Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 19, 2010

Over There with The Australians, by R. Hugh Knyvett

Source: Project Gutenberg

Published in 1918, Over There with the Australians is a World War I memoir of a scout, an Intelligence Officer, in the Fifteenth Australian Infantry.  Captain R. Hugh Knyvett was one of the ‘lucky’ ones: he trained in Egypt and survived the campaigns in Gallipoli and the Western Front.  The book was published in America  as a rallying cry for Americans to join the fight – but it is now well out of print: I downloaded the book from Project Gutenberg.

It begins with a bit of doggerel from a newspaper, not great poetry to be sure, but heartfelt, and that’s the tone of the work.  Knyvett begins by explaining that he writes about the scouts not because they’re more heroic, but simply because he knows about them.  He has nothing but admiration for the other men who sacrificed so much in that awful, pointless war. His story is

an attempt to show the true nature of the Australian soldier, and sent out with the hope that they will remind some … of the contribution made by the freemen who live across the ocean of peace from you to “make the world safe for democracy.” (Introduction)

In this introduction he is at pains to remember two mates in particular:

Ray Wilson was an artistic fellow with not much in common with the other men, but they became firm friends from the shared experience of coming under fire. Knyvett says simply that he went ‘mad for a while when his body was found’ and warns his readers not to make simplistic judgements about the emotions such tragedy arouses: ‘Don’t talk of ‘not hating’  to a man whose friend has been foully murdered! What if he had been yours?’ (Introduction)

Dan Macarthy was a rough-and-tumble and somewhat light-fingered fellow.  He’d had a haphazard education which was so often the fate of kids living in the Outback, but his amazing memory for detail was invaluable in his work as a scout.

There are parts of the book that affront a modern sensibility.  Knyvett begins by justifying British colonialism in New Guinea.  The war meant that German New Guinea became a British possession and Knyvett is at pains to assert that the ‘natives’ were better off – because of the British philosophy that it was the ‘White Man’s Burden’ to civilise them whereas the Germans merely exploited them.   This section of the book is best skimmed over. (Chapter 1)

Source: Project Gutenberg

It’s when Knyvett begins the story proper that it becomes fascinating.  I did not know, for example, that when the Australian Government could not find the funds to transport the hundreds of men wanting to enlist from the outback, they simply picked up their swags and walked to the nearest recruitment centre hundreds of miles away.

Some of these were real characters.  Old Tom Coghlan lived so far from human habitation that his only conversations took place with jam tins.  21 year old  Bill Squires had never seen a parson and when asked if he knew Jesus Christ asked “What kind of horse does he ride?”  (Chapter 3) However, these ‘snowball marchers’ soon impressed: they formed themselves into regiments, they were mobbed en route, and the authorities soon made some of them officers.

Knyvett lauds their democratic impulses:

These Australians have had no master in their lives but the pitiless drought; they respect not Kings, but they love a real man who knows not fear and is kind to a horse. Masefield said of them in “Gallipoli”: “They were in the pink of condition and gave a damn for no one!” (Chapter 3)

But he’s not consistent about this: he resents being ordered about by his social inferiors:

It is not often realized what a purgatory the educated, independent man who enlists as a private has to go through before his spirit is tamed sufficiently to stand bossing, without resentment, by men socially and educationally inferior. (Chapter 4)

Things were chaotic in the camps, but Knyvett writes about it with good humour, and is scornful of subsequent improvements labelling it

 ‘a nursery for the recruits who have volunteered three years late and need the enticement of feather beds to induce them to leave mother.’ (Chapter 4)

There follows the tedious embarkation and sea voyage, made bearable with impromptu concerts, and a brief interlude in Colombo.  They finally arrived in the training camps at Suez where the story becomes less edifying.  The novelty of being in an exotic city soon wore off and they became very fed up indeed.   Heliopolis was better, and it was here that Knyvett discovered his missing brother in the hospital .  But forced marches and digging practice trenches in the desert was no fun, except when they stumbled upon an old city and raided the tombs for ancient artefacts.  It is interesting to see that Knyvett is not the least bit embarrassed about these thefts…

Australian soldiers were also involved in a riot in Cairo that rendered the Australian government liable for damages.  Knyvett will brook no criticism from ‘stay-at-homes’ – he claims that it was justifiable because of the corruption and filth of the city, and their belief that the Egyptians were on the Turkish side.

