truisms and distortions when it comes to the French. Here’s a relatively mild example from chapter 13. The context is the damage that the British and French did inflict on the Germans at the Somme. If I might read a few lines, the context being that for all their mistakes and patchy liaison at the Somme the British and French had hit the Germans very hard.
If I might, this is not the traditional image of the Somme. In his entertaining 1960s account the impish A J P Taylor told us, quote, strategically the Battle of the Somme was an unredeemed defeat for Haig’s army. He did not bother to justify this fashionable opinion beyond saying that it wore out the British as much as the Germans and thus forgetting in his English way that a French army fought alongside the BEF and took something like 200 – more than 200,000 casualties.
But strategically – Taylor’s word – his unredeemed defeat is nonsense, it treats the Somme as an isolated duel, as an isolated duel between two antagonists with no other campaigns to limit their efforts and is wrong on all three counts. If we look at the Somme from the German side they already had powerful resources pinned down at Verdun against the French then they had to suddenly field more big armies to deal with two Russian offensives and with Romania. By contrast the Somme was the BEF’s sole European offensive and its losses, however awful, were not a third of Germany’s in 1916.
But there are worse oversights than forgetting that the French were at the Somme. You could easily get the impression that before the Somme nothing very big happened in France or on the western front through 19 – right through 1915. Well under Sir John French the biggest British battle of 1915 came in September, October and it used six divisions. But Sir John was so reluctant to even fight this battle that Kitchener had to insist that the BEF played its part because right alongside them in a gigantic pincer attack Joffre’s armies attacked from two ends of a 150km span using more than 50 divisions and 5,000 guns. The entrenched enemy had to use huge forces, deeper defences, guns galore and desperate fighting to prevent what the French nation was expecting, the big breakthrough followed by the headlong retreat of the Germans and deliberation of France’s occupied regions.
That was the largest of many big battles that France fought in 1915. We hear very little of them despite France’s loss of over 700,000 dead by the end of 1915 in one third of the war. The British Isles lost that same number in the entire war. The point here is not anti-British and I am certainly not but the point is simply that France’s losses, and these were among total casualties of three million by the end of 1915, those losses came from many colossal efforts to do what Joffre described to his troops as standing toe to toe with the Germans and beating them.
Well Joffre did beat them at the Marne but there every German who was still fit, and they just abandoned the rest, retreated flat out to well chosen ridges in northern France and once there and entrenched what would it take to blast them out? Whatever it was Joffre underestimated it and so did everyone else, almost everyone else except for Petain who defined all his seniors as early as June 1915 before that massive attack in September, October. As early as June 1915 Petain told Joffre in writing that breakthroughs and decisive victories could not yet happen. Attrition built on superior artillery and limited objective advances, that was the way, he said. Sooner or later the best British and French commanders and empire generals such as Currie and Monash adopted these methods.
I’m not saying Petain alone invented the whole thing. As they say failure is an orphan but success has many parents. It’s always tricky too to mention Petain but we’re doing western front history and we’re not looking beyond the war and Petain’s defensive work in 1918 must be recognised. Like the high-pressure job he did in May to July 1918 when Ludendorff’s third powerful offensive was 65km from Paris but never got there. But back in late March he had a more thankless job. From the first day of the German bid to win the war, and this began on the 21st of March with Gough’s fifth army front smashed wide open and the enemy pouring through, Haig was soon asking Petain for lots more help that they’d earlier agreed on. But the French commander had divisions waiting to go before he was asked.
The record shows that from the 22nd of March onward Petain – from the 22nd to the 28th Petain sent Haig 32 French divisions - that’s more than half the BEF – and agreed to take over half the British sector that was under attack. His reward for this was to be slandered by Haig as visibly staggering under the pressure when the evidence shows that this is a classic projection of Haig’s own wobbly condition on the 24th of March when they met. He was looking over his shoulder to the Channel on that day and he’d written off Amiens, the great Allied logistics hub which, and not without the diggers, was in fact courageously saved. This explains why an embarrassed Haig made a transparent attempt at some point later to doctor his own diary which he was planning to publish.
