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Hard-hitting WWI history wins PM's book award

Professor Joan Beaumont. Photo by Stuart Hay.
09 December 2014
Professor Joan Beaumont. Photo by Stuart Hay.


War historian Professor Joan Beaumont wins history prize in Prime Minister's Literary Awards for her book Broken Nation

A war historian from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific has taken out joint first place for Australian history in the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

Professor Joan Beaumont, from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, received the award for her book Broken Nation – a hard-hitting and engaging study of how the First World War forever changed Australians both at the front and at home.

She shares the $80,000 prize with Hal GP Colebatch, author of Australia's Secret War: how unionists sabotaged our troops in World War II.

The prestigious PM’s prize is not the only award Professor Beaumont received on the night – with Broken Nation also winning the history prize in the 2014 Queensland Literary Awards.

Published by Allen & Unwin, Broken Nation looks at the complexities of Australia’s World War I experience.  

In it, Professor Beaumont explores the well-known battles at Gallipoli, Pozieres, Fromelles and Villers-Bretonneux, to the lesser-known battles in Europe and the Middle East.

She also canvasses the ferocious debates over conscription to the disillusioning Paris peace conference and the devastating 'Spanish' flu the soldiers brought home.

Professor Beaumont said it was essential to not only look at the famous battles and tragic losses that defined the war, but how it impacted on the nation.

“What I’ve tried to do in the book is show that there’s much more to Australia’s history of the war than the battles, which of course are the focus of much of the centenary,” Professor Beaumont said.

“The Great War was also a war fought by the families at home. Their resilience in the face of hardship, their stoic acceptance of enormous casualty lists and their belief that their cause was just, made the war effort possible.

“In the book I also look at the wider Australian experience of war, from the ferocious debates over conscription to the disillusioning Paris peace conference and the devastating 'Spanish' flu the soldiers brought home.

“We witness the fear and courage of tens of thousands of soldiers, grapple with the strategic nightmares confronting the commanders, and come to understand the impact on Australians at home and at the front of death on an unprecedented scale.

“So it’s great that I was able to bring a lot of that complexity and chaos of the war to the readers, in a way that seems to have worked.”

Broken Nation was released in late 2013, ahead of the centenary of World War I being officially commemorated.

Guardian Australia’s Paul Daley foresaw it as a standout from the deluge of others that would follow, maintaining the book would set “an inordinately high benchmark”.

“When the deluge ends, Beaumont’s Broken Nation will still shine,” he wrote.

Writing for The Conversation, Peter Yule noted Beaumont’s success in tracking down primary sources, allowing her to make real, “the blood, guts and tragedy of the fighting,” while still maintaining the narrative flow.

Broken Nation is a massively ambitious project,” he wrote.

“If any single volume of Australia’s experience of World War I surpasses it, it will need to be a brilliant book indeed.”

Broken Nation also won the Australian history prize in the 2014 NSW Premier’s History Awards earlier this year.



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