 This vile spot made the clean lads from the wind-swept plains and scented bush of Australia absolutely sick. The Australian is a practical idealist, and for him to see dirt is to want to remove it.  (Chapter 6)

When the story shifts to Gallipoli it becomes a tale familiar to most Australians, and Knyvett writes that he will not recount it himself because ‘John Masefield has written the only book that need be read’.  He  reminds his readers that despite the well-deserved reputation of the Australians,  there were also English, Scotch, and Irish, French Colonial, Gurkha and Sikh troops who played an equally heroic part (Chapter 12) but what he really wants to do in this book is to laud the Australian character:

These young Australians were eager to prove their country’s worth as a breeder of men. Australians have been very sensitive to the criticism of Old World visitors—that we were a pleasure-loving people, who only thought of sport—that in our country no one took life seriously, and even the making of money was secondary to football, and that we would all rather win a hundred pounds on a horse-race than make a thousand by personal exertion. Practically every book written on Australia by an Englishman or an American has said the same thing, that we were a lovable, easy-going race, but did not work very hard, and in a serious crisis would be found wanting.

(I think he would be very surprised to learn that modern readers can see the irony of this when in the previous chapter he has just trashed the Australian reputation with his tales of Aussie Boys Own Adventure ‘escapades’ in the Middle East.)

It is interesting to read about the gallant ships at Gallipoli.  Knyvett is contemptuous about the German u-boats (submarines); skulking about unseen below the surface is not an honourable way of fighting in his opinion.   And of course it was ships under fire that evacuated the remnants of the Gallipoli force; there was bravery everywhere.

From Gallipoli Knyvett is sent via Suez to the Western Front, leaving behind mates who had fallen and others reorganised into different battalions.  They were made most welcome by the French, and this friendship persists to the present day.

Our hearts had warmed to France, before we knew the lovable French people themselves, because she had borne the brunt in the first years of the war, and her soil had been ravaged, and her women so unspeakably maltreated. And it seemed that the French people took especial interest in us Australians who had come twelve thousand miles to join in this fight in defense of the world’s liberty.

This war has done more to make known to each other the people of the world than any other event in history. Many of the French people had hardly heard of Australia, but hereafter they will never forget the name of the land whence came those stalwart boys who marched singing through their country; who went to war with laughter, and when out of the trenches were ever ready to give a hand with the crops. (Chapter 18)

The details of the Western Front and the Somme are less well-known, but Knyvett’s account brings to mind many of the images of trench-warfare I have seen.

One of the most self-forgetful actions ever performed was by Sergeant Ross. We found a man on the German barbed wire, who was so badly wounded that when we tried to pick him up, one by the shoulders and the other by the feet, it almost seemed that we would pull him apart. The blood was gushing from his mouth, where he had bitten through lips and tongue, so that he might not jeopardize, by groaning, the chances of some other man who was less badly wounded than he. He begged us to put him out of his misery, but we were determined we would get him his chance, though we did not expect him to live. But the sergeant threw himself down on the ground and made of his body a human sledge. Some others joined us, and we put the wounded man on his back and dragged them thus across two hundred yards of No Man’s Land, through the broken barbed wire and shell-torn ground, where every few inches there was a piece of jagged shell, and in and out of the shell-holes. So anxious were we to get to safety that we did not notice the condition of the man underneath until we got into our trenches; then it was hard to see which was the worst wounded of the two. The sergeant had his hands, face, and body torn to ribbons, and we had never guessed it, for never once did he ask us to “go slow” or “wait a bit.” Such is the stuff that men are made of. (Chapter 19)

He writes with compassion about the civilian victims as well:

The war was to them like a catastrophe in another world, and Australians did not travel farther to fight than in their imagination did the sons of this village when they went to the trenches less than a hundred miles away. I discovered one day how deep the knife of war had cut when I spoke to a grandmother and daughter working a large farm, as with dumb, uncomprehending pain in their eyes they showed me the picture of son-in-law and husband who would never return. Rights of peoples and the things for which nations strive had no meaning to these two, but from out the dark had come a hand and dragged from them the fulness of life, leaving only its empty shell.

It is this kind of writing that makes Knyvett’s book a classic despite its  flaws.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Capt. R. Hugh Knyvett
Title: Over There with the Australians
Publisher: Charles Scribner & Sons 1918/Project Gutenberg eBook #17206 2005
Source: Project Gutenberg.