This stuff isn’t pretty and there was more of it in the perilous crisis of late March 1918 but it got settled at a higher level. Foch was put in charge of all Allied forces in the area and Ludendorff’s terrific iron wedge did not after all divide the Allies.
Well while the top suits and generals were sorting it out what did the spring of 1918 crisis mean for the ordinary Allied soldiers? It meant of course the most desperate fighting to stop or delay the onslaught of an enemy whose numbers were swelled by another 44 German divisions withdrawn from the defeated Russia.
As mentioned Amiens was saved but not without the diggers, they like other good troops had been rushed down from quiet sectors to plug the disastrous gaps that had opened up. Some diggers found themselves just south of Albières which is roughly 28km east of Amiens. Here from late March to 6th April battalions of the AIF 4th division fought ferociously and very effectively to prevent any serious German advance.
If I might read on here for a moment from the book. Some of this is a quotation from a superb world war 1 memoir of George Dean Mitchell called Backs to the Wall which was reprinted a few years back. But along with other battalions he was there with the AIF 4th Division and this is the kind of attack that they had to either – had to try to stop or at least slow down.
German sources confirm that - at this place just south of Albières – German sources confirm that the central thrust of the attack spearheaded by a Prussian division, fell upon the thinned out 47th and 48th battalions whose resistance was magnificent. Once again as at first Bullecourt the 48th had to hold their position until almost surrounded and then fight their way out with terrible casualties, assuming any withdrawal in this case in 1918 was going to happen at all. This was beginning to look most unlikely and at this moment Lieutenant George Mitchell hated his job. He could see the sidelong glances of the men, he tells us, and their unspoken thought, how are you going to get us out of this mess? Poor blighters, I thought, my job is to keep you here ‘til you’re done for, we’re not getting out. But in fact at the last possible moment they did and I’d like to read you the rest but I fear the clock is going to defeat me.
But it’s alright, I’ve got a couple of other little things here. Alright well I wanted to say a word or two about the tragedy of the Kaiserreich. This book is called Fighting the Kaiserreich, there’s a great tragedy of course for most of the people of that nation, that – not to mention everyone else involved in the war, that this should have happened at all. This was a great nation – this was a nation of 65 million people, a nation of tremendous achievements admired all ‘round the world and decent civic-minded people and yet somehow or other in their political life they were increasingly deceived. Above all - as things got very close to August 1914 above all by the Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, on behalf of the militarist elite.
When on the 31st of July 1914 news came of Russian mobilisation Bethmann even managed to get his impatient generals to wait for a day while he gave Russia 12 hours to demobilise or else. The thing about Russian demobilisation was that they brought troops over massive distances as you can, Russia, and they just brought them to forward areas to have them and the supplies there in case they were needed.
Nonetheless the German generals considered that that was reason enough to go to war with them and Bethmann gets them to wait 12 hours, calls on the Russians to demobilise forthwith and as expected they refused and promptly became the villain of the German newspapers which consolidated public opinion in Germany behind the coming war. As Bethmann intended the fear of Russian hordes even fooled the SPD Socialists who held a third of all the Reichstag seats and spoke for Germany’s enormous industrial working class.
By the 4th of August the normally uncharismatic Bethmann-Hollweg found himself telling a very supportive Reichstag that, quote, Russia has hurled a firebrand into our house. What, by mobilising? A war with Russia and France has been forced on us. Thunderous applause greeted these and other plausible lies and when the vote came for war credits the poor old SPD spokesman who was a keen antimilitarist had to get up duty-bound and say this, the SPD is not leaving our Fatherland in the lurch in the hour of danger. Of course the Prussian elite was delighted by all this working class support, the Kaiser wept for joy and the Crown Prince invited all Germans to go and have a bright and jolly war. Thus as [Folkat Bergahn] 34:05 wrote all those ordinary Germans were put aboard the freight trains that carted them off to the front.
