Books are the rather torrid, but harmless, affair, you have while your spouse is asleep beside you.
I have recently fallen hopelessly in love with Count Rostov from A Gentleman in Moscow,#1 only to then lose my heart afresh on rekindling my romance with Julian Barnes, and then I briefly ran off with a creation of Sebastian Faulkes’ imagination. But then I met Colonel Ernest Latchford MC, MBE, who, unlike his competition, is a real-life, slouch-hatful of Antipodean derring-do.
In 1976, the author, Mark Latchford’s grandmother Lin died in Melbourne. In cleaning out her home he found trunks full of every letter that his grandfather had written to her, his fiancé, every Sunday night from the moment he sailed out of Port Phillip Bay en route to World War I and beyond. In fact he gave his first letter to her to the pilot boat captain to post after steering their troopship safely out of the Bay.
Fascinatingly, before Ern became a soldier, he worked at the legendary Coles Book Arcade in Melbourne (my historical fantasy dream job). Put aside learning about World War I, which is fascinating from a primary source point of view. What the author does is quite magical: through his astonishingly detailed research (his true university vocation is historian), he places Ern as a witness to history at Australia’s most compelling time.
Who knew that there was great agitation and much discussion that the Riverina become a separate colony prior to Federation? Ern watches the extraordinary arrival of the United States’ Great White Fleet into Melbourne in 1908. It makes him apply to join the Navy, which luckily does not come off. And in 1911 the Deakin Government passes the Defence Act for Home Defence, requiring compulsory military training for all boys aged 12 to 26. Ern volunteers to join this Civilian Military Force and it sets him on a path that takes him around the world.
Such is his talent as a practical teacher and trainer in this militia he is not allowed to head off to World War I in 1914. He finally arrives on the Western Front in 1916 and manages to live through the Battles of Messines and Passchendaele as his beloved comrades from rural Victoria are blown to bits, wounded and drown in mud right beside him. And he just happens to win the Military Cross for sustained bravery.
And yet amidst all the blood, gunfire, death, misery and mud, Ern writes to Lin, who is living at the family farm in Ballan, every week, numbering the letters. Signing them “I must try and repay you all later on by being the best husband possible when we form our partnership”.
If you had a relative who went to World War I and they either died before you could talk to them about it or they would never speak of the horrors, Ern’s letters throw this window open and tell you everything you need to know about what it was like. He is a primary source like no other. Goodness knows what poor Lin must have thought receiving some of these descriptions in her rural idyll in Ballan.
And yet he takes the time to wonder in awe at the new aeroplanes and the mutual respect between these extraordinary airmen on both sides, and the beauty of the ravaged French and Belgian countryside, and the bravery of the nurses. He has a lovely evocative turn of phrase – when during the snows of 1917 they are trying to crack up a frozen jelly for dinner with an entrenching tool, the heartbreak when 30 members of a raiding party from his battalion are killed by friendly artillery fire, when he opens his next letter to Lin with “a short note from the land of mud and ruins”.
And his turn of phrase never fails him, “Fritz has a weapon called a ‘Minnenwerfer’ which throws a big long black cylinder of distilled frightfulness and bang”. He expresses his dismay at the Australian defeat of conscription as someone stuck in the trenches might well feel. A land where young soldiers are courtmartialled for getting trench foot, to make sure they try to look after their feet in 24-hour mud. And then revealing that the bombs were more dangerous falling into the trenches during the misery of winter on the Western Front, when the mud and water were frozen, because they threw up deadly ice spears rather than just mud.
And his evocative description of leaving London on the train to return to the front with a number of Russian officers from the Tsarist army, who he describes as “very aristocratic, handsome and highly educated, farewelled by a bevy of the most beautiful women I have ever seen”.
“INTO PERSIA … SIBERIA … FINALLY HOME”
And then in 1918, just when the “show” is nearly over and thoughts turn for home, Ern is selected by General Monash to be part of a force led by General Dunsterville into Persia. Dunsterville was the model for his friend Rudyard Kipling’s hero “Stalky”. This is known as “Dunsterforce” a hush-hush team that heads off across the Middle East through Baghdad, up into Mesopotamia, to harness and train Armenian refugees to fight against the Turks, to protect the oil resources of the region for the Allies, and to stop the Berlin to Baghdad railway. To take this trip through the eyes of a Federation-era Australian from rural Victoria is marvellous.
While it sounds very heroic to be heading back into a new conflict, Ern volunteers for the taskforce because he is frightened about his employment chances back in Australia amid the half million returning veterans. He is anxious to remain in the Army on his return but worries, in spite of his Military Cross, that he will not be lucky enough to be chosen, as they will ultimately shed post-war positions. Consequently, he tries to explain to Lin that he is heading on to Persia for the benefit of both of them and their future life together.
But wait, there’s more! Once this Persian gig peters out as the war finally winds up, Ern is the only Australian selected to go to Siberia with the Allied forces to help train and fight with the Allies and the White Russians in the Russian Civil War which still rages after the Revolution. Still worried about employment chances on return to Australia, Ern accepts the next challenge. And off we go through Manchuria and onto the Trans Siberian train to be stationed in Irkutsk. Ern and his fellow English officers spend some of the journey sitting on top of the train as the vast areas of Siberia spread out before them. To use a modern analogy, it is like sticking your go-pro on top of the train and watching through Ern’s eyes.
The Bolsheviks never fail to disappoint, with wild skirmishes to derail the train, and delay vital supplies (and Lin’s six-month-old letters), and killing White Russian officers by burying them alive. The brilliant and terrifying 100,000 Czech Prisoners of War held by the Russians have been liberated and are making their way home to liberate Czechoslovakia. Ern encounters them heading home the long way, heading East to go across Canada to join the Allies on the Western front.
Even if World War I isn’t your thing, I guarantee you will learn something about your country and modern history and why Europe looks the way it does today, and how some poor, selfish, colonial decisions created the festering insoluble sores of the 21st century. And best of all, it will inspire similar good work, showing the way for others to savour treasured family documents and flesh them out with good contemporary research and add to this country’s rich and wonderful history so we can all revel in it, as I did in this great book.
Ern finally got to come home to (spoiler alert!) marry Lin and have a stellar career in the Australian Army, as did the author’s father Major General Kevin Latchford. And even after retiring at 60 from the Army Ern worried about supporting Lin on his meagre military pension. So he sets off for a new adventure securing a new position as an Associate/tip staff in the Victorian Supreme Court for the next 10 years where he is greatly beloved and indispensable. I predict grandson Mark will have just as stellar a career as an historian.
Reviewed by Jennifer Giles, Magistrate of the New South Wales Local Court. Jennifer worked for many years as a criminal lawyer and as a solicitor at the Women’s Legal Centre (a community legal centre) and was appointed as a NSW Magistrate in 1997. She currently presides at the Downing Centre in Sydney.
#1 Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, 2016).
This review was first published in Thomson Reuters’ quarterly Workplace Review 2021
Contact MHHV Friend about this article.