Responses

  1. Re. The Australian is a practical idealist, and for him to see dirt is to want to remove it.

    Sudden vision of a thousand Australian men rushing into a thousand kitchens shouting, “Hand me the cloth, honey! I see a spot!”

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  2. Vet lit is now being joined by those writing from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is an honorable tradition.

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  3. Yes, Deane, my feminist antennae tweaked too!

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  4. Hi Shelley, I hadn’t heard the term Vet Lit before – that’s interesting.
    Over There with The Australians was an interesting contrast with King of Tuzla, and both books show the perils to be avoided. The veteran needs thoughtful editing IMO. Knyvett wrote his book while the war was still in its ghastly stalemate, and he is full of hatred for Germany and the Germans. Op de Haar wrote his to unburden his soul and it’s a muddle.
    Many people write ‘books’ because they are trying to resolve personal issues or tell a painful story and as trauma counsellors will tell you, it’s a good way of getting things off one’s chest. It doesn’t often make good literature though. I’ve got a few books about the Vietnam War on my TBR for a project I’m desultorily working on and while useful for research they’re really not good writing. They might have been if an editor had taken some hard decisions…

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  5. In my opinion, editing writing for modern sensibilities is completely incorrect…it should stand as the writer’s contemporaneous opinion, whether we are offended or not…how else do we know the feelings and experiences of the men at the time.

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    • Hello Cass, thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment.
      I agree with you, and nothing I’ve written in this review was intended to suggest that this book should be edited. What I’ve tried to do is to draw attention to attitudes that the author held that were common at the time but are inappropriate now.

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  6. I am just finishing reading the book ( which I thoroughly enjoy ) , and came across this website while researching Captain Knyvett . I own an original edition from 1918 which I purchased from an antique book dealer who used to attend gun shows on Long Island , NY . , and kept it in storage for almost 30 years . In no way did it disturb my modern sensibilities ,…….and will leave well enough alone with that statement ! Knyvett calls it the way he sees it , and his honesty is refreshing in this world of platitudes and political correctness . Calling attitudes inappropriate is telling others what to think and how to evaluate their experiences , and if one has experienced the human race as Knyvett has “inappropriate” is simply someone else’s value judgement . This is , after all , a book , which one is free to stop reading at any page , as many of us have removed videos from our VCRs after 20 or 30 minutes . By the way , does anyone have any information regarding Captain Knyvett’s life upon his return to Australia ?

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    • Hello John, and thank you for sharing your thoughts.
      However, I think that I have as much right in the 21st century to describe some of Knyvett’s attitudes as inappropriate as he had to write what he thought in the early 20th century The world has moved on, and when we read texts from the past we interpret them in the light of those changes. His attitude to New Guinea was, like that of many others, patronising and racist; his justification for Australian actions in the Middle East is offensive. That doesn’t detract from the rest of the book, and I think I’ve made it clear that I admire it.

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  7. Here is a letter from the family archives with background information about Hugh Knyvett written by my grandfather.

    To: the Acting Director,
    Australian War Memorial, Canberra
    19th November ?

    Dear Sir,

    In reply to your letter of the 13th November instant I beg to advise that the late Captain Reginald Hugh Knyvett was a brother of mine.

    He was born at Brisbane Queensland on 15th September 1886 and died at New York, United States America, on 15th April 1918.

    Prior to his enlistment in the 59th Battalion at Melbourne he was engaged as a lone Missionary for the Presbyterian Church at Longreach, Queensland, and Leeton, NSW. He enlisted as a private at his om request and received his commission for his services in the field in France. He was badly wounded at Gommecourt where his sciatic nerve was shot away-a new nerve was grafted on to his leg and he was invalided with a dropped foot to Australia. After his recovery he was discharged as unfit for further service. He however went over to America on his way to join up with the Flying Corps. Whilst in the United States he was engaged by that Government as a War Lecturer prior to that country taking part in the war. Ho developed. as a fine speaker and was given pride of place in Madison Square by President Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. He was instrumental in bringing the USA into the war and his book was published with that end in view.

    He died as a result of the germs of military tuberculosis being introduced (it is said by German agents) into a cup of coffee after lecturing at Milwaukee. He was cremated in New York and his urn is buried in France.

    Yours faithfully, Stipendiary Magistrate
    Percy Gordon Knyvett

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    • Hello John, thank you so much for sharing this. It’s a while since I read this book, but Knyvett has remained in my memory as a courageous man.

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