I thought it’d be nice if we could just find one ordinary German in the thick of battle and just see what he’s like. He’s right in the thick of something that couldn’t have been any worse and that was the fighting at Mouquet Farm, 1916 – August 1916, he was probably fighting Australians. This man was Second Lieutenant Shelsch of Saxony who was obviously as decent as he was intelligent. One point in his diary entry here is, in a note of despair, human life is cheap and is worth less every day. God in heaven, can you really possibly want all this murder?
But nonetheless Shelsch tried to do something about the silly situation he was put in, he discovered that they’d been given a really suicidal deployment right in front of Mouquet Farmhouse. So he and a comrade crawled around under fire, passed the word. Even managed to get the neighbouring Prussians to cooperate with him and then it crossed his mind that if he was wrong about this he would look stupid then he realised that he would also look very dead and therefore past caring. So the change was made, right on cue the BEF gunnery intensified and the shells were smashing into the area that they’d just left. Shelsch felt pleased, he felt a few moments of satisfaction and pleasure.
What struck me about this ordinary German soldier, Shelsch, is that in this situation in essence he’d done what many a shrewd Australian might have done. Imagine how he might have thought some bloody fool has sent his men to this place which anyone can see is a death trap but he’s used his commonsense and found a better spot, sorted it all out with the nearby platoons and he lives to see his comrades’ lives saved.
In Shelsch’s own words, our plan has succeeded. We have saved valuable men’s lives for a day at least as he noted more realistically.
Now I must wind up. I’ve regretfully left out all kinds of interesting things from a 476-page book but I wish I could have told you more on the analytical and strategic side of the book and I wish I told you more good stories of remarkable individuals, not only soldiers like Gunner Jack Duffle and Lieutenant John Ridley, whose experience by the way led by a fragile thread to the word eternity being shown on the Harbour Bridge on the new year’s eve celebrations of the year 2000.
Then there was the Adelaide musician, Ethel Cooper, who got marooned in Leipzig for the duration and her rations, like everyone else’s by then in late 1917, were so poor her weight was below 40kg. I asked my doctor about that and he shuddered and he said that’s a child’s weight. Yet she did 10 years’ relief after the war, came home, did intelligent war work in the second world war and reached the age of 89. It is five years of the history of the world, there's just no end to great stories and I don’t think there’s any end to great controversies either and there are bigger ones in the book than I’ve been able to mention this evening. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.
P: Thank you, Bruce, thank you, ladies and gentlemen, that was terrific and spot on time as well. Well Bruce restrained himself from unveiling everything that’s in his huge book but there’s opportunity now for questions, for people to pick up some of those contentious issues that he talked about or prompt him to tell some of those stories. So please put your hand up, man in the middle.
A: [unclear] 38:39.
P: The question was basically about leadership and the first world war. Is the lions led by donkeys thesis sustainable? Bruce.
B: Oh well look, a lot of scholars have worked on that and it’s a caricature and an exaggeration of a tragic reality. But there were a lot of shrewd, perceptive people looking at the situation who were on their way up through the ranks. To cut a long story short Napoleon Bonaparte couldn’t have found a way to have one of his early 19th century smashing breakthroughs, Napoleon couldn’t have done it. It was a terribly hard problem to solve and even when they found the best solution or the least bad solution which was the limited objective step by step, bite and hold, relying on enormous amounts of artillery. Even when they’d found that, as one General remarked, no matter what you do and how clever it is you’re going to lose a horrible lot of men.
A: [unclear] 40:13.
B: Yes, indeed it has. What has also been hit out of the ground is by the weight of scholarship in the last couple of decades, is the idea that Haig was antitechnology. But I think the problem’s deeper than that. Haig went to a lot of trouble to go around and encourage people who were for instance developing the tank and so forth. The trouble is that he concentrated enormous power in his own hands and some of the top British and other military historians, specialists have suggested that he would have done better if he’d had some sort of a command group rather than try to literally run everything which he couldn’t do and among other things it meant that he missed what was going on, he missed the fact that Gough for instance - after Pozieres was taken he missed the fact Gough had got this insane idea of going after [Tietvale] 43:16 via Mouquet Farm.
