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Warts-and-all memoir of a wartime hell

6 July 2022 26 views No Comment

Warts-and-all memoir of a wartime hell

Members of the 39th battalion parade after weeks of fighting in dense jungle during the Kokoda campaign.

Ross Fitzgerald

The name Kokoda stirs up all sorts of emotions and is a touchstone of Australian war history. The bravery and sacrifice of the Diggers who held back the Japanese on the Kokoda Track in World War II is still the stuff of legend.

But what was it really like for the soldiers fighting in that hell of jungle and mud? The best way to find out is to see it through the eyes of someone who experienced it. In The Digger of Kokoda, Daniel Lane has produced a deeply moving account of Kokoda and the nearby battles at Sanananda as seen through the eyes of a frontline soldier, Reg Chard, who was an 18-year-old apprentice pastry chef when he joined the Second Australian Imperial Force.

Chard is now a spritely 98-year-old. Lane is primarily a sportswriter who has an abiding interest in military history.

Published to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign and written throughout in the first-person, The Digger of Kokoda is utterly fascinating. Although it’s often a tricky business reviewing an official biography, it’s pleasing to report that this fine book is an even-handed, warts-and-all memoir of one of Australia’s hitherto unsung heroes.

Chard reveals that his father, Herbert Hercules Chard, a carpenter who had been wounded twice during the bloody 1917 battle of Passchendaele, was a violent alcoholic. Not only did he attack Chard’s mother, Annie, who often succumbed to illness, but when aggravated he also assaulted Chard and several of his nine surviving brothers and sisters.

The dreadful impact that his father’s drinking had on the family was why Reg, who was born in 1923, six years before the Depression, never touched alcohol. He also never smoked. He left school at 12 and had, like his father, an explosive temper. In one way, enlisting to fight against the Japanese six years later was Chard’s salvation. This was because he could channel his energies into fighting against a brutal adversary.

Lane’s uncomplicated writing style allows Reg and his close mates “Bluey”, “Titch”, “Pee Wee” and “Simple Jack” to come to life.

But, in Chard’s opinion, many of his fellow soldiers were unprepared for war in tropical New Guinea: “The army sent thousands of men to fight on the frontline even though they weren’t suited for the job.”

Chard tells the touching story of an uncomplaining soul “who had legitimate grounds to refuse to serve in a combat role because he was a conscientious objector”.

Although he should never have fought at all, the soldier Chard terms “The Believer” proved to be the “Saint of Kokoda” because “in the true spirit of Christianity” he put every other comrade before himself.

In a similar vein, Chard recounts how, after he collapsed from malaria, the “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels”, working in a team of eight, saved his life by stretchering him to hospital in Port Moresby. He was later sent for medical treatment in Sydney.

Fifteen months earlier he’d enthusiastically taken his “oath of allegiance to King and country”, only to end up as a ravaged wreck who had gone from 65kg to only 40kg: “My legs were covered in ugly tropical sores, my face was gaunt and my body a sack of bones.” The hospital in the Sydney suburb of Concord was, he confides, “the only place he felt safe during the war”.

The Digger of Kokoda is rich in anecdotes about the battles Chard and his fellow soldiers fought against pompous officers and especially against the Military Police. A chapter entitled The Other Enemy begins with a quote from a World War I Digger that Chard maintains applies to himself: “There is no way you can convince me those bastards ever came anywhere near the front … They were a bunch of no-hopers and a complete waste of rations.”

After the death in 2001 of his wife of 66 years, whom he first met when they were both 16, Chard seriously contemplated suicide. Despite missing Betty mightily, Chard has found new meaning by being a tour guide on the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway in Concord, where he’d been so well-treated decades before.

Chard’s sense of purpose is despite the fact, as he guides people through this “living memorial” that contains 22 sight and sound installations, he can hear “the chilling war cry of a samurai sword-wielding officer charging towards him” and is confronted by an image on the wall of a friend on the battlefield who succumbed to disease weeks after the photograph was taken. Chard is comforted by the knowledge that he is educating, especially young Australians, about the real and symbolic importance of Kokoda.

It’s a deeply personal story and, in a chapter entitled The Peace, Chard recounts how, before his father died of dementia in 1968, they were reconciled.

Chard’s forgiving and generous nature affirms the truth of the motto that guides him every day: “Make the most of life because no matter how bad something may seem, life goes on – just make sure you go with it.”

It’s an inspiring philosophy from an inspiring Australian whose story needed to be told. In that regard, Lane has done us all a service. It’s a statement about its quality that, so far, The Digger of Kokoda is my book of the year.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His most recent include The Lowest Depths, co-written with Ian McFadyen, and a memoir, Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey.

The Digger of Kokoda: The Official Biography of Reg Chard

By Daniel Lane
Pan Macmillan Australia, Memoir
330pp, $36.99

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