Review of Private Ryan and the Lost Peace: A Defiant Soldier and the Struggle Against the Great War by Douglas Newton.

In October 1916 Australian soldier Private Ted Ryan was in England, recuperating from wounds and shellshock after a stint on the Somme. As he prepared to return to the battlefield he railed against the fighting – what he called ‘this slaughter of human lives’ – and the politicians and statesmen who seemed to revel in their refusal to negotiate an end to the carnage. Ryan channelled his anger into a five page letter to British Labour politician and outspoken peace advocate Ramsay MacDonald. He boldly claimed that ‘every man I have spoken to is absolutely sick of the whole business’ and urged MacDonald to continue his quest for a peaceful end to the war.

Ryan’s impassioned letter and his vehement objections to the prolonged war form the basis of historian Douglas Newton’s latest book, Private Ryan and the Lost Peace. The book is a welcome contribution to a growing body of literature examining Australia and the First World War from a broader, international perspective. For decades, Australian conceptions of the war tended to be nation-bound and focused on the battlefield, resulting in long-held myths of Anzac soldierly exceptionalism and universal support at home for the war effort. From the 2000s on, though, historians and other scholars argued that examining the global context and the connections between battlefield and home front are crucial to understanding the complexity of Australians’ experiences of the war. Private Ryan and the Lost Peace provides an important counter-narrative to the seemingly unrelenting ‘Anzackery’ of recent years.

Newton deftly weaves together two narratives and two approaches to history: the ‘bottom up’ story of working-class orphan Ted Ryan from the regional New South Wales mining town of Broken Hill and his experiences of the hardships and horrors of war, and the ‘top down’ international politicking and diplomacy that embroiled Ryan and thousands of other Australians in years of conflict on the other side of the world. Ryan left little in the way of records himself, but Newton fleshes out his historical silhouette (at times a little dramatically for my taste, it must be said) with military records, newspaper articles, oral histories, and other soldiers’ diaries, letters and memoirs. Indeed, the book is a testament to the rich sources available to those interested in the First World War, and the ways in which these sources can be used to ask new questions and produce new histories. 

The book begins with Ryan’s journey to war. We follow his enlistment, travel to Egypt, and eventual arrival in France with the 51st Battalion. We also track Ryan’s realisation that the noble causes for which he enlisted to fight – to liberate territories conquered by the beastly Hun – had been replaced by expansionist war aims and secret deals between the Entente powers predicated upon the complete military and economic defeat of Germany and her allies. Ryan’s military record is punctuated by four courts martial for unauthorised absences (absences Newton argues were a form of protest against the increasingly murky rationale for continuing the war) and subsequent punishments, including a commuted death sentence and time in a military prison.

‘Camp Mena’, Egypt (Museums Victoria)

Newton situates Ryan’s individual protest against an international backdrop of growing opposition to the war and attempts to bring about its end. We learn of American mediation and arbitration efforts before their own entry into the war in 1917, and of the various anti-war movements spearheaded by factions of labour and socialist groups in the battered nations of Europe. Newton also reveals the stories of individuals who bravely challenged pro-war government rhetoric about the need to fight to ‘the bitter end’, like British anti-Boer War campaigner Emily Hobhouse, who embarked on a one-woman peace mission to Germany in 1916. It is astonishing to read (and also see in list form in a detailed appendix) how many opportunities there were to end the war before November 1918, and how the potential for an early peace was several times rebuffed, squandered or, in the words of the late Keith Jeffrey, ‘extinguished’ by politicians and statesmen keen to make their mark on history.

Ted Ryan returned to Australia after the war. He moved to Sydney, started a family, and worked hard until his accidental death in his early fifties. Though he appears to have settled happily into suburban life, Ryan maintained his political views, joining his local Labor branch and becoming involved in the factional infighting during the Jack Lang years. As another global war loomed on the horizon, one can only imagine Ryan would have continued to believe that Australians should be told of the realities of armed conflict, and that they must demand clarity and transparency from their leaders during times of conflict.

Remembrance Day is upon us. As people gather at war memorials across the country to mark the end of the First World War, Private Ryan and the Lost Peace invites us to reflect on the disparity between those who fight and those who send their citizens to fight, and to consider how we as a nation continue to commemorate this most traumatic and divisive event in modern history.  


Kate Ariotti
Kate Ariotti

Dr Kate Ariotti is an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow and Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Newcastle. Her research focuses on understanding the social and cultural impacts of war in Australia. She has published extensively on wartime captivity and the experiences of Australian POWs, including Captive Anzacs: Australian POWs of the Ottomans during the First World War (Cambridge University Press, 2018),  as well as the ways in which Australians have historically remembered and commemorated wars. Together with Dr James Bennett, she edited Australians and the First World War: Local-Global Connections and Contexts (Palgrave, 2017). Her current research project examines the changing policies, practices and attitudes that shaped the treatment of Australian war dead between the First World War and recent wars in the Middle East.