There are infrequent watersheds in the field of military history, when a book appears which so perfectly fills an obvious gap in the historiography that you realise that you are holding an instant classic the moment that you pick it up. 'ANZACS On The Western Front: The Australian War Memorial Battlefield Guide' represents one such rare moment in military publishing. Not only will it become the essential text for those following in the footsteps of the ANZACS on the Western Front, but anyone visiting the Western Front would be foolish to leave home without it.
But this is more than a handbook for use in the field; it is also a succinctly erudite reference tool, which will be taken down from the book shelf of students of the Great War on the Western Front with regularity.
Amongst its many other virtues, this book represents a terrific up to date summary of current knowledge and analysis of the ANZAC contribution to the costly but war-winning Allied campaigns against the main enemy force in the main theatre of war between 1916 and 1918. Yet it is written in a clear and easy to follow prose which makes it accessible to the widest possible readership.
I only know Peter Pedersen through his reputation as a formidable scholar of the Australian military experience in the Great War. Pedersen has produced acclaimed texts which range from a study of Sir John Monash as military commander, through anatomies of individual actions such as those of Fromelles, Hamel and Villers-Bretonneux, to his celebrated overview 'The Anzacs, Gallipoli to the Western Front'. But I do have the privilege of knowing Pedersen's co-author, Chris Roberts. Chris is one of those rarities whom it is always a pleasure to meet - an expert in his field who wears his learning lightly and is a thoroughly good bloke. But what gives 'ANZACS On The Western Front' its unique edge is something which no amount of study of the history of war can impart. That is the fact that both authors were formerly serving soldiers who held high rank in the Australian Army. Pedersen commanded the 5th/7th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment. And though he is too self-effacing a man to ever make anything of it himself, Roberts is a retired Brigadier who served with the SAS in Vietnam. As Pedersen says of his colleague, "His comments, as a soldier who has led in battle and also held senior command, on tactics and terrain during our visits to the battlefields were immensely helpful. " Why is this background important, you may ask? Simply this - it renders Pedersen and Roberts' work a bullsh**-free zone in terms of what it's like to soldier and in respect of dispensing with both chauvinistic nationalist myths and the need to play the blame game of finding a scapegoat for every reverse in the fortunes of war. Recent years have seen something of a renaissance in the military historiography of Australia, with works like the academic anthology 'Zombie Myths of Australian Military History' (2010) demonstrating that Australian military endeavours contain enough genuine valour and achievement - leavened with occasional and inevitable disaster and failure - to render parochial over-egging of the pudding superfluous. Pedersen & Roberts' book is very much part of this mature approach from working Australian military historians today. Pedersen makes this quite clear in his Introduction when, addressing Australians who have bought the book with a view to visiting its battlefields, he writes, in respect of what Australia and New Zealand did on the Western Front:
"It was the decisive theatre of the First World War and both nations made their greatest contribution to victory there. Gallipoli was a sideshow, though it helped to establish the Australian and New Zealand national identities and enriched the English language with the word ANZAC. But for Australians and New Zealanders a certain romance attaches to Gallipoli, with its idealised images of bronzed men storming ashore at ANZAC Cove and clinging to cliff-top positions. The Western Front, on the other hand, evokes only images appalling slaughter for a few acres of mud. It cost Australia and New Zealand more casualties than all of the conflicts they have fought since put together. Not surprisingly, then, the Western Front has always stood in Gallipoli's shadow. You are helping to bring it out into the sunlight."
So here's a book with a great provenance and attitude, then. But where it also succeeds brilliantly is that between one set of covers it is a multifunctional project which manages to seamlessly co-ordinate all of its roles into one lucid and easy to follow package. If the authors have put in a lot of man hours reconnoitring the battlefields of the Western Front, then it's clear that a great many more have gone into conceptualising and executing the laying out of the fruits of that labour to best advantage. Artfully synthesised are the elements of a first-class gazetteer and tour guide, incorporating informed narrative history and biography - and whilst these may be written with an elegant succinctness, this book runs to 574 revelation-studded pages.
Ease of navigation around the book has obviously been as much a priority as its main utility of facilitating battlefield exploration on the ground. The Introduction contains guidance on how to use the way the book is constructed to advantage. There are three pages of contents, which list in 28 chapters locations by year from 1916 to 1918, with quick reference subheadings for walking and/or driving the various battlefields and the relevant pages for local information on each. Each of the 28 chapters begins with a Battle Narrative, which expertly and succinctly places the action in its wider strategic and operational setting, whilst also giving advice on how to follow the course of a particular battle despite the often limiting nature of modern day roads and pathways. The narratives, in conjunction with the excellent colour cartography, play a key part in orientating the traveller to relative locations which cannot be seen from one another on the fields of bigger operations. There is an excellent index, which rounds off nicely the user-friendly tools for finding your way around the book.
The maps, as noted, are excellent, and each battlefield walk or drive also references the relevant Institute Geographique Nationale Blue Series 1:25,000 maps to enable travellers to orient themselves to areas of interest or relevance beyond. The book is also extremely richly illustrated, and whilst it contains many well-chosen contemporary photographs and paintings (often juxtaposed with a colour photo of the same scene today), the jewels in the iconographic crown are the numerous excellent modern colour photographs of the battlefields which have extremely clear labels and pointers superimposed on them indicating locations of interest and directions of movement etc. This is a book designed to have something for battlefield explorers and historians of all levels of expertise, and its sections on general advice for travellers, together with its glossary, bibliography and useful information page enhance that ubiquity of appeal.
A final word on the construction of the book. Make no mistake - pick up this book and you will be immediately aware of its sturdy construction, which one expects but doesn't always find in books designed as much for perusal in the field as in the study. Printed on good quality paper the book is stitched, with header and tail bands. The heavily plasticised cover, akin to those used on the excellent DK Eyewitness Travel guides, is wipe-clean, and gives the book that element of flexibility and imperviousness to damage which is so useful when it needs to be crammed into the battlefield walker's backpack. At nearly 600 pages it inevitably has a certain weight to it but this new classic is worth its weight in gold to the battlefield explorer, and it's not just those following specifically in the footsteps of the ANZACS who will be glad they decided to take this essential text with them on their next visit to the Western Front.