The best books on Australian military history

Peter Stanley Author Of Bad Characters
By Peter Stanley

The Books I Picked & Why

A Military History of Australia

By Jeffrey Grey

A Military History of Australia

Why this book?

My late colleague at UNSW Canberra, Jeff Grey, wrote this important book at the age of just 31. The product of a military family, Jeff blossomed from a specialist in Commonwealth operations in the Korean war into the author of a confident, opinionated (but impressively well researched) general history that went through three editions before Jeff’s untimely death in 2016. Jeff deserves credit for seeing that despite the resurgence in interest in Australia’s military history over the 1980s, no one had spotted the need for a comprehensive book that showed us how the bits went together. Thirty years on, no one has bettered it.


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The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War

By Bill Gammage

The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War

Why this book?

Bill Gammage was a doctoral candidate at the Australian National University in the early 1970s, when military history was so unfashionable he had to find a PhD supervisor among academics with whom he played football. He was the first to realise the value of the Australian War Memorial’s collection of soldiers’ letters and diaries, collected from the 1920s but which, astonishingly, no one had used. Bill used them to write a thesis published in 1974 as The Broken Years, which revealed that to Australians in the Great War it meant ‘nationhood, brotherhood, and sacrifice’. The Broken Years has appeared in several editions by several publishers, the most recent (lavishly produced and illustrated) in 2010, and it has stimulated approaches to the writing of Australia’s military history that remain standard today.


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Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape

By K.S. Inglis

Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape

Why this book?

Ken Inglis, an Australian who began as a scholar of religion in Victorian Britain, discovered in the 1980s that he wanted to understand the way war (which had been neglected by Australians more interested in organised labour or ‘the Bush’) had shaped the nation in the twentieth century. He found that war memorials, a pervasive feature of the Australian landscape, provided a key to that question. Based on a huge national survey and the labour of willing volunteers, in 1998 he, at last, published his magisterial Sacred Places, a study of ‘war memorials in the Australian landscape’. Rightly revered by those fortunate to have known him as a wise and humane scholar, Ken’s book – successively revised as anniversaries and war memorials proliferated – appeared in three prize-winning editions. Ken died in 2017, mourned as a key pioneer in understanding how war has permeated Australia’s modern history.


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P.O.W: Prisoners of War: Australians Under Nippon

By Hank Nelson

P.O.W: Prisoners of War: Australians Under Nippon

Why this book?

In 1942 about 22,000 Australians – an entire army division – were captured by the Japanese, mostly in Singapore. When the survivors returned from the Burma-Thailand railway and camps across south-east Asia and Japan, a third of them were dead. This ordeal, so much at variance with Australia’s tradition of victory in war, remained largely neglected. In the early 1980s academic historian Hank Nelson teamed up with Tim Bowden, a radio presenter, to interview hundreds of former PoWs of the Japanese, many speaking for the first time, and together they produced a powerful Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary series which told their stories. Hank produced the equally profound book based on the recordings, effectively kick-starting the investigation of PoW history, now an important part of Australian military history.


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All Day Long the Noise of Battle

By Gerard Windsor

All Day Long the Noise of Battle

Why this book?

The study of battles, and often individual actions by small groups of men, has been an important part of Australian military history, and the Australian military historical tradition has produced many fine practitioners of operational military history. One author who produced a fine example of the genre is Gerard Windsor, the author of fiction and memoir who, though without any previous experience of writing military history, produced All Day Long the Noise of Battle, a study of the attack made by one company of Australian infantry upon a Viet Cong bunker system in Phuoc Tuy province, South Vietnam, in 1968. Sparked by a chance encounter with a schoolmate, Windsor began investigating a hitherto unnamed battle, one of the most fierce the Australians fought in their ten-year war in Vietnam, and a superb example of how to write about men in battle. 


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