by Anthony Hill
Published by Penguin Australia
264 pages, 2004
Buy it online
Animals at the Front
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
They have always been there when humans have fought wars, playing their role, whether as workers or as mascots. Many of them never came home, even when they survived the conflict.
I am, of course, talking about animals. There are the obvious ones, like dogs, horses, carrier pigeons, pack animals such as donkeys or mules. There have also been dolphins, chickens, eagles, even a saltwater crocodile or two.
Some have become a part of the national heritage. There are few Australians of my generation or before who weren't told, as schoolchildren, the tale of Simpson and his donkey, who, together, took wounded Anzac soldiers to safety at Gallipoli during World War I, till Simpson was killed by shrapnel. It was only for 24 days, but it has become the stuff of legend. Simpson and his donkey, Murphy, have been honored with a statue at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and another at Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance.
There were also the horses that carried the Australian Light Horsemen during the same war. The "Walers," as they were called because they were bred in New South Wales, fought a brave war. They, too, became part of the Australian legend, as part of the war in the Middle East. Their reward was not to be allowed to return home, due to quarantine laws. Only one ever made it back, a gelding called Sandy, whose rider couldn't take him to Gallipoli and was killed before the quarantine laws came into force. Sandy was sent home. Of the rest, many were passed on to other cavalry divisions, but any over 12 years of age as well as those that were unfit were simply shot, rather than risk having them be mistreated by new owners.
Tracker dogs taken to Vietnam were given away as pets to Westerners living there at the time, but were not allowed to go back to Australia. Then there were animals which gave comfort to prisoners of war, such as Judy the Changi dog, who made life more bearable for imprisoned women during World War II, till she was killed by their captors.
These stories and many others are told in Animal Heroes by Anthony Hill, who has written a number of other war-related books, one of which, Soldier Boy, the story of the youngest Anzac, was an award-winner. The book concentrates on Australians at war and their animals, though it includes some lighter tales of peacetime army mascots.
It's a wonderful idea for a children's book. Children love animal stories and these are generally heartwarming or heart-wrenching. The language level is about right for children in the later years of primary school, the stories told in a chatty style that they should enjoy. The book is beautifully presented too, with a photographic cover of Diggers and their animals and some beautiful internal plates. It looks like an adult book, with none of the patronizing style of some children's books.
Just two nit-picks. Animal Heroes is a little too long for the average primary-school child and the endnotes are too elaborate, with pages of chapter notes and a long bibliography that wouldn't be out of place in an adult book. All you need for a children's book is a short list of further reading of other children's books and perhaps a few Web sites in case the young reader wants to pursue the topic.
This, in its turn, makes me wonder just who is the intended audience. Surely it isn't aimed at young adults? The subject matter is of more interest to children than to teenagers, who have usually outgrown touching animal stories. And this is a perfectly good children's book. In fact, I'm giving my copy to my young nephew, who will certainly enjoy it. | March 2005
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.