Review: The Anzacs by Patsy Adam-Smith

Cover of the Anzacs

The Anzacs by Patsy Adam-Smith, (Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia, 1985)

The fog rolled down the river and engulf our house. The cold and damp penetrated the walls and windows. Our only view, an opaque whiteness. Through the stillness, the sound of a lone bugler playing the Last Post reached us from the nearby cemetery. Another old soldier had died.

This was the house our family was living in when Patsy Adam-Smith published The Anzacs, her iconic history of Australian participation in World War I. Adam-Smith recognised that the 1970s were the last chance to talk to many of the surviving soldiers, so she interviewed veterans for her book as well as reading copious letters and diaries written during the War.

The Anzacs sold over 100,000 copies after it was published in 1978, at a time when Australia’s population was 14 million. But like other popular books, publishers were not very keen on it when Patsy Adam-Smith approached them seeking a contract. “It won’t sell. It’s about war,” one publisher said. This was the era of the peace movement and revulsion about the war in Vietnam. Compared to now, war histories were not prominent in bookshops.

Patsy Adam-Smith was an accomplished writer. The Anzacs is as readable now as it was when it was first published. Compelling opening paragraphs start each chapter. The Australian soldiers and nurses who served are front and central in her book. Adam-Smith allows those who served in the War to tell their story by quoting extensively from interviews, diaries and letters. Occasionally a chapter will almost entirely comprise quotes from the diaries and letters of a particular man or woman. While this style of presentation looks lazy when done by other authors, Adam-Smith’s choice of passages to quote and the care she takes to build the context in preceding chapters makes these chapters a highlight for the reader.

Patsy Adam-Smith maintains a strong voice throughout the book deftly weaving the accounts of the participants together with context and opinion. It is here that the twenty-first century reader needs to understand the Australia when this book was first published in 1978. We didn’t realise it then, but the seeds of the revival of Anzac Day were being sown during the 1970s in a bed of nationalism. Bill Gammage had published The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War in 1974. At the time that Patsy Adam-Smith’s book was published David Williamson was working on the script for Peter Weir’s movie, Gallipoli which was released in 1981. Anzac Day was at a low ebb during the 1970s. It was thought that it would die out as the soldiers of the World Wars died. The two books and the movie were very popular and helped revive the Gallipoli fervour which is at the root of the current popular embrace of Anzac Day.

The Anzacs is a nationalist book written with great sympathy for the plight of those who served in the horrific war. Patsy Adam-Smith also had a very personal connection to this history. Her father served on the HMAS Australia during the war and two of her uncles and a cousin were killed at Gallipoli. Adam-smith was born in the shadow of the War and grew up with stories of how Gallipoli gave birth to a nation. She sparingly shares anecdotes about the place Gallipoli had in the hearts of the grieving families and society in the 1920s and 1930s.

It was a dolorous disaster that caused the name of Lone Pine to be whispered for decades in many families, including my own, as if speaking of the tomb of the living dead, of mystery and horror and the dark engulfing of young noisy boys. It was better not to dwell on it. That my mother’s brothers, grandmother’s sons, were ‘missing’ in that land of the lonesome pine was a thing none of us could forget.

This personal connection animates her writing. Adam-Smith is immersed in the tale of Gallipoli both personally and culturally. Her writing in these chapters is powerful. Appealing to adult readers of the 1970s who had been schooled in British history and instructed to respect the classics, Adam-Smith puts Gallipoli in the context of ancient times.

They sailed in to Mudros, the harbour of Lemnos Island… Here, to the one place consecrated by poets to the conflicts of heroes, to the forces and passions personified by the Olympian gods and goddesses, half Europe, half Asia, came the new men, bred beneath a cross of stars that Herodotus had not known of when he portrayed the localised war at Thermopylae as global conflict. It is the most famous arena of the world, the birth-place of the Iliad.

Nearly ninety pages of The Anzacs is dedicated to Gallipoli. Despite Australians fighting for three years in Europe and the Middle East, the number of pages dedicated to these fields of action is only double those about Gallipoli. The rest of the war is in the second part of the book and named ‘After Gallipoli’. Adam-Smith’s writing in this section is still a pleasure to read but the intensity and the narrative drive are not at the same level as the first part of the book.

One element that is striking in The Anzacs is the extent to which Adam-Smith included the accounts of the Australian nurses on active service. One of her main protagonists is Alice Kitchen, a Victorian nurse whose diaries are held by the State Library of Victoria where Patsy Adam-Smith was working while writing this book. One sees that Adam-Smith is on a mission to write women back into the history of the War. She went on to publish Women at War in 1984.

A strength of The Anzacs is that it covers the entire war. A chapter titled, ‘Moulding the Lads’ shows how boys were raised to be soldiers, years before the war erupted. This is not another war history where the soldiers and nurses abruptly appear at the outbreak of the War like blank slates, born as young adults at the moment war was declared. The author’s memories of post-war life help to convey the trauma felt both by returned servicemen and Australian society. Try as they might, ideas of ‘normal’ do not admit people who have lived through the horror of war.  The war lived on in towns and suburbs across Australia back then. Very sadly, we are going through the same process again.

