Long after the war has been won the battle, for professional historians at least, goes on.
Time passes, and the jingoism and nationalism that accompanied the troops as they first marched off, gets wrapped in the cosy embrace of nostalgia.
Myths are born and all of that, according to Adelaide historian, Professor Robin Prior, can be very difficult to defeat – an enemy that never sleeps.
“I think Gallipoli is a good one there to illustrate that,” Prior told InReview.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you say the Gallipoli operation was futile, that even if it had succeeded, nothing would have changed, it wouldn’t have shortened the war by a single day. None of that matters to the nostalgia industry, who don’t want to hear that. All they want to hear is about our bronzed Anzacs doing what they do very well.”
Now an emeritus professor of history at the University of Adelaide, Robin Prior is an authority on both the world wars, as well as British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Prior’s interstate colleagues describe him as an historian of “international significance”. South Australian journalist and writer, Andrew Faulkner, says few people are better equipped than Prior to call out the myths and misconceptions flourishing around Australia’s wartime exploits.
“He’s a great historian,” Faulkner said. “He’s done [the battles of] Passchendaele, he’s done the Somme, he’s done Gallipoli. His books on those subjects are the go-to books, not just for us, but around the world I think… and I don’t think we realise in South Australia what we’ve got with him.”
Andrew Faulkner has some painful firsthand knowledge of that last point. Prior’s modest public profile tripped him up when they first met. Faulkner had just finished his first book, a biography of Victoria Cross winner, Arthur Blackburn, when he faced the horrors of Writers’ Week.
“The organisers invited me to speak about the Blackburn book, and I’m not a very good public speaker – I’m terrified of it,” Faulkner recalled, shaking his head.
“We took questions from the floor, and I was obviously nervous. This mature gentleman got up, and asked a very intelligent question that had in it a compliment for the book, and I said, ‘thank you very much for that, who are you?’ And he replied, ‘I’m Robin Prior’.
“I like to think that he saw me in my peril and helped me, and, you know, the tiniest bit of praise from Caesar was most welcome!”
Prior himself is an interesting combination of the things usually expected from an historian – comfortable jumpers and corduroy pants – as well as a serve of the unexpected.
His home in the Adelaide Hills, which he shares with wife Heather and a pair of brown Burmese cats, (one of which, I can attest, bites) is lined from floor to ceiling with books. On Prior’s broad wooden desk, more books teeter in increasingly precarious piles. There are various journals, papers and magazines, though they couldn’t be described as being arranged in anything as organised as a pile. It’s all pretty standard fare. In the driveway, however, there’s a flaming red contradiction to all those usual trappings of academia – a current model Mustang coupe. Then again, the Ford does feature a small nod to the responsibilities of grandparenthood – a booster seat in the back for the Priors’ youngest grandchild.
“They laughed at me when I asked them to put that in,” Prior conceded.
“Perhaps it’s a bad influence from the ’50s and ’60s, but I was always very interested in American rock, and I’d always wanted a Mustang. We drove a classic one once… what a bucket of bolts it was! That’s the problem with nostalgia right there, oh my God. It had a tape player… it had no air-conditioning! So when these new ones came along, I thought, ‘right, this is it, I’ll have one.”
Heather Prior, who lectured in economics at the Australian National University, merely raises an eyebrow at her husband’s indulgence.
“I do like the colour, and it’s fast,” she said of the Mustang. “But it’s a bugger of a thing to park!”
Robin Prior’s road into a career as a professional historian and academic didn’t follow convention, either. There was no straight sweep from a stellar performance at school to uni. He jokes that he couldn’t have gone anywhere on his results, least of all university, and history played no role at all in his high school education.
“I went to Kapunda High School, and in those days they didn’t teach history of any sort,” Prior said.
He grew up in Marrabel in the state’s lower mid-north. Even in the 1950s, the town was famed for rodeos and not a great deal else. Once he’d finished school, Prior took correspondence courses including, finally, some history. He worked in the town’s general store. The name displayed proudly out the front was E.A. Prior – Robin’s grandmother. Like all country stores of the time, it smelt of a comfortable mix of worn lino, washing powder, and coconut spuds – a sweet treat of coconut and cocoa fashioned, for some reason, to resemble a dirty potato. There was one commodity, not obvious on the shelves, that was precious above all the others to the budding academic – plenty of free time.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but when I was working in the shop in Marrabel there were periods where we didn’t have many customers,” Prior said, wryly.
“In those periods, I’d read. I read a lot, and one of those books was Churchill’s – The World Crisis.”
The book, and its author, made a lasting impression.
In 1971, when the boy who studied history by correspondence was invited to do his honours thesis at the University of Adelaide, he chose that very book – Churchill’s chronicle of the First World War – as the topic.
“My PhD was the longest book review in history,” Prior said. “I was examining his [Churchill’s] history of the First World War, so I was looking at the book as history, to see how accurately he’d portrayed the events that had taken place.”
That Churchill, the politician, was a master of bons mots and bravado wasn’t ever up for debate. But as an historian, did the great man possess the crucial skill politicians so often lack – namely, accuracy?
“Well, he was when he wanted to be,” Prior said with a smile.
“It tended to be the case that the further he was from the event that he was describing, the better historian he was. So in relation to Gallipoli, not so good. In relation to things like the battle of Jutland, the last offensive on the western front in 1918, he wasn’t bad, actually.”
Prior’s PhD may well be the longest book review ever, but it’s a mere shopping list compared to his latest book, Conquer We Must. Now at 300,000 words and counting, the Adelaide historian has set himself the task of discovering what influence British politicians had in both world wars in determining how those wars were fought. In other words, pun intended: who called the shots? The generals and majors, or the politicians?
