Red Coat Dreaming
I once viewed, in an art gallery in Australia, a painting of the colonial era depicting the Union flag being planted in the new found land. I remember wondering what the proud colonists, claiming the territory for the British Empire, would have made of modern Australia, where in some quarters the British heritage is regarded as an embarrassment. Australia’s rich military history has been of fundamental importance in forging the country’s modern national identity. The awkward fact that Australians fought loyally for King and Empire has led some to emphasising British incompetence (Gallipoli 1915, Fromelles 1916) or even betrayal (Singapore 1942). While Australian academic military historians have been as loud as anyone in denouncing simplistic interpretations of their nation’s martial past, the 1981 pom-bashing film Gallipoli more accurately conveys what a significant slice of the Australian population believe.
Australian historian Craig Wilcox’s Red Coat Dreaming thus swims against the popular tide. The book’s argument is summarised by the front cover, which uses an illustration from a Sydney magazine of October 1914. It depicts a classic First World War digger, a now iconic image of martial and nationalist Australia, raising his equally iconic slouch hat in salute to a ghostly, smiling British soldier dressed in the uniform of Wellington’s army of a century before. The point is not just that the baton is being passed but, in Wilcox’s words, the very British Australia of the period had ‘widespread respect for the army ... bask[ed] in its victories won and last stands endured’. He deploys the word ‘dreaming’, with its connotations of Aboriginal spirituality, to describe the state of reverie, of connection with ‘powerful figures from far away or long ago’that characterised the view of many colonial Australians of the British army. Wilcox proceeds by a series of case studies. Most telling are his snapshots of Blanche Mitchell, who married a British officer of the garrison; of the Reverend W.H. Fitchett, a Melbourne teacher who wrote the bestselling Deeds that Won the Empire; and of Percy Faithfull, who wore the red coat in the Melbourne volunteers.
This is an impressive book that reclaims the lost inner life of at least some colonial Australians. The red coat has been displaced in public affection by the slouch hat but, as Wilcox skilfully demonstrates, there is more continuity in Australian attitudes to war and the military than is commonly allowed.