Book Review – Peter Stanley, Bad Characters (ReadHowYouWant edn, 2010)

In this book, Peter Stanley outlines the military ‘crime’ that members of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) committed as part of their war service in the Middle East, Britain and Flanders during the Great War.

He wrote it because ‘hundreds of books have been written about the ‘good’ – the most distinguished battalions, the best commanders, the most outstanding men…this is the diet that has nourished the Anzac legend; but it has led to a seriously skewed understanding of Australia’s military history. Hardly anything has been published about the AIF’s dark side – how the war made men into criminals; how men let themselves and their mates down by going absent and wounding themselves.’[1]

As a consequence, the book covers a vast array of acts that were then considered of a criminal nature and convening military regulations such as suicide, homosexuality, contracting venereal disease, mutiny, desertion and disobeying orders.

It is arranged into sixty short chapters, and tells the AIF’s story chronologically.

It catalogues significant ill-discipline in the Force. For example, members of the AIF were involved in the so-called Battle of Wassa on 2 April 1915. In this incident, around 2,500 Australian and New Zealand troops rioted Derb el Wasa area of Cairo, an infamous red light area of the city, rioted, burnt, destroyed and looted properties.[2]

When the AIF arrived in France, the poor discipline they had shown in Egypt continued. The average desertion rate for the AIF in the first half of 1917 was 34.2 per month; the average for the other 57 divisions in France was 8.87.[3] During the war, 7.86 per Australian soldiers were in prison per thousand troops; this compared to .97 soldiers per thousand for British formations.[4]

In 1918, the AIF experienced significant disorder in a sixth of all its 60 infantry battalions.[5] D Company of the 1st Australian Battalion left the battlefield in a ‘combat refusal’ and a number of other units experienced ‘mutinies’ in September 1918 when men in units scheduled for disbandment protested. [6]

The question this evidence asks is why were the men in the AIF so unruly compared to British, New Zealand or Canadian counterparts? Stanley does provide some answers. Many AIF volunteers saw themselves civilians in uniform rather than soldiers and saw their role of combatants as a civilian occupation or job in which they had rights, a ‘contract’ and limits on what their employer could demand of them. Stanley suggested that up to 40% of the AIF soldiers were trade unionists and had no trouble in asserting their rights through industrial or political action.[7] The other reason cited by British commanders, especially Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig, was that the Australian government refused to allow the death penalty to be used to punish AIF men sentenced to death. Haig believed that ‘in the absence of the death penalty, we have really no hold over these men’.[8]

This study is fascinating but I felt that it could have gone further. In particular, it would have been interesting to consider some greater comparative analysis with other units on the Western Front. For example, delve in greater depth the reasons for the difference British and Australian rates of ‘crime’, an analysis of why Australian units seem to ‘buckle’ in the last few months of the war and British and Canadian units did not. However, my preferences aside, this study is excellent and a necessary corrective to the Anzac myth. It is also a great and entertaining read.

[1] Peter Stanley, Bad Characters (ReadHowYouWant edn, 2010), p.v.

[2] Ibid., pp.36-37.

[3] Ibid., pp.266-267.

[4] Ibid., p.321.

[5] Ibid., p.325.

[6] Ibid., pp.325-326, 329.

[7] Ibid., pp.38-39, 40-41.

[8] Ibid., p.266.