Last Man Out
Wild Dog, 2023
80pp., pbk., RRP $A24.99
While most children in Australia and New Zealand learn much about the landing of their combined troops at ANZAC Cove on April 25, 1915 that built the legends and legacy that the bonds of the two nations are now so solidly built on, and that these days, they learn that from the get-go this was a disastrous campaign starting by the soldiers being dropped at the wrong location, not so much is known about the subsequent withdrawal in December 1915 masterminded by Australian Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Brudenell White. And that for the plan to be successful, audacious as it was, there needed to be a handful of men to remain behind to the end to provide cover for their fellow soldiers, even though to be part of that mission meant that they, themselves, would probably not leave the battleground alive.
Author Louise Park’s grandfather was one of those chosen to be part of that rear guard – an assignment hotly contested amongst those who remained because of the bonds forged during those eight torturous months – and, using his letters home as well as meticulous research, she has crafted an eye-opening story that sheds new light on what those times and that miraculous evacuation (which he survived) were really like. This is a personal account of what life was really like in the trenches, told first-hand rather than a third-party voice that can never truly capture the reality. It tells of the deprivations, the lack of sleep, food and water, the pain of the never-ending digging of trenches, the illnesses like “Gallipoli Gallop”, the strategies employed to trick the Turks, the dangers and most of all, the mateship that grew between the soldiers and the respect that they developed for the enemy, because they are just defending their families and farms from invaders, as the ANZACs would do if it were their country.
The reader is right there beside John Park, Charles Rankin, Freddy Woods, Francis Owen, and Lieutenant Riddell and all the others, including my own grandfather – ordinary men doing extraordinary things – and we learn about the true meaning of “loyalty, having each other’s backs no matter what, and valuing something greater than yourself”. The Gallipoli Campaign took an estimated 400 000 direct casualties , an impersonal statistic difficult for young (and older) minds to comprehend, and while there have been many accounts written for all ages, this one for younger, independent readers stands apart because John Park and his buddies are real people with a real story rather than an anonymous fictitious character invented to carry the narrative along. With my own dad named after Lord Kitchener, this could have been the story of my grandfather, my grandchildren’s great, great-grandfather, any of our students’ ancestors, regardless of the side they were on, and that makes it personal..
John Park was a seasoned soldier aged 36 when he was at Gallipoli and he clearly understood the importance of documenting his experiences, whereas my grandfather was a young lad of just 18 and even if he did write, the letters have long been lost. And as with so many who finally did return, (after Gallipoli, he was sent to the Western Front and gassed on the Somme), he didn’t share what he had seen and done with those who had not been there; there was no 24/7 news cycle to bring pictures into the family living room and so it is left for people like the author to tell their family’s stories so that we can better understand ours,
An essential addition to any ANZAC collection.