Reader review from MaryG2E via goodreads.com

My interest in this book was triggered by hearing the author speak at a recent writers festival. Joshua Funder is an articulate speaker with a passion for his topic. The story of Stanley Holm Watson is a true one, and Funder is able to relate to it personally, as Watson was his great-grandfather. Funder explained that he had chosen to present his forebear’s story in novelised form to allow for greater freedom of expression and to reach a wider audience.

Stanley Holm Watson was an engineer and signals officer at Gallipoli, and played a major role in the secret evacuation of the ANZAC troops in December 1915. One of the great values in Funder’s book is that it throws light on the endeavours of soldiers working behind the front lines, whose contributions were essential to the campaign.

Personally I found the information about the work of the Royal Australian Engineers, and the Signals Corps in particular to be quite fascinating. My father was an engineer in WW2, serving in New Guinea, and I could relate to the activities of the WW1 soldiers described by Funder.

The novel is based on Funder’s memories of his great-grandfather’s yarns, and the manuscript memoirs he wrote after the war. The bibliography at the end shows extensive research into many aspects of the ill-fated campaign, from the official history written by C.E.W. Bean, the extensive documents relating to the Signals Corps, to the diaries and letters of those who fought. The novel form that Funder chose brings those 100 year old stories to vivid life, using imagined conversations and reported activities in an engaging way. I could not imagine reading an academic textbook about Watson’s adventures with anything like the interest that the novel evoked in me.

There is quite a lot of background before the Signals Corps gets to Gallipoli. Funder details the recruitment process, looking for suitably qualified men to train and deploy in a field which was quite new then – battlefield telegraphic and telephonic signals. The training transfers from Australia to the huge field camp outside Cairo, that fleshpot of the Near East. Finally the corps takes ship for the Dardanelles, and it’s game on! Funder offers an interesting perspective on the campaign, seen through the eyes of Stanley Holm Watson. In particular I was intrigued by the thumbnail sketches of the various officers of the general command, with whom Captain Watson had regular contact. There is no doubt about the disdain for the snobby, autocratic, anachronistic British officer class, whose ludicrous incompetence and reckless decisions caused so much blood to be spilt. (Honest to God I don’t know why Australia didn’t become a republic in 1919 after enduring all that suffering at the hands of the British overlords!!!) There is respect and affection for those senior officers who were compassionate with their men and judicious with their orders. In particular, Watson shows enormous regard for General White, who ultimately has responsibility for the evacuation of all the troops.

Watson was the second-last person to leave Gallipoli on that landmark day of the evacuation. One of his key contributions to Australian military history was his careful, impeccably detailed plan for getting the very last 1,500 men away without the Turks knowing. It relied heavily on excellent communication – Watson’s forte. Watson went on to the Western Front, and was eventually repatriated to his home and family in Adelaide, having achieved the rank of colonel. Back in civilian life he rose to a senior position in the South Australian Railways. Throughout the book, his love for his wife and children shines through.

It is a stirring story, one which made me proud of an ordinary, mid-level Australian officer, whose contribution was exceptional. Well-written, with an easy prose style, Watson’s Pier is a valuable addition to the body of literature about WW1 which concerns itself with the importance of those who served behind the front lines. 4.5★s

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