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Lumen Summer 2015 Issue
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A genius in Great War studies: a personal account


Emeritus Professor Trevor Wilson AM

Emeritus Professor Trevor Wilson AM

Emeritus Professor Trevor Wilson AM is a world authority on the history of the Great War and an inspiration for many students at the University of Adelaide. One of his former students, Visiting Research Fellow Professor Robin Prior, provided this account of the close bond that developed between the two historians.

I first met Trevor in March 1966 after I had enrolled to study history, my special subject being 20th century British history. Trevor was my tutor. He had recently published The Downfall of the Liberal Party and I offered to send him reviews from the public library where I was working.

This was a dangerous enterprise because few authors like to be informed by third parties that their book has just been canned. Fortunately this never occurred and I was able to pass on one good review after another. It was widely known that he was writing an enormous book on the Great War. This was proceeding through the 1970s when I was ready to embark on a doctoral dissertation.

I went to see Trevor and we kicked around several subjects, and he hit on a critique of Winston Churchill's history of the First World War, The World Crisis. This was to develop into the longest book review and ran to two volumes as the University had no word limits on a thesis at that time (I have heard that they were introduced shortly afterwards.) Because Churchill's work encompassed almost all aspects of British activity in the war, and Trevor was writing a general history, our work often overlapped and we could help each other. It must be said that most of the help came my way, although I could provide the occasional shard of information for him.

As the years went by it became clear to me that Trevor was writing a history of the Great War like no other. He was not only dealing with the main military campaigns, but he was also looking at the role of labour, the part played by women, the politics of the war, war production and a myriad other facets of the conflict. This eventually provided a title for the book - The Myriad Faces of War - which was published in 1986 to enthusiastic reviews.

It is a paean to liberal democracy at war, to a society that remained relatively decent, though prosecuting the most deadly war in its history. Trevor's liberal values shine through the book as does his conviction that Britain had to emerge on the winning side if Europe was to undergo further democratisation.

Before publication of the book, our paths had diverted because there were few academic jobs in the early 1980s. I was working in the parliamentary library, writing speeches for backbenchers when Trevor came up with an idea of editing a general's diary of the Great War. We were to apply to a strange body called the ARC and as I read the instructions I discovered there were fellowships that would pay a salary for three years.

We immediately changed our application from one for $6,000 dollars for photocopying to one for $120,000 for me. It worked and in 1983 I started on a joint enterprise with Trevor which resulted in the book Command on the Western Front: The Military Career of Sir Henry Rawlinson.

Our original thesis, Rawlinson as unsung hero, soon morphed into Rawlinson as buffoon, but it was a successful book which encouraged scholars to look at warfare on the Western Front in a more technological way.

Trevor and I were to write three more books together - two on particular battles (the Somme and Passchendaele) and a general short history of the war. We were often asked how joint authorship worked, especially when one of the authors was in Canberra (I eventually got an academic post) and the other in Adelaide. There is no great mystery here. Draft chapters were written by one or the other of us and we would then get together. The chapter would be read out loud and criticisms and amendments would be made as we went.

Trevor tended to draft the political chapters and I would concentrate on the more technical aspects of the fighting. The chapters went through so many revisions that in the end they were joint productions and better books perhaps than we could have written on our own.

It is fitting in the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War that we acknowledge that it was Trevor who pioneered Great War studies at this university and created for it a worldwide reputation.

My own debt to him is obvious but there were a raft of students who first became interested in the war as a result of reading his books or taking his courses and these were not just students based in Adelaide but scattered all over the world.

It is not given to many to create a field of historical enquiry. We should celebrate the fact that in Great War studies it happened at Adelaide and that one of ours, Trevor Wilson, was its presiding genius.

Professor Robin Prior

About the author

Professor Robin Prior is a University of Adelaide Visiting Research Fellow in the School of History and Politics and graduate of the University (BA (Hons) 1975, PhD 1979). He is one of the leading authorities, nationally and internationally, on the history of warfare and is widely esteemed on the world stage for his contribution in clarifying the essential problems and failed endeavours of major battles of the First World War. His recent work on Gallipoli contributes to a deeper understanding of war and society. His publications include Gallipoli: The End of the Myth (2009), The Somme (2005, with Trevor Wilson) and The First World War (1999).

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