Peter FitzSimons on how the Aussies saved France in WWI
He’s one of Australia’s most gung-ho writers, bringing military history to life with verve and immediacy that makes you feel like you’re charging through no-man’s-land in a slouch hat yourself. This time around, Peter FitzSimons (pictured below) tackles the battle of Villers-Bretonneux, where Aussie diggers held their own against the Boche.
What appealed about Villers-Bretonneux? It’s obviously a massive investment of your time and energy to write about.
“It certainly is. I work with four or five researchers and we work bloody hard, round the clock almost, because I have researchers in London and in Germany.
We scour these German archives, the Australian archives, the English archives, to – and I say this respectfully to the men who died – ‘make the skeletons dance’. What I mean by that is, bringing a long-gone story back to life. Villers-Bretonneux is the third of my trilogy; I started off doing Gallipoli, working out what actually happened there, why it was such a big deal to Australia.
Then I did the twin battles of Fromelles and Pozières in 1916, which were, well, Fromelles finished and Pozières started three days later. In Fromelles, we lost 1900 men, at Pozières we lost 7000. This last one, Villers-Bretonneux, I’m loosely defining as “this time the good ones win”.
The Australians are thrown into a battle where the whole fate of the war hangs in the balance. You’ve got the French town of Amiens, which is a British depot town – 80 per cent of the material that kept the British army afloat in France went through Amiens. Villers-Bretonneux was the village that overlooked Amiens, and if the Germans got hold of that, the war was over. The Australians were sent in to hold it, and hold it they did.”
The heroic efforts of the Aussie soldiers pushed back German forces in Villers-Bretenneux
(Image: Australian War Memorial)
Do you find it hard to write with sympathy for the Germans?
“Not on this one, no. Both of my parents served in WWII, and I always say that in terms of working out who was right and who was wrong in any war, there’s never been an easier war to work out than WWII, when you’ve got 6,000,000 Jews and the Final Solution. Where you see a genocide, you see pure evil.
In WWI, there’s nothing like that. The first of the Germans that went through Belgium to get into France were barbarous – there were rapes, there were atrocities, there were civilian murders, but it wasn’t a systemic plan from on high. It was soldiers running amok, rather than pure evil going from top to bottom.”
What are your goals when writing history?
“I want to make you feel like you’re there. My constant instructions to the researchers are, ‘Look for L&B, and FD.’ L&B is Live and Breathe. Find the details to make the story live and breathe, and the FD; the fine detail.
I always remember Nancy Wake telling me that the sound of a bullet going past her ear sounded like a kitten meowing. Now, you hear that phrase, you know that’s what it sounds like. Basically, if you consume the diaries and letters, you take on the vernacular.
Whatever period I’m writing about, I try to take on the language of the time, as the narrator. This doesn’t please academic reviewers, but what I care about is to put the reader in the moment.”
The memorial to French and Australian soldiers in Villers-Bretenneux
(Image: Wikimedia / Markus3)
How do you picture your audience?
“My sister says to me that when I’m writing, it’s like talking with my father. Both my parents served in WWII, and they were of the generation of my friends’ grandparents. I was born youngest to seven children, Mum was 42 and Dad was 47, so they were much older than most of my friends’ parents. They were what you call ‘Old Australia’; they grew up in Sydney in the 1920s. I suppose when I’m with older people, I feel like I speak their language, and what I love to do is to bring Old Australian stories to life.”
Finally, how do you think you would’ve gone as a digger?
“That’s a very interesting question. I was in the Wallabies for about five minutes, and I remember we were touring Fiji in ’84, and I told Nick Farr-Jones the story of The Battle of the Nek, the infamous slaughter of 1915 in Gallipoli. You had four waves of Australian soldiers charging over about 40 metres, straight at Turks manning German machine guns.
I said, ‘Nick, if you and I were in the fourth wave, and we’d seen the first three waves go out for their slaughter, and the whistle blew, would we go out?’ Put me in football boots and on a field, I’m OK. I just don’t know, if you put me on the shores of Gallipoli, and the guns were firing, how I would go. Would I be courageous and lead the men forward if I was an officer, or would I give in to civilian sanity and say, ‘You want me to climb what, to go at where? I’m not going to do that.’ Or – and this is quite possible – would I be a gibbering mess?”
What parts of Australia’s war history do you find most fascinating?
(Feature image: Australian War Memorial)
About the book
Peter FitzSimons is a journalist for Fairfax Media and the author of over 27 books, covering some of Australia's most important historical events including Gallipoli, Kokoda and Tobruk.
His latest book, Victory at Villers-Bretonneux, explores the battle fought between Allied French, British and Australian forces against the Germans in the two battles in the northern French commune. On Anzac Day 1918, when the town of Villers-Bretonneux falls to the British defenders, it is the Australians who are called on to save the day, the town, and the entire battle.
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