Forgotten Men book launch speech delivered by DCA, MAJGEN Symon
2 March 2011
Friends and Colleagues
I’m sure you appreciate the challenges I faced when accepting the offer to launch this book today. My friend John Caligari gets to launch a book about a Corps that is still in existence, is a vibrant and active group highly regarded by all who come into contact with its members. I get to launch a book about a Corps that no longer exists, has no members present to add gravitas to the occasion and has set me up to be the butt of many ass and donkey jokes! None the less, I was happy to accept the invitation as this is a superb book by one of the Army’s leading military historians and has much to offer our Army, despite the fact the Corps is no longer in existence. Let me explain.
It is arguably a statement of the obvious to say that Army is a complex organisation. It is not news to this group in front of me to say it is in a constant state of change: technologically, organisationally, and administratively. Employment categories come and go along with the capabilities they support. For those of us having to grapple with the next round of changes, it is often tempting to think that the Army has never been as complicated as it is now, dealing as we do with everything from electronics to exercise machines and bulldozers to bread puddings. But when you reduce the whole organisation down to what it really is, you quickly discover that there are two basic categories: there are those who fight and those who support the fighting. If you adopt this way of looking at the organisation, you can see there is in fact very little that is new, in conceptual terms, in any army of any time. It doesn’t matter, again in the conceptual sense, whether the infantry is armed with spear and shield or Steyr. To be effective, infantry still need to be transported to where they are needed, supplied, fed, healed if wounded and extracted when the job is done. This support job is vital if the infantry is to succeed. BothHannibal’s and Napoleon’s armies - separated by 2000 years - had these two fundamental groupings of skills and responsibilities and both these generals would understand that distinction in today’s armies.
For the cavalry, this conceptual point is even more marked: we still talk of mounted troops and cavalry, even though there is rarely a horse to be seen in any army today (mounted bands still being the exception). But mounted troops of any era are just as dependent as is the infantry on specialist support troops to ensure their effectiveness: arguably even more so. While they may not like the comparison, it could be argued that today’s Royal Austarlian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers fulfils something of an equivalent role to the Veterinary Corps of 100 years ago. Without the skills of the RAEME mechanic, vehicle mounted cavalry would find operations, especially sustained operations, almost impossible. The Australian Light Horse in the Palestine Campaign in 1917-1918 would have clearly been hamstrung without the professional support of the vets and farriers of the Vet Corps. I appreciate I am labouring the point but I want to emphasise that this book might be about a Corps that no longer exists but the reasons the Corps did once exist still have relevance for us today.
As we all know, the Army really only became fully motorised/mechanised in the middle of World War II. Prior to that, the horse was the principal motive power available, supplemented by mules, donkeys and occasionally other more exotic animals such as camels. It is one thing to know that horses were used by the Army: it is quite another to fully understand just how much horses feature in all aspects of the Army’s life and operations. All guns, resupply wagons, ambulances and heavy equipment were pulled by horses. Horses carried everything from signal cable to Light Horsemen, Generals to machine-guns. Even Infantry Officers were expected to ride a horse, both in peace time and when on operations, although sitting on a horse in the front line on the Western Front in 1916 was generally not recommended. Michael has done a great job in bringing out clearly and compellingly just how all-pervasive horses were in the Army before 1943. He has also done an excellent job in introducing us to the wide scope of responsibilities that the vets had when the Army was deployed. Animal health would have been a major force multiplier and Michael shows us that the average Australian soldier, far from being the ‘natural bushman’ of myth and legend, was not necessarily a good manager of horses. It was left to the Vet Corps to ensure the ongoing health and well being of this critical element in our combat power. The book surprised me by revealing the wide range of animals the Vets had responsibility for: some of which, like dogs, are still part of our Order of Battle. Others, like canaries and pigeons, may well have been overtaken by technology but I doubt our diggers develop quite the same affection for the black box and dials as they did for their birds.
The Vet Corps book is yet again an excellent example of high quality publishing from Big Sky publishers. While the relationship between Big Sky and Army is still only relatively brief, the quality of the product, the excellent service and the rate of output has already made Big Sky a major player in the Australian Army’s military history program. I would like to congratulate Denny Neave, Sharon Evans and the rest of the Big Sky team on a superb book.
No book though is possible without the hard work, focus and dedication of its author. Major, and Doctor, Michael Tyquin is no stranger to the history of the Australian Army. His massive and very well received history of the Australian Army Medical Corps is but one of a range of ground breaking works he has written for and about the Army. His work on shell shock and the treatment of psychological casualties - Madness and the Military - has received international professional acclaim. The Army is proud to have a scholar of Michael’s reputation as a serving member and even more proud of his achievements with this book. As some of you will know, Army did publish another book some years ago on the Vet Corps - a book which had as its focus the science of the veterinarian. Michael has built on this book to place the work of the Vet Corps into the context of the Australian Army at war and in peace. This is a book about the Veterinary Corps. It is an outstanding piece of work and it is with great pleasure, I launch Forgotten Men: The Australian Army Veterinary Corps 1909-1946.
Thank you very much.