As he’s been writing the book, Prior has found new insights into Churchill’s relationship with Australia’s World War Two Prime Minister, and Labor hero, John Curtin. It’s well known the men sometimes clashed, particularly after Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942. But the Keating-esque notion that, save for Curtin, a Europe- and Empire-obsessed Churchill would have sacrificed Australia is, politely, inaccurate.
Not only were the two leaders fighting the same war, but they were also fighting for the same sort of world. Robin Prior has found an intriguing piece of evidence for that in a letter discussing who might become Australia’s Governor-General after the war.
Prior says Churchill wrote to Curtin to offer General Wavell, who was both competent and distinguished. Curtin wrote back, flatly turned the military man down for reasons that would make a republican blanche. Curtin wanted a Royal, and not just any old minor Royal relative, but King George VI’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester.
“We got him [the Duke] at Curtin’s insistence,” Prior said. “He wrote to Churchill and said: ‘Getting the King’s own brother here would show the doubters that Australia is a loyal empire country.’
“This is the great Labor hero. I’m not saying that as a criticism of Curtin, he’s a considerable figure… and I quite like Paul Keating. I like his one-liners. But there’s a hagiography about Labor leadership. Curtin was a man of his time, he’s a man of the Empire… Curtin and Churchill have a rocky relationship, but it’s a rocky relationship within a family, that family being the British Empire”.
Andrew Faulkner argues Prior’s willingness to put cherished myths and misconceptions to the sword, no matter who holds them, is a cornerstone of his writing.
“In terms of war history there are so many myths, and they need to be called out,” Faulkner said. “These things that fit into convenient boxes that fuel our jingoism and now almost our isolationism and our nationalism, we need people like Robin to call this stuff out, and thank God we have them.”
Recently, though, the task has been hampered by COVID and budget cuts. The coronavirus crisis has limited Prior’s access to overseas archives, in particular, as London has locked down. The budget cuts have come closer to home.
The historian has been able to access Churchill’s correspondence thanks to the work of an obscure American college, based in Michigan, which has published all of Churchill’s documents in a series of volumes: 22 in total, each running to 1500 closely typed pages.
What Robin Prior has been struggling to get hold of since March this year is Curtin’s side of the documents. The history professor lays the blame for that squarely on years of cuts to the National Archives.
“They must be here [in Australia], but where they are is in some doubt. The National Archives have a catalogue of the Curtin papers. I can’t find them in that. Neither can their representative in Adelaide find them.
“This isn’t the archives’ fault, this is something that has been done to them. There are documents in Canberra that I think are moulding, literally, away in the archives because there is no money to restore them to a decent state.”
The parlous state of the National Archives of Australia (NAA) was identified in 2020 by the Tune report – an independent inquiry into the agency commissioned by the Federal Government.
Tune made 20 recommendations, finding that around $170 million needed to be spent over seven years to fix the “substantial” problems facing the archives. Some of that money, in fact, is to bring current poor government record-keeping practices up to scratch.
In early July, after months of negative publicity, the Morrison Government gave the archives $67.7 million for the critical conservation work identified.
Coincidentally, Prior got a response to his March inquiry on the morning that money was announced.
“Much of what they’ve told me, catalogue numbers, and so on, I already knew,” Prior said. “It doesn’t tell me in terms of this crucial correspondence between Churchill and Curtin what is actually there, and where it actually is… for example, they’ve pointed me to a Labor party meeting at Wagga Wagga in the early ’40s. I don’t think the Churchill correspondence will be there. Again, I don’t blame the archives – they just haven’t got the resources.”
The Federal Government has told InReview the Curtin/Churchill correspondence isn’t held by the NAA in one single collection.
“If Professor Prior wishes to locate all of the correspondence between Curtin and Churchill, he will need to engage a research agent or conduct his own research, using the records held by the National Archives and possibly those of other institutions,” the government said.
The NAA funding controversy is playing out not far from another organisation in Canberra, also tasked with the preservation and interpretation of Australia’s wartime history – The Australian War Memorial.
Prior, and another prominent war historian, the UNSW Canberra’s Peter Stanley, have lashed an Abbott government decision which gave the memorial half a billion dollars to knock down and rebuild a 1990s structure, while the archives “limp along with a begging bowl”.
Then again, unarguably, a swish new building makes for a much better photo opportunity than a digitised record and a musty old archivist.
“What prime minister or politician doesn’t want their photo taken at the war memorial?” Prior asked.
“You know there is, in fact, no historian on the war memorial board at the moment, as we speak – not one.
“I cannot think of one institution, like the war memorial, around the world that doesn’t have an historian on the board. The Imperial War Museum in London is the best example, and that has a bunch of historians on the board.”
Nostalgia versus history, the comforting versus the challenging, myth versus fact.
For all their virtues, historians, in general, are not always good at making the case for their own worth.
Fortunately, in the Prior household, there’s someone much better equipped for the job – an economist.
“You’re asking an economist?” Heather Prior whooped with delight, when asked to describe the value of her husband’s work.
“Well, I now know what a creeping barrage is,” she quipped, “there’s a value in that.”
And then she settled into the substance of her argument.
“It seems to me to be a very basic thing to want to know where we are from, to know what your ancestors have done, how they’ve contributed to what you’ve inherited.
“I also think people should know about current politics and economics, as well as history. It’s all part of not being an ignoramus, you see.”
As Heather Prior let out another laugh, it was her husband’s turn to gently raise an eyebrow.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.