LIFE SO FULL OF PROMISE further biographies of Australia’s lost generation

By Ross McMullin

Scribe 2023

ISBN (13):9781922585820

RRP: $49.99 (pb)

Reviewed by Lucas Jordan


Life So Full of Promise: further biographies of Australia’s lost generation, is Ross McMullin’s second multi-biography featuring young Australians of remarkable talent who were killed in the First World War. Farewell Dear People, (2012), his first book on the “lost generation”, presented ten characters, including a footballer, a politician, a medical scientist and an Antarctic explorer, all of whom were killed in the fighting on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915.

The scope of Life So Full of Promise differs from its precursor in that McMullin narrows the focus to three young Australians, Brian Pockley, Norman Callaway and Murdoch Mackay. Their lives of enormous potential were dashed in the jungle of German New Guinea in 1914 and the maelstrom of Bullecourt and Pozieres on the Western Front respectively. What makes this book truly remarkable as a multi-biography is that McMullin goes beyond retelling the three young men’s lives. He interweaves stories about their families, peers and communities, and the legacy of grief and loss felt in Australia during and after the First World War. Life So FuIl of Promise also features some swashbuckling writing about cricket and how the great game was played in town and city in early twentieth century Australia – a lot of cricket.

The first biography centres on Brian Pockley – a young man born into privilege on Sydney’s North Shore, and educated at Shore Grammar School, where he excelled in English, French, Latin, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, physics and sport. McMullin quotes Brian Pockley’s school master who regarded his young charge in terms that would become an epitaph:

[He was] as near to my ideal schoolboy as any boy in my experience. In work and games alike he displayed a splendid keenness and an admirable temper, and won high honours for the school and for himself, and the unconscious influence which he exercised was in the direction of an upright manliness. As a prefect he helped me more than he was aware of by loyalty, by respect to duty, and by charm of manner.

Brian Pockley’s university career was equally distinguished. He achieved a degree in medicine in March 1914. But the outbreak of the First World War led him to Victoria Barracks rather than Sydney Hospital. McMullin describes how Pockley’s eagerness to enlist “stemmed from his background and temperament”.

Brian was imbued with his family’s instinctive loyalty and sense of attachment to England. He also shared another sentiment that was widespread among Australians of his era: a hankering for their newly federated nation to make its mark internationally.

In November 1914, Captain Brian Pockley sailed as a medical officer with the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) and was killed a few weeks later at an obscure place named Bitapaka, in German New Guinea. His death came seven months before the First Australian Imperial Force made history when it landed on the shores of Gallipoli.

McMullin makes an important contribution to our knowledge of this little-known campaign. Pockley’s sudden death in one of the backwaters of the war was widely mourned by a public hungry for war heroes. Accounts of his fate became apocryphal:

He had taken off his Red Cross brassard, an armband that medical personnel wore to signify their non-combatant status, and had given it to someone taking a casualty back in order to protect them. The recipient had objected but the doctor had insisted.

What is so affecting about this book is the way in which McMullin painstakingly details the promise of each young man and the scale and commitment of kin, peers and institutions that nurtured their talent, only to see it all eviscerated by war.

Part two of Life So Full of Promise reminds readers of a young Australian who went to the war when on the verge of becoming a household name. Norman Callaway is a character McMullin clearly enjoyed writing about. The front cover of the book features a portrait of the boyish Callaway wearing the pea-green serge uniform and service dress cap of the “other ranks”. Norman Callaway is a relatable character because he epitomises the young, egalitarian digger of the legend.  McMullin is quick to point out that Callaway is distinguishable because he was blessed with precocious cricketing talent. Callaway’s brief life lights up and often lightens McMullin’s writing, giving him license to write about his enduring passion for cricket.

Born in Hay, in the Western Riverina of New South Wales, Norman Callaway first came to the notice of the Australian public when he debuted, at only eighteen years-old for New South Wales versus Queensland in February 1915. McMullin recounts the match with style and tenacious detail. Callaway came to the crease with the New South Welshman in trouble at 3/17.

The upshot was a brilliant flurry that lived long in the memory of those fortunate enough to see it. Callaway proceeded to unleash a barrage of dashing strokes. His driving was captivating – on-drives, off-drives and through or over cover. If the bowlers dropped short in response, he rocked back and square cut past point. He was in a trance-like state, seeing the bowlers’ offerings so early and clearly – and responding so quickly – that it looked as if he knew where they were going even before they were delivered.

