The Unseen Anzac
Despite the post-centenary exhaustion, “Anzac” still carries purchase in a publishing industry awash with titles that invoke the sacred term. Why else would Scribe decide not to include George Wilkins’ name in the title of Jeff Maynard’s outstanding biography of him, or indeed anywhere on the front or back cover? They might plead that Wilkins is a relatively unknown figure, but there is no reason to bury a subject as eccentric, gifted and alluring as Wilkins under the ubiquitous Anzac epitaph.
George Hubert Wilkins (1888-1958) – polar explorer, air-racing pilot, cinematographer, war photographer, showman, mystic and fabulist – lived more than enough lives for an ordinary mortal. Showered in honours (he was awarded the Military Cross and knighted in 1928), Wilkins is “largely responsible” for taking and documenting Australia’s official collection of World War I photographs. Although Maynard tells the story of Wilkins’ childhood and his years as a polar explorer both before and after the war (Wilkins accompanied Shackleton on his final expedition to Antarctica in 1921), the bulk of the biography is devoted to Wilkins’ time on the Western Front. Charles Bean’s determination to document the Australian experience of war led to Wilkins and Frank Hurley being appointed as official war photographers in August 1917. While Hurley quickly became frustrated with the restrictions placed on his work and soon left for Palestine, Wilkins remained.
He should have died several times. A fearless “wielder of the mechanism”, he was determined to capture images of the fighting. Wounded frequently, he accompanied the soldiers into the front line, sometimes going ahead of them. He refused to carry a gun, and as Bean acknowledged, continually showed “disregard of personal danger” and was probably “in the fighting more constantly than any other officer in the corps”.
Maynard, who began his research in 1998, has scoured the globe in search of archival material, even speaking to the owner of the unassuming hotel in Massachusetts where Wilkins died in 1958. He has tracked down wads of previously unseen correspondence and authenticated 178 photographs in the Australian War Memorial’s collection as having been taken by Wilkins. His understated, well-honed biography reveals the maverick, eternally restless Wilkins as a man who refused to define his life through war alone. WW
Scribe, 296pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2015 as "Jeff Maynard, The Unseen Anzac". Subscribe here.