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National Observer Home > No. 41 - Winter 1999 > Book Review

Lavarack: Rival General (Army Military History Series)

by Brett Lodge

Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998, pp. 265 with endnotes, bibliography and index.

This recent addition to the excellent Army Military History Series traces and analyses the military career of Lieut.-General Lavarack, arguably one of the more controversial military leaders the Australian services have produced.  Hitherto, the popular opinion of Lavarack in many circles was of a military leader who was the rival of Blamey and who was responsible for the needless capture and deaths of many Australian soldiers on Sumatra. Whilst Lodge views his subject in a favourable light, his analysis of Lavarack is marked by objectivity. He acknowledges Lavarack's shortcomings, particularly those that led to Lavarack being marginalised by the government of the day.

John Dudley Lavarack was born in Queensland in 1885 and commenced officer training in the regular army upon leaving school. His abilities were quickly noted by his superiors and he was sent to the staff college in Camberley, England in 1913. His course of studies there, however, was interrupted by the First World War, in which Lavarack was first attached to the British Army, but later was a staff officer under with the Australian Army. It is of significance that his immediate superior was the then Colonel Blamey. Lodge notes that the antipathy and rivalry between the two officers probably commenced during this period, a rivalry that largely explains Lavarack's later marginalisation. 

However, the next two decades were to see Lavarack's career in the ascendant. That he was being groomed for a senior post by his superiors was evidenced by his selection to attend the Imperial Defence College, beginning in 1928. Upon his return, Lavarack was to hold the positions of Commandant, Royal Military College, Duntroon and Chief of the General Staff.

In both these roles, particularly the latter, Lavarack showed himself to be a far sighted military strategist, particularly in his criticisms of the Singapore strategy. The accepted orthodox defence strategy of the day correctly assumed that in the event of war, the enemy would be the Japanese. Australia would be mainly defended by a British navy that would sail to the Far East. Lavarack consistently pointed out the unlikelihood of a British naval force arriving in time, if Japan were to attack. Furthermore, Lavarack argued for increased defence spending (defence spending having been cut drastically in the wake of the depression), particularly for the army. The Lyons government agreed to this only in the wake of the Munich crisis in 1938. Whilst Lavarack may have been foresighted, Lodge argues that his blunt, undiplomatic methods in presenting his views endeared him neither to many of his military colleagues nor, more significantly, to politicians.

Upon the outbreak of war, Lavarack was given the task of raising the Seventh Division, for which he was prepared to accept a reduction in rank to that of Major-General. The Second World War was to see what was arguably Lavarack's greatest triumph, namely his command of the Syrian Campaign in 1941 against Vichy France. Lodge demonstrates Lavarack's outstanding qualities as a strategist by a thorough description of the progress of what was a bloody and hard-fought campaign.

Lavarack's abilities were also manifest in the significant role he played in forging the terms of the armistice.  His success only increased the animosity Blamey held for him. Indeed, as Lodge argues, Blamey now saw Lavarack as a rival for his position of Chief of Command, A.I.F. Unlike Lavarack, however, Blamey had the support of the Menzies and particularly the Curtain governments. By contrast, the latter government in particular was very wary of Lavarack.

Lavarack's change in fortunes began six months later when he was assigned to the Dutch Netherlands, following Japan's entry into the war.  In the eyes of many, Lavarack was damned for allowing the disembarkation of 3000 troops, most of whom were soon to be captured by the Japanese. Lodge analyses this incident carefully and argues that whilst Lavarack was critical of instructions he received from the Curtin government to disembark the troops as he foresaw the fall of Sumatra, he was first and foremost a soldier required to obey orders.

Lodge concedes that had Blamey been in charge, the troops would not have been landed merely to satisfy politicians who wished to present Australia in a positive light to her allies. However, Blamey, unlike Lavarack, was able to involve himself actively in the political decision making process, an involvement that many politicians resented.

Upon his return, Lavarack was effectively sidelined. Lodge argues that it was largely due to Blamey's machinations and Curtin's distrust of him that Lavarack was never to command a fighting force again. With his appointment to the position of Australian Military Attache to the United States, Lavarack was diverted from advancement. He retired from the army in 1946, disappointed that the rank of General had been denied to him.

Lavarack: Rival General is the product of careful scholarship.  The main primary sources have been consulted, evidenced by the extensive reference to them in the footnotes. The work ends with a well written conclusion that summarises the main features that characterised Lavarack: a man who was a brilliant strategist and leader and whose analyses of defence requirements were foresighted; yet at the same time, a man whose undiplomatic bluntness and other personal traits did not endear himself to politicians and some of his military colleagues, particularly Blamey, giving rise to an antipathy that was to lead to Lavarack's downfall.

Michael Daniel

National Observer No. 41 - Winter 1999