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Book Review – ‘Soldiers and Gentlemen: Australian Battalion Commanders in the Great War, 1914-1918’ by William Westerman (reviewed by Chris Appleton)

This superbly researched book fills an important gap in the history of Australia in the Great War: between the Anzac Legend with the digger as its central character on one hand, and the ‘Great Captains’ on the other. ‘Soldiers and Gentlemen’ tells the story of the 183 little-known men who commanded the 60 infantry battalions of the wartime Australian Imperial Force. Infantrymen past and present would agree with CEW Bean’s assessment of the significance of these men: “Of all the men who can make or mar an Australian force, the unit commander is the most important.”

Westerman’s sober analysis traces their evolution from the gallant amateurs of April 1915 (average age 48, most veterans of the South African War) to the battle-hardened professionals of August 1918 (average age 32, four of whom had been soldiers in 1914). In an almost Darwinian exercise, the competent who survive, rise to command; those who fail or don’t cope are ruthlessly sent away to less demanding roles or returned to Australia. Westerman stresses that their remarkable success—particularly in 1918, was not predetermined by nationality. Broader British developments in doctrine, organisation, training, and equipment eventually gave them the tools needed to successfully fight a modern war.

‘Soldiers and Gentlemen’ is a balanced account of both success and failure in command, founded on a thoughtful analysis of the nature of leadership and the extraordinary tactical and administrative demands placed upon the battalion commander. Westerman’s analysis of the relationship between leadership, discipline and morale is compelling, illustrated by examples where discipline and morale, both in and out of action, were shaped by the leadership of the battalion commander. He does not shrink from analysis of the indiscipline which saw Australian soldiers imprisoned at nine times the rate of British soldiers and the mutiny in eight battalions in September 1918.

What distinguished the most successful battalion commanders? Westerman concludes they were those who remained in command for longer and were competent, selfless leaders, who cared for the men entrusted to their command. This is the leadership that did what was required of it—it kept the battalion’s fighting. It also produced a cohort of men who would draw on this experience to great effect as senior leaders in the Second World War.

This book is a valuable addition to the historiography of the Australian experience of war. The timelessness of Westerman’s insights also place it as a valuable resource to students of leadership.

Copies of ‘Soldiers and Gentlemen’ are available from the Defence Library Service

 


About the Reviewer:

Chris Appleton is a former infantryman, senior executive in the Australian Public Service and Statutory Officer. He commanded an infantry battalion in the twilight of the Long Peace.

One thought on “Book Review – ‘Soldiers and Gentlemen: Australian Battalion Commanders in the Great War, 1914-1918’ by William Westerman (reviewed by Chris Appleton)

  1. I was pleased to see the point about Australian xsuccess bdeing due to the application of British doctri e. In fact,, I found it refreshing.
    A lot of the lore of the First AIF attributed its success to a unique mythical quality of Australianess, when in fact it was sheer hard work in planning, logistics, staff work and leadership at all levels.
    British doctrine, which the likes of Monash and Currie were masters in application, began to develop exponentially from within two weeks of the opening of the Somme Offensive, culminating in Plan 1919. This achieved a level that was not reached again in August 1942.

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