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Shadows on the Track

Australia's Medical War in Papua 1942-1943 - Kokoda - Milne Bay - The Beachhead Battles

Authors: Jan McLeod
Military, Papuan Campaign, Medical
Hardback C Format
C Format

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At Templeton’s Crossing in October 1942, Private Nick Kennedy paused to write in his diary: ‘One wonders why all this strife should be … these men in the prime of their life cut down like flowers’. As a young nursing orderly serving with the 2/4th Australian Field Ambulance, Kennedy was unenviably well-placed to reflect on the futility of war.

The Australian Army was woefully unprepared to fight a medical war in Papua and the soldiers paid the price.  Almost 30,000 soldiers suffered from illness and tropical diseases, and an estimated 6000 were killed or wounded during the six-month campaign. These statistics have traditionally been represented as unavoidable consequences of fighting a war in a place such as Papua.  This book disputes that narrative.  Death and disease were inevitable outcomes, but the scale of the suffering was not.  The medical challenges presented in Papua were extreme – they were not insurmountable.

Shadows on the Track considers a wide range of issues that impacted on the health of the Australian soldiers before, during and after the Papuan campaign was fought and won.  The strengths, successes, shortcomings and failures of the medical campaign are identified, analysed and evaluated.  The focus on the front-line medical personnel – the men of the field ambulance units – brings a new perspective to the battles of the Kokoda Track, Milne Bay and the Beachheads.  Shining a light on these Australians who tended the sick, mended the wounded and buried the dead in Papua makes stepping out of the shadows a little easier.

Jan McLeod

Jan McLeod

Jan McLeod is a historian and tutor at the University of Newcastle.  She has a PhD in History, Bachelor of Arts (Honours), and Diploma in Secondary Education (History and English). Jan’s PhD thesis critically examined the medical care of Australian soldiers during the Papuan Campaign, with a focus on the work of the field ambulance […]

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3 reviews for Shadows on the Track

  1. This book considers a wide range of issues that impacted on the health of Australian soldiers before, during, and after the Papuan Campaign, with a focus on the field ambulance units, although other AAMC units and activities are not neglected. The focus on the front-line medical personnel – the men of the field ambulance units – means that we are given a valuable and unique perspective on the conditions faced by the fighting men as well as information about the work of the Medical Corps. For both reasons the book is a ‘must-read’ for anyone interested in the campaigns in Papua.

    Reviewer: Robert Dixon, June 2019 | RUSI

  2. The Papuan campaign of World War II is often described as the battle that saved Australia, with Japanese forces advancing in the Pacific, set on invading the Great South Land. But while the brave servicemen who fought in the jungles of New Guinea are honoured as heroes who saved this country, author Jan McLeod, a University of Newcastle historian, shines a spotlight on the medical staff who saved them from wounds and disease in the campaigns of Kokoda, Milne Bay, the Owen Stanley Ranges and various beachheads from 1942-43. Her book was inspired by the diary of a great-uncle who served with the 2/4th Australian Field Ambulance and she realised that responsibility for the medical needs of 20,000 Australians fell to just a few overworked medical units who were heroes in their own right.
    GRANTLEE KIEZA QWeekend Courier Mail Book Club

  3. Historian Jan McLeod acknowledges her great uncles who both served in the 214th Australian Field Ambulance. My father Frank Masters also served in New Guinea around this time in the 216th Field Ambulance, so I am grateful for the insight into the role of the field ambu lances in New Guinea.

    She exposes Australia’s lack of preparedness to fight a ‘medical war’ in a hostile environment and the almost total lack of tropical medical training given to the men prior to their departure. Illnesses and tropical diseases were rife, particularly malaria. As a result, almost 30,000 Australian soldiers suffered from illness and disease.

    As McLeod concludes, ‘the men of the field ambulances bore witness to the best and worst of the campaign.’ For the first time we are seeing the action, not from the front line of the fighting, but from the point of view of those who came behind to deal with war’s terrible consequences.

    Reviewer: Peter Masters, June 2019 | Australian Defence Magazine

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