He had no idea this was going on and it was going on in spite of the fact that Haig had sent out an order to Gough and to his fellow General to say you’ve got to be economical, very economical with casualties now because we’ve got a big push planned in September. But he missed that and he missed a lot of things because he was trying to do everything at the top himself. But on top of that he missed it because I – to try and sum this up in a minute after spending years thrashing this out and after having gone right back to square one on Haig and said we’ll put all – we’ll suspend everything and we’ll start again and build things up on the evidence. I have to say that he was a huge part of the problem.
There were men at the next level who were – there were not only men at the next level who wouldn’t have made the mistake he made on the 1st of July 1916 and several other mistakes that are almost as bad and not as well known. Not only were there men at that level, I wonder if Sir William Robertson who was made Chief of the Imperial General State, I wonder if their positions had been switched, whether Robertson would have made that shocking mistake on the 1st of July and it is absolutely down to Haig and Haig’s most admiring biographer, a great military historian, admits it.
But I wonder if Robertson would have made that mistake on the 1st of July? I wonder if he’d have made the mistake of trying to fight on in a sea of mud at the end of 1916 and the Australians found out all about that. I wonder if he would have found out? I wonder if he would have made the mistakes of 1917? Well we know he wouldn’t because he went with Lloyd George and tried to persuade Haig to stop the Flanders campaign. The only reason that didn’t work was because they used the wrong verb, persuade. Lloyd George had the power to shut that down but at that point he didn’t have the intestinal fortitude.
P: I do, to shut you down now. Anyone else with a question? Yes, in the middle there with the tie.
A: [unclear] 45:44.
P: The question is whether the German intelligent network operated between the wars as well as before the first world war.
B: Look, I simply haven’t looked at that at all but if I had to take a flying guess whilst sitting on the bar stool I’d say Hitler – I don’t think Hitler had anything like that kind of naval [velt] 46:28 politic interest that the Kaiser was so crazy about along with his sidekick, Admiral Tirpitz. I don’t think Hitler – Hitler was much more concentrated on Europe than that so I doubt it but don’t know.
P: Gentleman in the blue shirt.
A: [unclear] 46:51.
B: ’14, yeah.
A: [unclear] 47:02.
B: Yeah well the brilliant Captain of his light cruiser, Emden, asked to be left behind while the rest of them went right across the Pacific, ran into a couple of rather old British ships and sank them off the coast of Chile then went around to the Falklands and all got destroyed. But yeah, the Captain for the Emden was a brilliant man and bold as a lion, perhaps he was a fox as well because he got away with it for two months. He just managed to do that by wonderful seamanship and his wits and everything else and of course he knew that his luck would run out one day as it did at the Cocos Islands.
P: More? Anyone? Yes, over here.
A: [unclear] 48:06.
P: Question about how complete the German naval intelligence records are.
B: Yes, apparently a lot of very important records of the German Army or of the whole German power structure in the second world war, apparently they were lost to the bombing in world war 2 but as I understand this didn’t happen to these files and a number of others that were kept with them at the time. I don’t know where they were kept. I should point out it wasn’t me that did the leg work in four separate German archives, it was my old history honours mate, Peter Overlack, who was also a student of Dr John Moses and I have made it very clear in the front of the book that if it wasn’t for his research I wouldn’t have been able to write about it. He sent me a complete copy of his thesis and said good luck but there’s an awful lot in there, I tell you.
P: Another one at the front. You people at the back are just not playing the game, are you? I told you to sit at the front and this is why. Go on.
A: I’m just wondering where you stand on the whole issue of Germany’s preparation for war in 1914. Chris Clarke who of course was also a student of Mal Pickard at Sydney Grammar, he has come up with a very different thesis which is that Germany wasn’t preparing for war –
B: I’m familiar with it, Sir, I’ve got a two-page refutation of it in here.
P: Alright, do you want to do it in 30 seconds?
B: Ah well sorry, I interrupted the man.
A: Thirty seconds would be great.
P: The question is what’s Bruce’s attitude to Christopher Clarke’s book which basically said the Germans weren’t out for war.