Callaway was out last, for 207. His remarkably brilliant innings on debut dominated the headlines. The Sydney Morning Herald proclaimed it a “WORLD’S RECORD”. His future as an Australian cricketer seemed assured. But the war interrupted all that. McMullin examines the social pressure to enlist and the contrary feelings and concerns of Callaway’s family. Norman’s father, Tom, a staunch working-class Labor man hoped his son would dedicate his life to cricket rather than Empire, but “the pressure on fit young sportsmen to enlist was relentless”. Norman signed up in May 1916, soon after the end of the cricket season – against his father’s wishes but with his consent.

The infantryman or “footsloggers’” war was mostly drudgery, hunger and boredom but it could be thrilling as well. In the spring of 1917 Callaway took part in fighting patrols that pursued the Germans through fields of wheat and corn, practically untouched by the war. The diggers had a knack for this type of warfare, requiring initiative and resourcefulness. What the higher command at first failed to understand was that the German army was not routed.  Indeed, they chose just where and when to fight on the fortified ridges running from Flanders to the Somme, known as the Hindenburg Line. The old war of attrition resumed. The AIFs casualties in 1917 were the worst it sustained in the war and were matched by rates of illness and disease. Callaway was killed by a shell-burst east of Bullecourt. Private Alex Matthews, a 37-year-old labourer of Surry Hills and the only witness to Calloway’s death, lacked the words to hide its ugliness:

the whole top of his head was blown off. He fell across me. I was so shocked at the time that I never thought of taking his disc or pay book or any proof of identity.  

McMullin reminds us that it had seemed Callaway’s name was destined to grace the sporting pages of the papers for years to come. Instead, his name is recorded on the Australian National Memorial to the missing at Villers Bretonneux.

A century ago, the word Bullecourt was well known in Australia. It became an allegory for futility and a primer for Australians who yearned to see Australian men led by Australian generals. Today, our national story accepts a simplified version of glorious defeat at Gallipoli, but is mute on the wastage to a young democracy brought about by poor leadership at places like First and Second Bullecourt, in 1917. McMullin’s account goes some way to redress this imbalance in our national memory.

The short and brilliant life of Murdoch “Doch” Mackay takes up roughly half the contents of the book. Probably because Doch’s academic successes, budding career as a barrister, his eloquent love letters to his darling Margot and, not least of all, his brilliant batting in the Victorian Central Goldfields league left much for McMullin to bore into in the archives.

Doch Mackay was among the 23,000 Australians killed or wounded in six weeks of fighting near the small village of Pozieres on the Somme in July and August 1916. The intensity of the fighting, and the overwhelming, spirit-crushing experience of shellfire in an industrial scale war came as a great moral shock to the diggers. The loss of so many, so swiftly, was felt throughout Australia. The outcome of the Battle of the Somme was so inconclusive it was difficult to discern victory from defeat. Meanwhile the war “kept careering on as an apocalyptic pulveriser with no end in sight”.

In telling Doch and his family’s story, McMullin makes an important contribution to our understanding of the social and political consequences of these experiences. The first of the two conscription plebiscites was held only a few months after the appalling losses at Pozieres. Ultimately, volunteerism prevailed by a slender margin but the conscription debates foregrounded more than two decades of division and dispute in Australian society. Australians were united in their patriotism and grief but divided on the old battle lines of religion, conscription, industrial labour, politics and the meaning of loyalty. Doch’s mother, Mary, was pro-conscription and pro-Empire. She threw herself into this toxic public debate, in the midst of her grief.

McMullin’s range of sources is impressive. In the acknowledgements, he names many descendants of the characters in the book who contributed letters, photographs, artefacts and stories. Two picture sections featuring 69 images illuminate the life and times of the characters. At 626 pages including notes and sources, Life So Full of Promise is a test match rather than a quick slog. Those who are willing to stay at the crease and watch the ball out of McMullin’s hand are likely to be richly rewarded with a deep reading experience.

McMullin should be congratulated for having the courage to write such a densely packed narrative with the prose to match its noble themes. If one were merely to glance at this book on the shelf, they might easily misinterpret it to be simply a collection of biographies of Australian soldiers. It offers much more than that – it is a multi-biography of family and networks of people who nurture and support their young. It is also a multi-history of early twentieth century Australia spanning the country and the city – the working class and the ruling class. It is a pitch report on the wickets and the dusty tracks on which young gladiators armed with a willow bat and ball encased in leather strove to assert their status.

There is something in the saying that “we die twice”, once when we breathe our last breath and a second time when our name is spoken for the last time. Ross McMullin has written a book which opens conversations about heroes like Norman Callaway and where he stands in the pantheon of gifted young men who might have worn the baggy green.

Life So Full of Promise is a book that respects its readers and in return asks a big question of them. How would the young Australian democracy emerge from the war, united in its patriotism and grief, yet divided and fearful of its future?

Dr Lucas Jordan is a Melbourne educator and author of Stealth Raiders – A Few Daring Men in 1918 (Penguin Books)