Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Desert Column

by Ion L. Idriess
Angus & Robertson Limited, 1937
Michael Kihntopf, Reviewer

Australian Troopers During the Battle of Romani

Ion Idriess (1889–1979) was one of Australia's most prolific writers, having produced over 50 books in the space of 43 years. Each of the books had something to do with aspects of his colorful life in which he worked at almost anything that got him money, including stints as a dingo shooter, rabbit poisoner, gold prospector, and opal miner. The Desert Column is based on his diary entries while in service with the 5th Light Horse, Australian Imperial Force. The book was first published in 1932 and received many more printings after that. My copy was the ninth edition.

Idriess kept small notebooks which he filled with impressions of the day and recounts of actions that he was involved in beginning with his landing on the Gallipoli peninsula. He faithfully kept those notebooks, often chucking other parts of his kit to make room for their ever-growing volume. His sole purpose was the "thought that if he survived shot and shell and sickness, he would like, when he came to an old man, to be able to read exactly what his feelings were when things were happening."

From the first chapter, I was launched into his world as a common trooper. There are no descriptions of tactics or "Heads'" (Aussie term for the generals) strategies for the peninsula. He talks about sniping, trench raids, and both Turkish and Allied artillery barrages. The most gloriously detailed accounts are of receiving rations. I surmised that the deprivation he endured in working around Australia and living with the Aborigines on Cape York Peninsula made him appreciate a "splendid tea" of tinned beef mixed with onions and fried in bacon fat, biscuits and cheese, biscuits and jam, and tea. Service on the Gallipoli peninsula was cut short when he was nicked in the knee by a shrapnel ball. The wound turned septic and he was evacuated to Alexandria to recover.

Recovery was short, but by the time he was ready, his regiment had been evacuated from the peninsula and moved to the Sinai. There he joined the Desert Column, consisting of Australian and New Zealand units in the march on Jerusalem. Descriptions of sand, oases, the heat, the Bedouin people, and leave in Cairo are excellent. Idriess was involved in the first battle for Gaza. Once again, it is told from the trooper's viewpoint. There aren't any squadrons moving here or there. There are individual fire fights, bayonet charges, and flanking runs on horses.

The one criticism for the Heads relates to this. Idriess and his battalion had secured the city, but the order came to withdraw back to their starting positions, which allowed the Turks to reoccupy Gaza. What followed was a stagnant slug-fest with patrols, observations, and what he termed "Cossack raids." He defines these raids as eight to 12 men who rode close to the Turkish lines. If the enemy chased them, they unloaded their magazines at them, and hightailed it back to their positions for support. He termed it as exciting as when the Turks were caught in planning a raid. That definition is where I had my first and only disappointment.

Idriess seems to become a caricature of an Australian trooper at about mid-book. He begins many descriptions of getting great fun from potting at the Turks whenever he can and going on daring raids voluntarily in which he is almost captured but saved by excellent horsemanship or the appearance of a superior force. But the hardest comments to take were he and his mates jumping on their "neddies" laughing and calling to one another as they chased down Turks at breakneck speeds or were running from them while dodging their pursuit fire. It wasn't just one incident but several. I was reminded of the characters in a motion picture that would come later (1940s) called Forty Thousand Horsemen; a bonus picture to see with a lot of close-up camera work of horses charging and so on. Thank goodness the author's dramatization did not distract me from the overall writing of The Desert Column. It was just irritating at times.

Michael Kihntopf

1 comment:

  1. Nicely balanced review. I appreciate knowing about the overly done 'gung-ho' aspects of the book as well as some of the down to earth details. Sounds like the book was written long after the diary was.