I’m rather fond of Roger McDonald, it was he who christened me ‘Ambassador for Australian Literature’ when I met him at the Miles Franklin Award night in 2011. When Colts Ran was shortlisted for the award, and although it didn’t win that night it will earn its place in history as the novel that challenged the myths of rural Australia. (See my review). McDonald is a major author of long standing: Mr. Darwin’s Shooter was awarded the New South Wales, Victorian, and South Australian Premiers’ Literary Awards, and won the National Fiction Award at the 2000 Adelaide Writers’ Week, while the The Ballad of Desmond Kale won the 2006 Miles Franklin Award and South Australian Festival Prize for Fiction.
1915, A Novel (1979) was McDonald’s first novel, and it’s brilliant. I think it probably had to be, to find a publisher in that fiercely anti-war era in the wake of the moratorium marches and the withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. My memories of that time are that it wasn’t just Lefties who were opposed to war: RSL branches were closing (or widening their membership base to ward off closing); Anzac Day marches were fading away and the notion of a war hero was fraught in the light of disclosures about the My Lai massacre.
And then in 1979 the University of Queensland Press published this debut novel by an unknown author. (Not entirely unknown: McDonald was awarded an Australia Council Senior Writer’s Fellowship to write it. Perhaps on the strength of his poetry collections Citizens of Mist (1969) and Airship (1975)?) The book won the ‘Age Book of the Year’ and the South Australian Biennial Literature Prize in 1980. In 1982 it was made into a seven-part ABC-TV television series. Peter Weir made his film Gallipoli in 1981. The Anzac legend was resurgent…
1915 tells the story of two lads from the bush, Billy Mackenzie and Walter Gilchrist, and how their not-always-friendly rivalry plays out from childhood to their war service on the battlefield in Gallipoli. The novel is a little hard to follow in the beginning as the large cast of characters are introduced, but it’s well worth persisting. Billy, a rough-and-tumble lad with a cocky confidence but few real prospects, squares off with Walter, who’s an on-again-off-again friend in the way of boys who take offence over this-and-that and sort it out with a punch-up. Walter’s prospects are better: he goes away to boarding-school, occasioning mild resentment from Billy, but what really causes conflict between them is a girl. Billy is a larrikin in the original sense of the word (see my review of Melissa Bellanta’s Larrikins, A History) and his sense of entitlement extends to casually taking his way with women. He expects Frances Reilly to be his, but Walter hesitantly likes her too, and has the opportunity to know her better on the train back to their respective schools. To restore his sense of pride Billy ends up making do with Diana, best friend of Frances, and later finds himself surprised by the way events turn out.
The characterisation of these four young people is masterful. McDonald explores class differences (in an era when Australians still believed there were none); inheritance issues through Walter’s vague ambitions to leave the family farm against the expectation that he will work there to help fund his younger brother’s school fees; racism both casual and overt including Billy’s shocking treatment of an Aboriginal woman; and the challenge of religion and faith in the context of appalling human suffering.
The acknowledgements at the end of the book show that the author interviewed a number of veterans, which surely contributed to the authenticity of this novel and the insights it depicts. McDonald reveals the inner world of his characters through a third-person omniscient narrator, as we can see in this recreation of a pre-war mindset that with the benefit of hindsight seems astonishing:
It was strange that war had never occurred to [Billy] before. He was made for it! If all the excitement fizzled out he’d be desperate.
Other more practical needs drove him. If war came, he could escape. Away from his father, stone-hearted now, and a drunk. Away from the silent churchyard that haunted him, yet was not itself haunted. Away from the consequences of news from Wellington which lay in a crumpled letter in his pocket. Trouble was brewing there, though not with his name attached to it. Not yet.
‘Yes sir!’ said Billy into the silence.
‘Would you be scared?’ asked Walter.
‘Now wait a minute,’ said Mr Gilchrist, denying his own intensity of thought, ‘we’re talking about a national event, not a jaunt for youngsters.’ He made a show of hunting through the paper for farm news, struggling with himself over the thought that if Walter was to go off to war he would be glad. Six months or more had been enough to show that he and his son were strangers. To be honest, he disliked the boy – who was half the time locked in hostile broodiness, and the other half gushing with green ideas. (p. 123-4)
These naïve ideas about adventure are soon vanquished by prose that tears them to shreds. McDonald begins Part 3 with George Mullins, a ‘sly madman’ who introduces Walter to trench life with a cup of tea and some advice:
The tea-pouring soldier took a mug for himself and joined them. He was unshaven, with a drunkard’s yellow eyes and moist laugh. But he spoke his name firmly. No, not a drunkard – a man who had never slept. ‘Get ready to hold your breath,’ said this George Mullens, ‘when the morning breeze springs up you’ll need to.’ He aimed a finger at the bulkhead of earth that separated the support trench from the firing line: ‘They’ll come wafting through with the early sun.’ He meant the thousands of decomposing Turks who had died in the attack of several nights before – the night Walter and Frank and Boof and the rest of the Second Brigade of Light Horse had grated ashore on the Peninsula and stared about. They had arrived on the beach incredulous, unable to imagine that the chaos on the heights overhead was caused by one group of humans in battle with another. (p. 206)
The sights, the sounds, the smells of trench warfare are all vividly depicted but it is the impact on the men that makes this novel brilliant. Each individual deals with the horror in a different way and none is unchanged by the experience. Back in Australia Laura and Diana don’t wait passively either, and only a stony-hearted reader could fail to be moved by Diana’s fate. For all of its formidable 400-odd pages 1915 really is a remarkable book that deserves to be widely read.
I found my rather battered first edition some years ago at the OpShop, but it’s now available in Vintage Classics with a slight change of name to harness the popular interest in Australia’s war history at Gallipoli.
Author: Roger McDonald
Title: 1915, A Novel
Publisher: University of Queensland Press, 1979
ISBN: 0702213756 (First edition hardback)
Source: Personal copy, purchased at Vinnies
Fishpond: 1915: A Novel of Gallipoli (Vintage Classics)