B: Okay. I – look, that’s a 562-page text, that book of his, 560 pages are splendid and I don’t know what took over him when he wrote those two pages which are two of the last four pages or so in the book’s conclusion. But it seemed to me that he was mightily irritated. There’s nothing rational about that two pages and to suggest that Chris Clarke ever wrote anything not rational would immediately surprise people. Of course because normally you read the books that he’s done or listen to him talk as I have – he was in my classrooms for a week talking to my senior students which was a great boon to us.
But to suggest that he could write anything irrational, I’m not actually going that far but he was so irritated, it seems to me that he’s just sick and tired – I’m guessing – he’s just sick and tired of hearing about the Fisher thesis so he caricatured it. But for a professor, for a Cambridge professor to caricature the work of 50 years of international scholarship by independent people coming from all over the place and yet suddenly finding themselves in agreement because the evidence is so powerful, to just caricature that and make a joke of it and call it the blame game is not good enough.
P: I think we’ll stop there, Bruce. Not because it’s getting contentious but because we’ve run out of time. But you can see why we were really keen for Bruce to come up from the [rumour] 52:04 to talk about this book. Bruce has only touched upon some of the really live issues that are current in first world war scholarship where people fall out, friendships are broken and arguments go on for years and this is a book I think which grapples with a lot of those really important issues.
I wish we had more time, we keep saying to the National Library give us two hours, we can talk about this. But it hasn’t happened yet. But can I invite you to thank Bruce for the terrific presentation he gives?
P: Thank you. And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the drawing of the lucky door prizes. Now we’ve got three lucky door prizes, we start with the runners up if you like. Here’s a terrific book produced by the Army History Unit. Anyone from the Army History Unit here tonight? Used to be, yeah. The people in the Army History Unit which used to include Roger Lee who’s now at the War Memorial and the official history and Andrew Richardson who’s also now at the War Memorial on the current official history, they produced a whole series of series – this is the Combat Support series – and it’s a great book called Gallipoli and Australian Medical Perspective and it’s basically a short history of Australian medical arrangements on Gallipoli.
So here’s the first prize. Bruce, plunge your hand into that and pull out a plum.
B: Okay, wait a minute, I’ll try and find one that’s lost. Here it is. A lost ticket.
P: Okay, here we go, 33. Who’s 33? Yay, Katherine, lucky you. Katherine also used to work for the Army History Unit so she probably knows that book very well. If you don’t want to keep it we can draw another ticket but no, no, keep it, it’s a great Christmas present. Here's another book by – I’m pretty sure David Cameron lives in Canberra but we never see him, do we? No, anyway he’s done a series of books on Gallipoli and this is the one on - his book on the August offensive on Gallipoli called Sorry, Lads, but the Order Is to Go. So for this prize, Bruce, roll on the drums.
B: Here we go.
P: Great, thank you, 47, who’s 47? Oh well done. There we go. Thank you very much. Now the moment you’ve all been waiting for, to win a copy of the book that we’ve heard from tonight, here we go.
B: Is that one or two? I’ve got my eyes shut.
P: That’s one, yeah, okay, 64. Who’s 64? Oh well done. Obviously wearing a checked shirt is the way to go. But ladies and gentlemen, you can buy a copy of this excellent book for how much?
B: Oh well look, they’re selling at $35 in the shops but for things like this I appreciate you coming to hear this, I just want whatever’s worthy in that, I just want it to get out and I appreciate that so $25 to anyone who’s here tonight. But look, the main thing is do dip in and have a read, there’s a copy in the Library here if you don’t wish to collect books and have them lying around your house.
P: Good-oh, there you go, $25 and Bruce’ll be at the back for another five minutes or so. Can I thank you all for coming along to the Estaminet? Can I ask who’s here at the Estaminet for the first time? Yeah, amazing numbers of people. Well you’re very welcome and if you keep your eye on the National Library website or we’ll send you a direct message if you’ve recorded your email address in that book. Who’s got the book? Somebody must have the book – no, the membership book, the attendance book. Oh it’s out the back too, that’s brilliant. Thank you very much and we’ll see you again at the next Estaminet meeting whenever that will be. Thank you very much.
End of recording