Book Review – Anzacs in the Middle East: Australian Soldiers, their Allies and the Local People in World War II

Mark Johnston, Anzacs in the Middle East: Australian Soldiers, their Allies and the Local People in World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Maps. Photographs. Hbk. 255pp. £40/US$60.

Reviewed by Alexander Wilson, PhD Candidate, King’s College London

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The latest output by eminent historian of the Australian Army, Mark Johnston, Anzacs in the Middle East: Australian Soldiers, their Allies and the Local People in World War II, straddles numerous historiographical fields often regarded as distinct. Johnston deploys research garnered over two decades, but omitted from previous publications.[1] Fundamentally, the purpose of this monograph is to continue challenging the ‘Anzac myth’. This is a well-trodden path, and Johnston does this convincingly. The freshest aspect of this work, and indeed its widest appeal stems from its approach. It follows the formations constituting the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) to, and through their war in the west, engaging in a geographically categorised chronological sequence with theme of interactions with Allies and local civilians. However, the degree to which it does so for these subsidiary issues on their own merits, or rather as a means of facilitating Australian self-reflection is sometimes unclear. The latter appears more likely, yet it should still interest many besides those with purely Antipodean concerns.

As national stereotypes and collective shared identities, tend to coagulate through a combination of self-perceptions and conscious differentiation from other groups. This is a valuable addition to the Anzac myth-buster episteme. It naturally escapes the insularity for which some works of the genre are notorious. Johnston focuses on two out of the three other groups of ‘others’ most frequently encountered by Australian soldiers overseas. Attitudes to the third group – enemies – are covered in his stylistically similar and equally well-written Fighting the Enemy. These provide Johnston with a means of approaching the development of Australian identity obliquely. In the interests of brevity, after drawing out generalities, this review separates Johnston’s analysis into sections on Allies and local non-combatants, though as indicated, they are considered in tandem in the text. In both cases, Johnston argues that there was no easy Anzac trope, either in their own eyes and actions, or in the perspectives of others. He successfully refutes the popular consensus of Australians as undisciplined but enthusiastic fighters (both in and out of the line), still prevalent in some mainstream military history.[2] Instead, Johnston inverts the statistics to argue that while a few did behave badly, most did not, further suggesting that when exuberant larrikin antics did take place, they were an understandable response by young men to participation in an industrial war.

Suffice to say, this is a vast and kaleidoscopic subject. Capturing such transient sentiments as these is a hard task, and one that Johnston does with aplomb. His style is to let the soldiers do much of the talking, fielding an impressive array of Australian sources, bolstered by some from Allies (mostly British, garnered through a research trip to the Imperial War Museum, London and correspondence with veterans) and a handful from locals, the fruits of considerable experience in the field. The true strength is this formidable assemblage of research, which presents a varied picture, although one from which it is difficult to draw firm conclusions. At times, analysis appears latent behind detail and inclusivity, but overall this makes for a valuable piece of literature.

This is very much a history of Australian soldiers’ relations with their Allies from below, covering different ground from earlier work on the topic, notably Series editor Professor David Horner’s High Command: Australia’s Struggle for an Independent War Strategy, 1939-45.[3] Johnston deploys encyclopaedic thoroughness throughout, naturally devoting most time to the British followed by the New Zealanders, but also including Australian relations with many other representatives of the polyglot Allied forces in the region: including South Africans, Rhodesians, Indians, Poles, Free French, Greeks, Czechs and even individual meetings with Hagenah operatives, Arab combatants and the odd American.

This work makes the correct distinction between interpersonal encounters and collective attitudes, and elucidates differences between relations in and out of action, in victory and in defeat. His conclusions are predictably nuanced, but indicate customary cordiality and cooperation, both in contemporary stereotypes, and when individuals and small groups came to meet or fight together. Antagonism, when it occurred, often took a back seat to a good working relationship, despite testing circumstances in battle and the rear areas. Johnston’s intriguing line on the sometimes-fraught relationships between British and Australians indicates that tensions sometimes stemmed from misunderstandings (often benign) between divergent British and Australian command styles that placed premiums upon different patterns of military behaviour. This issue may have been the source of much tension, and of notions, at least in English eyes, of Australian indiscipline.

Johnston’s treatment of Australian relations with local civilians is equally comprehensive, taking in all points en route to the Middle East, as well as all Australian deployments around that wider region. It is likewise based upon thorough research. It lacks much of the theoretical apparatus and constructions of ‘otherness’ often applied by historians of cross-cultural interactions within the British imperial sphere. But as these are anathema to many operational military historians, and as Johnston relies upon his subjects to do much of the talking, it is up to the reader to decide whether or not their absence is a good thing for themselves.

One area which could have received more coverage was the origins and development of the ‘Anzac myth’ in Australian culture, memory and the mythology of the Great War, one which stemmed in no small measure from service in the same or similar geographic environs. These are only covered briefly, besides a few allusions to the First AIF’s service and antics in the theatre, but more would have been welcome.

Johnston makes a novel, interesting and impeccably well-written contribution to the corpus of literature on the Australian soldier’s Second World War. He does an excellent job of answering his principal question: rebutting the ‘Anzac myth’ through detailed examination of contemporaneous attitudes. Subsidiary means of engaging with this, in this volume, Allied and civilian interactions, are a welcome addition to the debate and should interest a wider audience. Johnston has a difficult task managing these broad fields, it is important to note that these are here treated as lenses for Australian self-reflection. Cambridge University Press should be commended for producing an attractive volume including a good number of photographs and some decent maps. It would be too much to ask for Orders of Battle to provide an overview as to formations’ and individual units’ course through the Middle East, but they can easily be accessed online.

Citation: Alexander Wilson, ‘Review of Mark Johnston, Anzacs in the Middle East: Australian Soldiers, their Allies and the Local People in World War II’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 9 April 2013

You can download a copy of this review here.


[1] Mark Johnston, The Proud 6th: An Illustrated History of the 6th Australian Division 1939-1946 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); At the Front Line: Experiences of Australian Soldiers in World War II, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Fighting the Enemy: Australian Soldiers and their Adversaries in World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); ‘The civilians who joined up, 1939-45’, Journal of the Australian War Memorial, Vol. 29 (1996) http://www.awm.gov.au/journal; with Peter Stanley, Alamein: The Australian Story, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[2] For a recent example, see Max Hastings, All Hell Let Loose: The World At War 1939-1945 (London, Harper Press, 2011) p.131.

[3] David Horner, High Command: Australia’s Struggle for an Independent War Strategy, 1939-45 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992).

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