Bought a book; see if you can guess which one ... that's right, Raymond Chandler's The High Window. Oh yeah, and Les Carlyon's The Great War.
In The Civil War we are read a letter from Sullivan Balloo to his wife Sarah: "Love you, miss you, hope to do my best, etc." It's a poignant moment, rendered all the more so when we hear those fateful words "Sullivan Balloo was killed at Bull Run."
The Great War is like that - relentlessly so. Carlyon's fat tome contains around 800 pages filled with accounts of Australian soldiers followed by - and each time you just know it's coming - their death. Margetts was killed at Pozieres; Philip Schuler died from his wounds after Messines; Harry Fletcher and Austin Mahony were friends at university, they both died at Montbrehain.
It's tough going. You find yourself wishing for 1918 and the successes at Amiens. Perhaps there the grizzly parade of casualties will ease up. No such luck. Even when the going is "good" a good many of the stories are the stories of the soon-to-be-dead.
Still, Carlyon is an economical writer, so it's not hard to plough through the book. There is no leaden prose, no paragraphs you need a compass to get out of, and although there's plenty of detail, it doesn't bog you down. Not being the most fluent reader in the world, I was thankful for that. Gallipoli was in much the same vein although The Great War spends less time on the Aussie spirit. Once the introductions are done with: "They seemed alive to the hopes of the New World and careless when it came to the protocols of the old. They didn't expect too much from life; that was the way of people then. They wore shoulder patches that said 'Australia', and even these really weren't necessary. Their look, those languid poses, gave them away. They didn't call themselves diggers: that came later." it's all business, and the business is not pleasant.
It's a relief, indeed, when chapters 16 and 17 are about politics, Billy Hughes, Keith Murdoch and conscripition. Even if it's merely a short break from the trenches.
Years ago at school, daydreaming in another tedious assembly, I'd occasionally read the honour boards on the wall. Philip Schuler's name is on one of those boards and the older I've become, the more I've read books like The Great War, the more I've thought about the likes of Schuler. They are sad and not particularly pleasant thoughts. Why? Well, for one: wrong place, wrong time - it could have been me. And two: if it was me, would I have been up to it? They are unsettling thoughts.