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Posted on 10 Aug 2023 in Non-Fiction |

ROSS McMULLIN Life So Full of Promise: Further biographies of Australia’s lost generation. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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Ross McMullin’s account of those who fought in World War I is a masterpiece of storytelling, weaving family, community, sporting, and military history into a satisfying whole.

In previous books such as The Light on the Hill, his history of the Labor Party, and his biographies of Pompey Elliott and Will Dyson, renowned historian Ross McMullin has written about people who left an unmistakable mark on Australian politics, the military and art. However, like his earlier multi-biographical study, Farewell, Dear People, this book turns its attention to those who might have gone on to win national reputations had their lives not been cut tragically short. As he notes in his preface,

Each story establishes the outstanding prewar potential of one of the main characters, describes what happened to him during the conflict, and underlines the profound sense of loss for his nation as well as for his family in the aftermath.

Also provided are:

… insights into the experiences of Australians in the period before, during and after the war – whether they were combatants or civilians, or soldiers’ wives or parents – but is also revealing about high-level cricket in that era.

McMullin’s story focuses on the lives of three young men: Brian Pockley (Sydney medical establishment), Norman Callaway (rural working-class/small business) and Murdoch (Doch) Mackay (Bendigo middle-class). Pockley attends the exclusive Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), Callaway the Hay Public School, and Mackay, St Andrews College, Bendigo. Pockley’s father is a leading ophthalmic surgeon and Brian follows family tradition (as does elder brother Guy) by studying medicine.

The contrast in family background between Pockley and Callaway is stressed in a paragraph which offers an echo of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities:

Norman Callaway came to know some of Brian Pockley’s friends. This had not seemed likely when Norman was young, as his background and Brian’s were so different. While the Pockleys were affluent, the Callaways were not. While the Pockleys were urban, the Callaways were rural. While Brian Pockley grew up in an imposing North Shore mansion, Norman Callaway lived in a basic weatherboard cottage on the edge of town. While Brian’s parents were invited to select dinners attended by patrician governors, this was an inconceivable milieu for the Callaways. While Brian’s father was an instinctive political conservative, Norman’s father co-founded a branch of the Labor Party. While it was routine for the (male) Pockleys to go to university, this was unthinkable for the Callaways.

The cricket field would have been the meeting place for Callaway and Pockley’s Shore friends Claude Tozer and Jack Massie, and sport plays a huge part in the lives and backgrounds of Pockley, Callaway and Mackay.

Pockley shines in athletics and rugby union for Shore and University, and cricket traditions run deep in the Callaway and Murdoch families. Norman’s father would love to have played for Australia but his uncle Jim is the better player in country cricket, while the Mackays have three generations of cricketers who appear in representative matches against touring teams: grandfather Angus for a Bendigo Twenty-Two against HH Stephenson’s inaugural English team in 1862, father George for a Victorian Fifteen against Billy Murdoch’s 1880 Australian team (which he had previously been invited to join), and Doch for a Bendigo Fifteen against Johnny Douglas’s English team in 1912.

Sport, however, is central to only one of the futures of the three young men. To Brian Pockley, who graduates with second-class honours from Sydney University and takes up a residency at Sydney Hospital in March 1914, a bright future in medicine seems assured. For Doch Mackay, who gains first-class honours in law at Melbourne University, wins the Supreme Court Prize, a law scholarship, and graduates with a Masters of Law degree, rapid progress in his profession appears unstoppable. Previous winners of the Supreme Court Prize include a Victorian premier, a Victorian attorney-general, two federal attorneys-general, a defence minister, and two future High Court judges. Eventual promotion to the bench seems a likely career outcome, but McMullin argues that he could have had an even greater destiny. Six years later the winner of the Supreme Court Prize is Robert Menzies, and Mackay – ‘exceptionally intelligent, an outstanding leader, inspirationally brave, considerate, kind-hearted and principled with a discerning sense of justice’ – is a man who might well have led the nation.

For Norman Callaway cricket is the key to his life. Not only is no mention made of his education beyond primary school, neither is there of his employment. Father Tom sells his soapworks business and relocates the family from Hay to Sydney to further the development of Norman’s cricket in 1912. That development is rapid. In a single season with Paddington he comes under the influence of former Test captain Monty Noble; in two years with Waverley his team-mates include another former Test captain Syd Gregory, Australian wicketkeeper Hanson Carter and future star Alan Kippax. In his first-class debut for New South Wales against Queensland in February 1915, he makes a world-record score of 207. A place in the Australian side is his for the asking when the war is won.

When war is declared in August 1914, many young Australian men enlist thinking it will be the greatest adventure of their lives, an opportunity to travel the world in the expectation that the conflict would be over by Christmas. Christmas, 1914! What are the motives of these three young men for enlisting? As McMullin points out there were multiple reasons.

