Great summer reads

DOES the world need another telling of the tragic tale of doomed 19th century explorers Burke and Wills?Their ambitious venture was to try to cross the harsh n continent, from south to north, from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria, a distance of more than 3000 kilometres in 1860-61.

PETER FITZSIMONS: Burke & Wills, Hachette , $49.99.

I was of the generation who learned all about these famous heroic failures, Robert O’Hara Burke and surveyor William Wills, while at school too long ago now to remember.Then came the 1985 film starring Jack Thompson as the brave but tragically flawed Burke. It recorded disappointing box office returns. Maybe its lacklustre performance might have something to do with what a critic said at the time, something like: “I don ‘t think audiences want to see a film about two guys dying in the desert”.

That said, there are newer Aussie generations, plus newcomers to our shores, who have probably neverheard this tragic tale.

So, despite my initial misgivings, in the masterly hands of prolific n storyteller Peter FitzSimons, Burke & Wills proves to be a compelling narrative.

Burke & Wills is a sprawling saga, impressively researched and written in FitzSimons’ inimitable, idiosyncratic style. It’s a hefty 700 pages, well-illustrated and infused with enormous detail. The 19-member expedition was farewelled by 15,000 well-wishers but was weighed down with 20 tons of equipment on six wagons. Add to this 23 horses and 26 camels.O’Hara Burke was totally lacking in bush skills to lead such a bold expedition. Then came serious disputes, plus having to tackle the hostile environment. Later through bad timing, three of the final four expedition party died, left stranded in the wilderness with almost no supplies. FitzSimons reports that a grim, running joke in the prestigious Melbourne Club afterwards was that Burke was its only member “who ever died of thirst”.

CHRIS MASTERS: No Front Line, published by Allen & Unwin, $32.99.

Award-winning journalist Chris Masters reckons his latest book – set in war-torn Afghanistan – is as tough an investigation as he has ever undertaken.And despite its recent controversy on publication, time may well judge his book, No Front Line, as one of the most important ever penned about our special forces in combat zones.

The meticulously researched book tells what it’s like to be a member of the nation’s elite fighters whose work is often secret. Little wonder Masters’ extraordinary book took 10 years to write.

Rather than take a broad view of the Afghanistan war and the deeper politics involved, Masters, seeking truth and balance, gives us a forensic examination of the individual silent heroes at the pointy end of fighting missions.

Through extensive interviews, the author even managed tobecome the first and only reporter to be embedded with n Special Forces.

The recent book controversy concerns what’s been described as an unwarranted attack on some soldiers, although the book’s manuscript was read and vetted by the n Defence Force over sensitive issues like operational security and protecting identities.

n Victoria Cross winner Ben Roberts-Smith, however, has criticised the book for the way it portrays the Special Air Service (SAS).He’s even described it as “un-n” and “bewildering” and certainly not an official SAS history.

His anger stems from the aftermath of a clandestine SAS mission back in 2006 when an Afghan teen suspected as working as an enemy Taliban “spotter”, and who threatened to expose the SAS patrol, was killed.

Retired Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston, however, described the sudden and intense combat experience capturing the highs, the lows and courage of our n soldiers as making for a “remarkable book”. I wouldn’t disagree.

ROLAND PERRY: Monash & Chauvel, Allen & Unwin, $34.99.

There are two brilliant Aussie battlefield commanders from World War I who deserve greater acknowledgment today.Writer Roland Perry has come to the rescue with Monash & Chauvel.

Subtitled ‘How ’s two greatest generals changed the course of world history’, the book traces the emergence of both men who played a huge role in defeating the German and Turkish forces in the Great War (1914-1918).

Harry Chauvel led the 34,000 strong Desert Mounted Column whose efforts are largely remembered for the successful, almost suicidal, charge on the strategic town of Beersheba in October 1917 and then the final drive in 1918 to push the Turks out of the Middle East after a 400-year occupation

Chauvel was a British Empire man first and an n second. That changed when he took the war initiative by ignoring his British superiors.

The other outstanding general was John Monash who commanded n forces on the Western Front in 1918 and masterminded crucial battles. Considered an outsider because of his German Jewish heritage, he devised tactics to break the stalemate of brutal trench warfare, including successfully re-using the discredited strategy of ‘oversized mechanical slugs’ (tanks) and always giving his men adequate artillery support to save lives.

Monash and his warrior force of diggers, all volunteers, were the driving force in defeating the German Army, a fact the Germans themselves admitted, Perry writes.

Meanwhile, General Chauvel was overshadowed in the 1920s and 1930s by the writings of T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), followed by a brilliant, if romanticised 1962 movie based on the book which distorted events in the Middle East war of 1915 to 1919.In reality, Lawrence’s war was a valuable sideshow. Chauvel and his Anzac-dominated werethe main force behind the defeat of two Turkish armies in Palestine, Jordan and Syria.

A long, but fascinating account.

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