Lest we forget: Only 50 miles separated victory and defeat

Man in the mud is a Diorama by Peter Corlett which forms part of the collection of the Australian War Memorial (AWM). It depicts an Australian soldier of World War I sitting on a muddy battlefield

As indicated by the subheading, Australia and the End of the Great WarThe Last Fifty Miles, by Adam Wakeling deals with Australia’s efforts in the dying days of WWI and the political events, both at home and of the other participating nations, that led to the war’s end and the repercussions at home.

There’s one thing you cannot deny, and that is that Wakeling has researched his subject, a lot. In fact, it’s fairly obvious it’s a passion of his from the outset. As with other non-fiction books I’ve digested in recent times, the number of pages at the rear (34) with source material, bibliographies and such is indicative as to how much time has been allocated well before the book was complete.

It’s an informative work and tends not to take any particular side but merely voice the opinions of many of the participants. It helps greatly if you understand army formations while you’re reading this.

Roughly speaking an infantry battalion consisted of about 1,000 men and 36 officers. The men would be arranged into four companies of about 240 each, usually referred to as A, B, C and D. Each company would be commanded by a major or more usually later on in the war, by a captain or a more junior officer according to circumstances.

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Each company would be further divided into four platoons of 60 men each, each commanded by a lieutenant or second lieutenant. The platoon would be further divided into four sections, each with a corporal in charge. Due to the high numbers of casualties, the numbers fluctuate enormously so they’re only a guideline.

It deals not only with the Western Front but with what was going on in the Middle East, Bulgaria, Ottoman Empire, and other places. Wakeling’s straightforward approach makes it relatively easy to read but the detailed battles described could have been perhaps backed up with better maps than those included; I thought they lacked a little detail if, as I was, you were coming from a point of very little knowledge of the specifics.

The ignorance of so many of the high level commanders in the early part of the war is something I was already aware of, having toured the battlefields where one of my grandfathers died and having had an excellent guide.

The appalling mud is described here but I thought Wakeling might have put a little more emotion into things such as that rather than simply describe in accurate detail the ebb and flow of the various encounters. Having seen first-hand the polders I know how much it shocked me personally when I viewed it and imagined commanders actually sending people on foot across it. Every time I recall it my head shakes in disbelief even today.

I acknowledge that these actions were at the very end of the war and quite a few of the areas weren’t as affected as others but I would have preferred a few more descriptive pieces. One thing the book does well is to describe in detail just how Germany was collapsing from within and how the bull-headed Kaiser was basically told he was relinquishing power whether he liked it or not. I hadn’t realised just how rotten the core had become and how that, as much as anything, facilitated the peace.

The Last Fifty Miles is a good read and is illuminating in many areas, not the least of which the interaction between the various countries’ troops. If war history is your genre, put it on your shelf.

The Last Fifty Miles: Australia and the End of the Great War, by Adam Wakeling is available in paperback and digital formats from the publisher Penguin Books Australia. Click here for details