Ernest Brough, Dangerous Days: A digger’s great escape (Harper Collins 2009)
When I was ten or eleven years old, although I wasn’t at all attracted to the war comics that many of my school companions devoured, I did read, and enjoy, Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse, a POW escape story. It came with parental recommendation (my mother was amused by the POWs’ christening a cow Venus di Milko, or was that a different book?), and seemed to me to be a tale from the distant past. In fact, it was published in 1949, and the events it narrated had happened barely fifteen years before I read it. Ernest Brough’s story, written when he was in his 80s and when the events he recalls were more than sixty years in the past, nonetheless has some of the same qualities that caught this little boy’s imagination way back then.
The book is Ernest Brough’s story of his war experience. He was one of the Rats of Tobruk, and his account of how the war was conducted there almost makes one long for the good old days when the Geneva Conventions were respected. Taken prisoner, he was kept in camps run first by the Italians and then by the Germans, then escaped with two companions. The story of the trio’s privations and difficulties as they made their way from the prison camp in southern Austria, through Slovenia, Croatia and into Bosnia, a good part of the way in the care of Tito’s Partisans, is the book’s compelling read – the larrikin camaraderie of the Australians and New Zealanders in training, in combat and in the POW camp is transmuted into an almost mystical solidarity.
Perhaps more than The Wooden Horse, in fact, the book reminds me of Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life. It’s a tale of survival, told without bitterness but pervaded by a sense of good fortune. And as I like my morals to be explicit, I was grateful for the final chapter, ‘Take it from an Old Bloke’, where he spells out his views on war, peace and life, including this:
War’s a damnable thing. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. The damage runs deep. All those nights for decades afterwards I would lie in bed thinking, I’ve got to get under the wire tonight. or gotta make it to the riverbank. … Most soldiers will bring the war home with them in some form. Some will never forget it; some will die from it, from suicide or alcoholism, years after the guns have packed up and gone home. You see, it’s just not natural for human beings to go out and kill other humans. And that’s what war’s all about.