The Soul of ANZAC
General Sir William Birdwood and the AIF, 1914-18
By John Dermot Millar
Published by Australian Scholarly
RRP $44.00 in paperback; 203pp
There is no doubt we rely on small publishers to give us rare histories of almost forgotten figures from the past.
On this occasion, Australian Scholarly Publishing has given us John Dermot Millar’s biography of General Sir William Birdwood, the first commander of Australian troops during the Great War.
As Millar writes in his introduction, this book first saw the light of day as a doctoral dissertation at the Australian Defence Force Academy, UNSW Canberra. He writes that he examined Birdwood’s abilities and shortcomings as a high-ranking commander during the First World War, an area of research he described as ‘comparatively barren’ when he embarked upon it.
The name Birdwood will, I am sure, be known to anyone who has read books about Australia’s involvement in Gallipoli or the Western Front.
Birdwood was loved and respected by those who served under him, although not regarded as a military genius, his legacy framed against the backdrop of the far better remembered General John Monash, who succeeded him as the first Australian corps commander, when Birdwood was promoted.
Yet even when Monash took over from him, Birdwood retained the administrative command of the AIF, a move popular with the officers but not with the agitating Keith Murdoch.
After the war, Monash maintained a respect for Birdwood’s leadership, praising him for his ability to deal with those who served under him.
In this biography, Millar deals only with the period of the First World War in detail. Birdwood’s happiest time, Millar writes, was to come late in his career when he was unexpectedly appointed Master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, which gave rise to the title of his autobiography Khaki and Gown, published in 1941, copies of which are available on the internet.