At Shore, an editorial in the school magazine proclaimed the importance of defending one’s country. Military activity attracted both Brian Pockley and Claude Tozer, who were the first two students to become officers in the school cadets, but there may have been other attractions for Pockley:

He was looking forward to a novel and exciting experience. Now 24, Brian was modest and unassuming, but for years he had exhilarated thousands with his dash and skill on the football field.  In 1914, however, he was no longer playing. Thrilling a crowd was no longer in his repertoire … An opportunity to re-inject some excitement into his life was certainly attractive, even irresistible.

Pockley is in at the beginning, joining the Army Medical Corps on 1 August 1914, three days before Britain declares war on Germany and Australia joins the conflict. On 12 August he is appointed as a doctor to the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF). On 18 August the ANMEF marches through central Sydney on their way to their ship, the Berrima at Cockatoo Island. On 7 September in Port Moresby he transfers to the light cruiser HMAS Sydney along with 50 naval reservists. On 11 September he is dead. In the first engagement of the war at Bitapaka on the island of Neu Pommern (now New Britain), east of what was then German New Guinea, the aim is to capture a wireless station. This is achieved with the loss of seven lives and five men wounded. Pockley dies in an act described at the time as ‘selfless gallantry’ while searching for a wounded soldier. ‘Senseless gallantry’ might be a better descriptor.

Callaway scores heavily in his third grade cricket season (1915-16) to back up his double century, but, as McMullin writes, the war was ‘constantly unsettling’. When he enlists in the AIF in May 1916 it is not for reasons of romantic adventure or king-and-country patriotism, but pressure from several sources. Key figures in the New South Wales Cricket Association, president JH Clayton and secretary Billy McElhone, insist that cricketers should enlist; influential cricket writer Jack Davis of The Referee argues they should consider their self-respect; and the action of state captain Charlie Macartney, along with fellow cricket and baseball team-mates, in putting on khaki would have had a big influence on the 20 year old. McMullin wonders whether Callaway might also have been the recipient of a white feather, noting that the Waverley and Hay communities were strongly patriotic, and several relatives had preceded him into the forces.

Mackay’s family – father George, editor of the Bendigo Advertiser, and mother Mary – were politically active and pro-enlistment. As a barrister in Melbourne, Doch Mackay is a lieutenant in the 60th Battalion based in North Carlton in 1913 and by early 1915 he is a captain in the 22nd Battalion. By April, even though deeply in love, he ‘maintained that staying out of the conflict was unthinkable … His self-respect would never recover … He simply had to go.’ In the middle of the same month he marries Margot, enters camp two days after the wedding, and boards his troopship, the Ulysses, five days later. Duty (as for Pockley) and self-respect (Callaway) are probably key factors in his decision to enlist.

Mackay sees action at Gallipoli from September until the withdrawal of troops in December, spends January to March 1916 in Egypt while the AIF is being reorganised, and is then shipped to France by April. Pozières, a small village in the Somme valley, is the scene of bitter fighting by the 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian divisions in July and August. The 2nd mounts two of the attacks but suffers an incredible 6848 casualties, 681 of them from the 22nd Battalion. Heroic leader Major Murdoch Mackay, aged 25, whom the historian Charles Bean believed deserved a statue in his honour at Pozières, is one, dying on the day before he was to be relieved.

Callaway’s end is in some ways similar to Mackay’s. Four Australian divisions are part of the British 5th Army under the command of Sir Hubert Gough and make two attacks at Bullecourt in an effort to break the Hindenburg Line on 11 April and 3 May 1917. Both end in disaster with 10,000 Australian casualties. As McMullin puts it, Callaway and his fellows in the 19th Australian Infantry Battalion are ‘taut with anticipation, fatalism and dread … Survival would depend on luck and small margins.’ However, Private Norman Callaway’s luck is out. Having just turned 21 and with shrapnel shells bursting,

The brilliant young cricketer, whose rich potential for an illustrious future with the Australian team had excited scribes and fans alike, was lying still in a putrid shell-hole, and blood from his head was rapidly staining his comrade’s sleeve.

The First World War touched the lives of everyone. The Pockleys lost a second son (Jack) at Villers-Bretonneux, but everyone lost someone. In Mackay’s 22nd Battalion, one family had to deal with the deaths of three brothers, all killed by the same shell. Of those who came home, many were destroyed physically and mentally, while others were unlucky.

One who survived the war but not for long was the Mackays’ second son, Eric, who quit medical studies at 18 to serve in a medical unit detached from the fighting. He subsequently joined Doch’s unit as an orderly, returned home to complete his degree, undertook postgraduate study in England, and won the Irish singles tennis championship only to succumb to military tuberculosis at the age of 26.

Death was unfair but so was life. Ross McMullin’s Life So Full of Promise is a magnificent testament to the sufferings of an age.

Ross McMullin Life So Full of Promise: Further biographies of Australia’s lost generation Scribe 2023 PB 626pp $49.99

Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book  is Adelaide Oval 1865-1939: A History available from

You can buy Life So Full of Promise from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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