Roland Perry has delivered an incredibly entertaining and intriguing rendition of the life of Australian soldier Sir Stanley Savige.
The novel follows Stan through his early adulthood and voluntary enlistment into the Australian Army after the commencement of WWI as a soldier. Perry does an excellent job of highlighting the many battles and roles that Savige undertook throughout his lengthy military career and strikes a perfect balance between providing sufficient detail and anecdotes and ensuring that he maintains a quick and entertaining pace. Many historians fail to strike this balance and as a result reading about the lives of these extraordinary commanders can be difficult.
Perry does an excellent job of depicting both the struggles and triumphs that Savige had throughout the wars as well as between them. Describing both the peaks and pits of his career, Perry makes Savige a more accessible and relatable figure who could otherwise be seen as just another of the unattainably successful and great Australian Generals.
Within the novel Perry discusses the struggles that Savige faced with his faith during and after WWI and WWII after watching hundreds of Australian soldiers die and being personally responsible for hundreds of deaths. The resultant influence that his disturbance of faith had on his family upon his return to Australia, having once been an extremely religious man is also explored. This was a common occurrence with many veterans, and often influenced the way that many were able to process what is now known to be post traumatic stress disorder.
Between WWI and WWII, Savige created the organisation Legacy which was designed to bring soldiers of the Great war together and create a place for them to gather. This quickly morphed into the organisation that Legacy is now known for, which is the provision of assistance to the families of deceased military personnel. This unwavering dedication to his fellow soldiers and their families after the war is unspeakably admirable and something that every soldier should strive to emulate in any small way possible.
A common theme throughout the book was the steadfast dedication that Savige demonstrated for his men. Throughout countless battles across the globe, Savige put his soldiers first wherever possible. Savige would fight for his soldiers in orders groups and planning conferences, never shying away from combat but making sure that his men were not sent into meaningless conflict. This was further demonstrated through his dedication to remembering all of their names and talking to them by name during periods of hardship ‘He would take a personal interest in each of the diggers, recalling an incident here, a moment of battle there. “G’day, Arty… didn’t I last see you in Bardia?”’.
Savige would also ensure that he paid credit to his staff and subordinate commanders after a battle. This ageless tenant to leadership of taking responsibility for the failings of the organisation you lead and ensuring that subordinates are praised and recognised for the organisations achievements is one that all leaders should emulate. ‘He mentioned the ‘heroism’ of his charges. He also praised ‘the supporting fire given by the 42nd Militia Battalion… Savige forgot no one’. This is a facet of selfless leadership which is at times a factor of why leadership can be a lonely endeavour, however it is essential to ensure that subordinates know that their hard work is appreciated, and success is celebrated.
Perry explores the politics and ambition driving the higher-ranking Officers after WWI and the eventual influence that this had during WWII, especially the close relationship between Savige and Blamey. The divide between Officers who were Duntroon graduates with little to no frontline experience and those members from the AIF who had fought in the Great war and were members of the militia between the wars is explored within the book. Perry states that this divide did have an early impact on the war, such as Savige being excluded from orders groups. Reading this side of the history of many of the Australian Generals who have been glorified throughout the years made me contemplate what could have been possible if they had all worked together and put the mission first. Undoubtedly if these Officers had put the mission and their soldiers above their own career ambition many lives would have been saved and perhaps the end state of the Australian contribution to the war itself may have been different.
Throughout the book Perry describes the many occasions where Savige demonstrated his calm and innovative approach to problem solving. One of my favourite examples of this was while Savige was in the Persian gulf in 1918 as a part of a scouting party within the elite Dunsterforce with only five men with him at the time when a contingent of at least 2000 Persian soldiers and their families approached them on the road. This contingent was attempting to locate and drive away the Dunsterforce. Instead of creating an issue with the force, Savige ordered his men to attention and called ‘eyes right’ and saluted the party as they marched past, appealing to the Persian vanity. The commander, surrounded by his staff, was apparently stunned, bowed his head and saluted back as he rode past. This innovation and quick-thinking leadership is inspiring for any junior leader to read about.
Perry does an excellent job of finishing the book as poetically as possible after what was a sad and unfortunately common end for a soldier of the time’s life. On the morning before his death, Savige apparently surprised his nurse and daughter ‘when they found him dressed in full uniform, including all his many medals’ believing that the Japanese had landed at Darwin. This demonstrated both the never-ending torment that the years of front line military service had on Savige’s mental state as well as his unwavering dedication to the service of his nation.
My one caution, for any reader of Roland Perry’s work, is that he tends to be blind to any criticism of his subject. This aside, the book was both entertaining and informing. The writing style makes it accessible to a wide audience, not just military personnel or historians. Reading through this novel I was increasingly embarrassed that I did not know more of Sir Stanley Savige and his contribution to the landscape of Australian history. I highly recommend this book not only to junior leaders but any Australian citizen.