Seasons Of War
Penguin Books AUS
Copy courtesy of the publisher
As most Australians and New Zealanders school age or older would know, 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the landing of Gallipoli. On the 25th of April in 1915, Allied forces launched the Dardanelles Campaign. The idea was to take Turkey and establish a trade supply route through that country to Russia as well as attempt to draw other countries into the conflict as support. It was put together by Winston Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty. He wanted to use a fleet of battleships as a base and attack by both land and sea.
It was disastrous. The Turks were prepared for an attack from their coastline and launched their own offensive from the hills that fronted onto the beach. By the end of the campaign, when the remaining Allied troops were withdrawn to Egypt it was estimated that over 100,000 men from both sides had been killed including over 8,000 Australians and over 2,000 New Zealanders. For both Australia and New Zealand the day of the landing has become the single most important day in recognition of sacrifice. ANZAC Day is a national public holiday in both countries populated by dawn services to commemorate, marches, speeches and games of two up. It originally began to commemorate those who were a part of the campaign but has grown and developed to encompass all who have served in any conflict. The Dardanelles campaign had a long and far reaching effect – it’s now even thought that the Gallipoli campaign is responsible for not only the Turkish emergence of identity and their own push for independence, but also an emergence of a unique cultural identity for both Australia and New Zealand.
As this is such an important anniversary, there will probably be a lot of documentaries and the like airing during April. There’s already a miniseries entitled Gallipoli that’s showing at the moment. The writer of that series is also the writer of this book, Seasons Of War which encompasses one year in Gallipoli beginning with the landing. It’s more than just a study of the military campaign. It’s one man’s experience – a young Australian named Michael who signed up when his brother did and found himself a long way from home, given a gun and told to kill.
In one hour, Knobby will be dead and in pieces. In two weeks dreaming will stop when we sleep. In eight months some of us will leave this place but many will stay. In three years twenty million people will be dead. (p1)
This book is every bit as horrifying as you’d expect a close up story of a major battle to be. Michael sees friends blown to smithereens as they stand beside him. The conditions are almost unbearable. The bodies decay in the warm weather, the air is thick with flies and stench. The men are quickly losing condition, becoming skin and bone, ravaged at times by disease and dysentery. Every bit of the misery is laid bare for the reader to see, including the utter hopelessness of the campaign. The Allies would make ground that the Turks would later take off them. One side would dig trenches, the other side would take them and dig more only to be forced out later. Back and forth they traded gunshots, each losing a little more men each time but each side still pressing forward, not giving in.
The story also details some of the more human aspects of the conflict like the time both sides put their firing aside to come together to bury the dead that littered the fields. There was a line drawn and if the Allies found Turk bodies they dragged them over to their side and vice versa. It also talks of how they would lob things other than grenades into enemy territory – canned milk, cigarettes, etc. There were times when each side could see that their enemy weren’t the horrible figures they’d been made about to be. That each of them were there by circumstance, decisions made by people far away from the battle fields in most cases. Each of them fighting a fight that at the grass roots of it, they barely understood.
The reader learns little of Michael, other than the fact that he’s a country boy from a close family and devoted to his brother Dan who is two years older. He is probably similar to many of the young Australians who signed up, only to be thrown into the deep end in a foreign place, watching their fellow soldiers dying all around them. There’s still some sort of sense of camaraderie at times, between the remaining soldiers and they manage to occasionally find pleasure in things, such as swimming at the beach (whilst delousing themselves and avoiding the shells from ‘Beachy Bill’), a peaceful afternoon with no shooting, even a cup of tea with mates as they talk about girls back home or their family. However those moments are few and far between and there’s crippling heat and then later on, freezing cold as winter hits and everything begins icing over. This book is very short, only 137 pages but the author manages to pack so much into it. I studied Gallipoli at school of course but I haven’t read many fiction books that depict the battle, that put the reader right there and it was my goal this year to include some in my reading. This book does an incredible job of that, of describing things briefly but very evocatively so that I might as well have been standing right beside Michael, experiencing it all as he did. His ways aren’t emotional, if anything it’s sometimes rather clinical but the strange matter of factness about the way in which everything is related lends a genuine tone to the story because that’s what I feel the soldiers were probably doing – just getting on with it, doing what they were told.
Tucked low in the dirt beside another man I will exist in fear and horror and shame but I will be alive. That is all that counts. (p10)
Book #43 of 2015