There has been a large amount of research on the Australian effort in World War I since The Anzacs was published. If the reader has not already done so, they should first read a more recently written comprehensive history such as Joan Beaumont’s Broken Nation, published in 2013. While Adam-Smith did write about the Australian soldiers rioting in Cairo, the problem of sexually transmitted diseases among soldiers and the massacre at the Arabic village of Surafend, the less heroic actions of Australian soldiers have been more thoroughly explored in recent years. Paul Daley’s Beersheba is a good general account of the Light Horse in the Middle East and explores the dark history of Australians at war through several chapters on the massacre at Surafend after the end of the War. Peter Stanley, Raden Dunbar and others have written about the poor behaviour of Australian soldiers and the problem of sexually transmitted diseases in the AIF. There are also a growing number of books that examine diversity in the Australian forces and increasing acknowledgement of the service of Aboriginal men on the frontline.

The reader should skip the chapter on Simpson and his donkey. Many historians have since concluded that this is a myth. If that does not convince you, an Australian government tribunal conducted an inquiry into the legend.  to ascertain whether Simpson should be given a posthumous award. They too found it was a myth and Simpson was no more deserving of medals than many other stretcher bearers.

The usefulness of The Anzacs thirty-nine years after it was first published is also diminished by the absence of references. Only secondary sources are listed in the bibliography. At times it is difficult to tell whether a quote in the text was from an interview with the author in the 1970s, or a letter or diary written during the war. There is a lot of interesting material in this book but it is disappointing that the lack of endnotes or footnotes makes the quotes difficult to follow up.

Patsy Adam-Smith was employed by the State Library of Victoria to collect material about World War I for its collection. Her oral interviews for the book can be found by a simple search of her name in the Library’s catalogue. I presume that some of the diaries and letters she refers to are also held by the State Library, but it is clear that some of the material is still privately held and therefore difficult for researchers to access.

So why read an old history which has no references when there are so many good books on this topic that reflection the advances in knowledge that we have about World War I as a result of much research since 1978? History is an account of the past coloured by the attitudes of the present. This book is a primary source for the work done to recharge the Gallipoli myth in the 1970s. It reflects the attitudes of the 1970s and it reflects the memories and concerns of someone raised in a grieving family in the 1920s and 1930s. The photos in the large format, illustrated edition published in 1985 are well selected and many are refreshingly different to the standard ones we see. They should be ‘read’ along with the text.

Logo for Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2017

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge in 2017.

I often plumb old histories in my research. Writers of the 1970s in some ways had a better understanding of religion than we do now and they naturally considered the role of belief in the past. The Anzacs is not an account of belief in war by any means, but Patsy Adam-Smith naturally includes the odd quote reflecting religious sentiment and she dedicates a whole chapter to a popular chaplain who served at Gallipoli.

The Anzacs has an important place in the history of the writing of the Australian war experience. In an era when men wrote about men in war, Patsy Adam-Smith showed that the Australian public was just as keen to read a war history written by a woman and that they were interested in reading a war history that included a substantial account of a woman serving with the forces.

Patsy Adam-Smith died in 2001. A short biographical overview and a list of her publications are available on The Australian Women’s Register.

9 thoughts on “Review: The Anzacs by Patsy Adam-Smith

  1. I’m so pleased to see you advising people to skip the Simpson section. I researched this for the ‘Animals in War’ unit of work that I taught to my year 3 & 4 students. Clearly he was a brave man – they all were, one way or another – but he was not as brave as the stretcher bearers who went out into no man’s land to bring in their comrades, and by definition, the wounded who could be carried on a donkey were not as badly hurt as those who could not be. In other words he took fewer risks on behalf of less critically injured men and there were many others more deserving of the accolades and the status of hero.
    While I haven’t read what Adam-Smith has to say about it, (we have a copy of The Anzacs, but I’ve never read it) I would find myself less confident about her research in general if what she has written turns out to be an uncritical retelling of the myth.


    • At the beginning of the chapter on Simpson and his donkey, Adam-Smith wrote that “school children since before Anzac was evacuated were taught to revere him as ‘a hero’ in the fictional mould”. But while she rejected the portrayal of Simpson as a traditional, well behaved British hero, she then recasts him as a larrikin hero. She quotes from letters between Simpson and his mother. She quotes C E W Bean who propelled the myth by lapsing in his standards of reporting. Her portrayal of Simpson supported the legend, but she seems to take some care to restrict herself to reputable sources albeit providing no references. She concludes the chapter by saying, “The story of Simpson is, to a large extent, the story of all stretcher bearers.”

      Her account was by no means the most egregious account of Simpson and his donkey but she did nothing to challenge it. The chapter is not worth reading.


      • No she wasn’t formally qualified, but people who do not have formal qualifications can still be capable of writing good histories.


      • True, and the collection of oral histories is very valuable in itself. But it does mean that readers need to scrutinise things as you have in this review!


  2. I’ve always liked it about Australians that Simpson and his donkey is/was one of our most popular myths – foundational stories, whether true or not – in that it highlights the downsides of war. There seems to be a concerted effort these days to replace Simpson with more congenial (to authority) myths like whoever it was at Gallipoli who is called ‘the assassin’ (also the name of a character in MacDonald’s 1915).


    • That is an interesting perspective on Simpson and his donkey. To me that myth glorifies war and its continued use, despite overwhelming research showing that Simpson was just like any other stretcher bearer, says that it is okay to be loose with the truth.

      There are so many ordinary Australians who have done extraordinary things in the face of adversity. I don’t think there is a need for us to resort to making things up.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: April 2017 Round Up: History, Memoir and Biography | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  4. Pingback: Patsy Adam-Smith: Set with the Seal of Wanderlust | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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