Academic’s study of Anzac diaries and letters “world-ranking research”
A book by an Avondale academic revealing the Anzac’s deep but concealed interest in spirituality is world-ranking research, says the historian who launched it.
Anzac Spirituality by Associate Professor Daniel Reynaud explores the spiritual beliefs and experiences of the Anzacs largely through their own words—Reynaud read the diaries and letters of more than 1000 soldiers of the First Australian Imperial Force. In light of Anzac becoming the spiritual core of what it means to be Australian, the book asks, “What of the spiritual core of the Anzacs themselves?”
This “capstone” of Reynaud’s research—including a doctorate in Australian war cinema, the recovery and reconstruction of Australia’s first Gallipoli movie and a biography of Anzac chaplain William “Fighting Mac” McKenzie—“supplements an expanding literature on the religion of World War I soldiers,” said Dr Geoff Treloar at the Sydney launch this past Tuesday (April 10). The book not only takes its place alongside seminal works such as Michael Snape’s God and the British Soldier, Jonathan Ebel’s Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War and Richard Schweitzer’s The Cross in the Trenches but “shows how to take the subject forward.”
Treloar compared Anzac Spirituality with “outstanding” Australian contributions to the religious history of the Great War, namely Colin Bale’s A Crowd of Witnesses: Epitaphs on First World War Australian War Graves and Michael Gladwin’s Captains of the Soul: A History of Australian Army Chaplains. “I really appreciate it for its qualities as a work of history and its value as a resource for understanding a truly important aspect of our past and its meaning for the present.”
[Anzac Spirituality is] grounded in research that is enterprising and comprehensive.Dr Geoff Treloar, Director of Learning and Teaching, Australian College of TheologyReynaud invited Treloar to launch the book in the latter’s roles as Director of Learning and Teaching at Australian College of Theology, which hosted the launch, and as Editor of Lucas, the journal of the Evangelical History Association of Australia.
Treloar read the book’s thematic chapters in sequence “and they seemed to get better as I worked my way through. I do not mean to say that the quality of the writing and analysis improved with each successive chapter; I mean only that the subject became more and more gripping.” He noted a movement in Reynaud’s structuring of the book, “from the official to the unofficial, from the compulsory to the voluntary, from the outward to the inward, from the orthodox and defined to the heterodox and inchoate.” It seems, he said, “a method for establishing the truth, for getting at the reality, of the spirituality of the men.”
And it is the men we observe, he added. “This concentration on the rank and file is unusual in the literature on the religion of Great War soldiers. It is much more common to focus on the officers and the chaplains.” Treloar felt a sense of connectedness with the soldiers, one of who is the brother of his grandfather. John Linton Treloar would become the foundation director of the Australian War Memorial. “I never met him,” he said, “but there is a certain familiarity in the words quoted extensively from his war diary. . . . I was glad of the opportunity to get to know him.”
Treloar described Anzac Spirituality as being “grounded in research that is enterprising and comprehensive” and Reynaud’s assessment of that evidence as “judicious, neither exaggerated nor triumphalist.” He commended Reynaud for not using “the historiographical obsessions of our times [gender, race and sex]” as “lenses through which to construe the data of the past in the interests of present day preoccupations.”
Reynaud’s colleague Tony Martin, Head of the Discipline of Humanities and Creative Arts at Avondale College of Higher Education, trialled a new selling technique at the Lake Macquarie launch on Thursday (April 5). He asked all attendees to hold a copy of the book and to study the cover image—a photograph of members of the 4th Brigade attending a church service in Reserve Gully on Gallipoli. The “horrendous” conditions—“the almost vertical face of crumbling dirt and rock”—in which the men existed shocked him. “And yet hundreds of soldiers sit quietly through a church service, many seemingly lost in their own thoughts.” But even with the subject matter of the photograph being filled with such pathos, “it still seemed to me to be a century-old image of long-dead soldiers involved in an almost forgotten war. That was until I started reading Daniel’s book.”
Martin then read excerpts from the diaries and letters Reynaud includes in Anzac Spirituality. Look back at the photograph on the cover, Martin said. “Is it starting to change?” “The brilliance of this book is not simply its exploration of unexpected spirituality in the AIF. For me, it lies in the intimate and often raw honesty of the soldiers’ writings. I felt a profound sense of privilege to be included in their confidence.”
Martin said he reads the cover image differently. “I no longer see an image of a bygone war. I see young Australians—brave, terrified, bewildered. I feel their fear and, unexpectedly, I hear their prayers.”
Anzac Spirituality is available from the Avondale Online Store.PURCHASE