Larrikins in Khaki by Tim Bowden

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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Tim Bowden’s book has been given the royal treatment by his publishers Allen & Unwin who have produced a very attractive 400-plus page book. The cover design is a splendid one.

There is something about irreverence that attracts Australian readers, and I have no doubt that this book on that very topic will be a commercial success. The book is an incidental history covering events in the Second World War. The chapters follow various battles but the book does not claim to be more than event-hopping. The identities of some of the soldiers change from one engagement to the next, one group seamlessly follows its predecessor. There are tales of joining up, early basic training, sailing to war and preparing for desert warfare. There is an ill-fated Greek engagement, the allied involvement in Lebanon and Syria, before the retreat to Australia and the engagement of our troops with the Japanese leading to the death camps of South East Asia and the Kokoda Track. It is an anecdotal sweep of most areas of war.

The focus is, as the name implies, on the diggers who fought in these wars, in particular on young soldiers in training and in their early membership of infantry or light artillery groups. Nobody expects a vanilla recording of young men preparing for battle but anecdote following anecdote of drunkenness, sexual misconduct and fighting together with tales of Aussies vs the Poms wear a bit thin after a few chapters. Here is part of a situation in a brothel that shows all troops, ours as well as those of other nations, in a very poor light:

The whole area had a distinctive smell all of its own. It wasn’t too bad in the mornings – but of an evening – phew! Drunken soldiers would urinate from the top of the stairs of some of the establishments and this would collect on the worn portions of the marble steps. Late-night soldiers wishing to visit ladies on the top floors would have to paddle and splash through pools of piss (59).

Apart from reservations that this book may be no more than a chronicle of uncouth behaviour, I have issues with the writing. That is just simply sloppy. Of course a ‘distinctive’ smell would have ‘one of its own’. Tautology, indeed. It is unusual (wrong? I’m not sure), to find ‘stairs’ and ‘steps’ in the same sentence. However, I cringe when I see ‘paddle and splash through pools of piss’. It is not incorrect usage but rather, over the top, in my opinion.

Tim Bowden did not set out to write a book that shows a scholarly grasp of the language, and should not be chastised for commonplace, pedestrian writing. One of his goals is to record the behaviour of troops as recorded in diverse places and to bring it together for our increased knowledge and ease of access.

The book is much more than a tale of successive episodes and irreverence. There are graphic stories of engagements between opposing forces. ‘Operation Lightfoot’, the strategy that saw the defeat of Rommel in the deserts of North Africa, is succinctly and graphically described on page 163 and following pages. The battles with the Japanese in Papua New Guinea, particularly along the Kokoda Track, are examples of great writing (see pp 294 and following). The fighting in Papua New Guinea actually reveals much of the lives of the soldiers that the man in the street does not remember or never knew. The so-called ‘unnecessary campaign’ was certainly new for me.

I would have to say that much of the book I enjoyed, not so much for its contribution to the historical record but rather for its sheer masculinity. To say it’s a boot-and-all sort of book cheapens it, and the book does not need that. The war stories are interesting in their own right but also contribute as an integral part of the enterprise. I get a little fed up with stories that others go out of their way in praise of the female lead who refuses to be down-trodden, but stands her ground against pressure from her male rivals. Tim Bowden has ignored all that froth and produced a book that stands firmly in place on its own merits. His characters live on the page showing scant regard for military protocols or for superior officers who were always going to gain a serve from an Australian digger whatever their senior rank. This is a tale of real men fighting a real war with real bullets. I don’t wish to follow Bowden in his overuse of alliteration but, despite patches of pedestrian prose, this was a ripper of a read in many respects.

Larrikins in Khaki

(2019)

by Tim Bowden

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-76052-854-6

$32.99; 448pp

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