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A Military History of Australia

Published by Cambridge University Press, Third Edition 2008, 334 pages, ISBN 0521697913
Years ago when I was a boy one of my favourite books was a children's picture-history of our Empire, full of stirring battle scenes of topi'd British soldiers heroically defeating natives. From it I learnt that Eureka Stockade was the only battle in Australia, a ‘fact' I long accepted unquestioningly. Sadly, it was untrue, as is emphatically shown by Jeffrey Grey's A Military History of Australia, first published in 1990 and now issued in its third edition and in paperback.

Jeffrey Grey is Australian, a graduate of the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales. He is now professor of history at the University College, Australian Defence Force Academy, and has published variously on twentieth-century Australian military history. His Military History of Australia is a scholarly synthesis from published sources, unpublished theses and his own earlier archival research, and a wide-ranging overview of war and other conflict, military and naval forces, and defence politics. It covers the ‘British period' from 1788 to 1870, settler-Aborigine conflicts, the colonial period from 1870 to 1901, the early Commonwealth, the world wars and interwar, and post-1945 wars including Vietnam and ‘Confrontation'. It has 25 maps, fewer than previous editions, 20 tables and two appendices. There is a 29-page annotated, and sometimes acerbic, bibliography: one book is criticised for its ‘silly claims' and others are dismissed as of ‘indifferent quality'. Regrettably there are no references and, unlike the first edition, no illustrations, though the latter limitation can be partially offset by using the well-illustrated Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, co-edited and partly written by Professor Grey.

Our readers will probably be most interested in the first third of the book, which includes the British garrison - infantry and engineers, never cavalry, and finally withdrawn in 1870 - the crucial role of the Royal Engineers, as in Canada, in public works and surveying, the Royal Navy and the Australia station, war scares, Volunteers, Militia, fortifications, colonial coast-defence warships, the 1885 Sudan contingent, Boer War, Boxer Rebellion, National Defence League (modelled on the National Service League), ‘boy conscription', and the Royal Australian Navy. The book comments on responses to the Boer War, ‘as in most of Australia's wars, the extreme poles of opinion were occupied by a small but highly vocal minority and their influence with the wider public was exaggerated by them for their own purposes.' Moving on to a later period, readers who, like this reviewer, are lamentably ignorant of Australian history, may be surprised to learn that in 1920s and 1930s Australia there were substantial anti-communist secret armies, largely ex-servicemen.

A Military History of Australia is neither digger triumphalism nor leftist debunking. It seems a fair, if astringent, book, which avoids controversial extremes and criticises both British and Australian commanders. Arguably it is too favourable to the unnecessary Australian intervention in Vietnam. There is the odd error: for example, the claim that the Colonial Defence Committee was subsumed by the C.I.D. ‘in the aftermath of the Haldane reforms in 1904'. In fact Haldane did not become Secretary of State for War until December 1905. Nevertheless, A Military History of Australia is both informative and interesting, and is definitely recommended to all who are interested in imperial military history.

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