Fighting the Kaiserreich
Review of ‘Fighting the Kaiserreich:
Australia’s epic within the Great War’
by Bruce Gaunson
Hybrid Publishers: Melbourne
pp 526, $35.
BY ROSS FITZGERALD
One hundred years on we still haven’t fully come to grips with World War I. But now that we’ve reached the centenary of 1918 it’s well and truly time to celebrate Australia’s valiant and intrepid struggle against the German empire (Kaiserreich) in the conflict we know as the Great War.
This epic battle of the volunteers of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) who went up against seasoned German troops was the most formidable campaign our troops had ever fought.
Thinking about the fates of those Australians who had sailed away to fight the Germans, the resourceful Bruce Gaunson couldn’t find any single book that provided two crucial themes: an analysis of the Diggers’ heroic exploits and the titanic context and the larger matter of what that war was all about in the first place. To narrate and explain this for general readers, with a nod to scholars too, is the aim of this finely written and well-produced book.
Gaunson explains that 1918 was the crucial year when our troops, no longer shackled “to deficient generals and their abysmal strategies”, were able to win a series of bracing, but costly, victories.
Indeed by the time John Monash’s troops, suffering cruel attrition, had broken through the Hindenburg Line, the costs to the ordinary members of the AIF, as well as our military achievements, were staggering. But their heroics and professionalism made them the trailblazers of the Allies’ ultimate advance.
Scrupulously researched and drawing on a range of primary and secondary sources from more than a dozen countries, ‘Fighting the Kaiserreich’ is an absorbing and quite fascinating read.
It’s long but crisply constructed and gives a thorough account of the role of diverse Australians soldiering on against the might of the German Empire. It’s a dour story at times. Yet one that needs to be told because this war shaped the century to come. As Gaunson puts it, “there was no escaping the relentless after-shocks of the Great War”.
Although the Allies may have achieved military victory, legions of returned soldiers bore lifelong wounds to mind and body, while for countless loved ones and parents of the fallen, the burden of grief was immense.
The great sadness of all of this is underscored by the fact that, at the end of this terrible conflict – supposedly “the war to end all wars” – at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 the Allies were unable to make a lasting, satisfactory peace settlement with Germany.
In the so-called “Great War” 35 million civilians and combatants were killed or wounded. As it happens, in proportion to population the French bore the heaviest losses: their armed forces alone had 78 per cent of their troops killed or wounded. Our casualty rate was also high – 65 per cent of all Australian troops overseas were killed or wounded.
That this was the highest percentage of all British Empire forces is not surprising given that, in its mightiest feats, especially in 1918, the AIF opposed the main army of the main enemy in the main theatre of war. As Gaunson rightly concludes, this was achieved “in a way that earned the admiration of (our) allies, and the grudging acknowledgment of a formidable foe”.
Now is the time to remember this and Gaunson’s absorbing book is an excellent place to start.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Age, the SMH & The Brisbane Times, 17-18 March 2018.