Review: The Lost Diggers by Ross Coulthart

I was given this absolute monster of a book for Christmas after asking for it when I visited the Remember Me exhibition at the State Library of NSW in November. I think it’s the biggest book I have EVER owned, it seriously must weigh a few kilograms! It made for a very interesting reading experience, trying to work out how to read it in the most comfortable way possible! I guess this is what you would call a coffee table book, but that seems a bit light for the actual content of this book- to me, coffee table books are reserved for pictures of fashion or art, not photographs of long dead men (some of which who died in horrific circumstances).

The actual photographs in this book are AMAZING. I did think of rating this at 5 stars just because of the sheer greatness of the photographs, but decided to review as a whole. They have been beautifully presented and perfectly set out through the book. I really like that they have enlarged certain pictures to highlight details and explain how they have identified some of the diggers. The pictures are 1000% the reason why this book is amazing if you’re interested in this topic.

The research methods in this book are really interesting (to someone who does ANZAC research, and probably to the ordinary observer) and are fully explained. I really enjoyed seeing the way they discovered the identities of some of the men in the photographs and I enjoyed learning their stories. I also liked the level of community involvement in the research and stories of these men, and that they followed up on the lives of those who lived. Some stories broke my heart, but others made me think that there is perhaps some good that came from such a horrible situation.

My major gripe with this book is that the commentary tends to err on the emotive and self serving. There are a lot of references to Channel 7 (an Australian television station), who I believe commissioned the documentary that accompanies this book. There’s also a lot of references to the Facebook page for this project. This book was published in 2012, when I’m sure the Facebook page was very active. As of the time of my writing this review, there has been no activity since November, and that was an advertisement for another book that Ross Coulthart was involved with editing. That’s two months of inactivity, even with these photographs being on tour around the nation. This is why I don’t think a book like this should mention it’s Facebook page, it can render sections of the book irrelevant.

I also didn’t like how emotive the writing became at many points. I wish they had let the photographs speak for themselves, rather than to speculate and project the author’s feelings on the photographs. It was little things like the author saying “He must have been feeling incredibly sad at the moment his photo was taken and thinking about wanting to go home”. We have no idea what the soldier was feeling- perhaps he was feeling tired and was thinking about needing to pick up a pair of new socks! It’s a bit of a historian’s rookie error, and it repeats over and over throughout the book.

I know he is trying to make the men seem more tangible and understandable to the reader, but I believe that the photos really could have been left to speak for themselves. One only has to look into the eyes of some of the men to see the pain and hardship they have been enduring, without Coulthart telling us what he thinks they must have been thinking and feeling. He spends far too long arguing what certain men were, be it shell shocked, twins, brothers, young, old… When it comes down to it, we just can’t know. In some cases I agree with him, they definitely look like something is missing behind their eyes, or that they look like they were perhaps suffering from PTSD… but there are a fair few variables to consider before making those claims.

I did enjoy this book and I don’t regret getting it at all. I’ll definitely be picking this up over and over again to look at the amazing photographs, but in future I will be paying very little attention to the accompanying text. I would definitely recommend this if you’re interested in the ANZACs, the Thruiller photographs or World War One, but mainly for the amazing quality of the photographs. As far as I’m aware, there is no other book that has all the photographs displayed in such a coherent and high quality manner, so I say go for it!

Here are a few of the photos included in the book- my personal favourite is the second one!

3.5/5 stars

The Remember Me: The Lost Diggers of Vignacourt exhibition is at The State Library of New South Wales until the 18th of January 2015, so if you’re in Sydney and want to see it, you had better get a wriggle on! It’s definitely worth the trip and it’s totally free.


One thought on “Review: The Lost Diggers by Ross Coulthart

  1. This sounds like a wonderful book, but it’s a real shame that a lot of the content was related to television and Facebook – it seems to have missed the point somehow! Those photographs which you shared are so lovely. Great review!

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