An Aussie and his memoir

Capt. R. Hugh Knyvett an intelligence officer with the 15th Australian infantry, wrote a memoir, or so  it was called, published in 1918 that is stunning for its good humor and sunny outlook.  He takes the strangest positive view of Gallipoli, that successful diversion for the navy (who dropped the ball) that was only ended by the weather and established the Aussie as a force to be reckoned with. He was writing to encourage the Americans coming into combat. Most Americans knew nothing of Gallipoli then — and most of them don’t know much about it now, except that Mel Gibson was in the movie.

Knyvett had a sharp eye for detail, especially whimsical detail. His accounts of his experiences in a London hospital are so entertaining, it’s hard to remember that he was badly wounded.

He greatly disliked his service in Egypt. If you’re sensitive to racist language, you will find these chapters hard going. Then he writes something like this:

“There were gorgeous sunsets—poetry there, but more poetry still in the wonderful mirages. Why, here, hung above the earth, were scenes from every age: Cleopatra’s galleys, Alexander’s legions, the pomp of the Mamelukes, Ptolemy and Pompey, Napoleon and Gordon—their times and deeds were all pictured here. Perhaps the spirit world has its ‘movies,’ and only here in the desert mirage is the ‘screen’ of stuff that can be seen with mortal eyes.”

Here he is at Gallipoli,

“Never did men live under worse conditions than in those eight months of hell, yet never was an army so cheerful. ‘Bill-Jim,’ which is Australia’s name for her soldier-boy, always makes the best of things, and soon made himself at home on that inhospitable shore.

“The first thing he decided needed alteration was his uniform. Breeches and puttees were not only too hot but they closed in the leg and afforded cover to the lively little fellow who lives indiscriminately on the soldiers of both sides. As each soldier began to trim his uniform to his own idea of comfort, it was soon, in very reality, a ‘ragtime’ army. Some felt that puttees were a nuisance—everybody realized that the breeches were too long, but differed on the point as to how much too long. Some would clip off six inches from the end, others a foot, and others would have been as well covered without the article at all. Almost everybody decided that a tunic was useless, but some extremists threw away shirt and singlet as well. A Turkish army order was captured which stated that the Australians were running short of supplies, as they made one pair of trousers do for three men.

“Evidently Johnny Turk could not understand the Australian disregard for conventionality and his taking to nakedness when it meant comfort and there were no women within hundreds of miles to make him conscious of indecency. Clothes that couldn’t be washed wouldn’t keep one’s body clean and became the home of an army that had no interest in the fight for democracy. The Australian showed his practical common sense in discarding as much as possible—but, say, those boys would have caused some amusement if drawn up for review!”

Actually, I have read elsewhere about an abandoned house in France that was looted because Australian soldiers had discarded their lousy, unwashable underwear and marched away in lacy, but clean ladies’ drawers.

Here’s the link to a free copy of Knyvett’s book, “‘Over There’ with the Australians:

http://freeread.com.au/ebooks/e00114.html#chap00b

And here’s a review of of the book by blogger Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, who has read more of it than I have:

http://anzlitlovers.com/2010/08/19/over-there-with-the-australians-by-r-hugh-knyvett/

You’ll want to know that he also writes about Nipper, the shepherd’s dog who went to war. He doesn’t say what kind of dog Nipper was, so I am arbitrarily assigning him a breed. Thus, here you are, from the Sydney Morning Herald, an Australian kelpie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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