Wes has written three books so far: Bitter Victory – The Death of HMAS Sydney, his second book Gallipoli – The Western Australian Story and lastly Battalion Into Battle.
I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with Wes about his book Battalion Into Battle, for which I am very thankful.
Wes Olson is a full-time locomotive driver for Pacific National, part-time historian/writer and anytime red wine drinker.
His first book, Bitter Victory – The Death of HMAS Sydney, was published by UWA Press in 2000, and covered the loss of the Australian cruiser on 19 November 1941. This led to Wes chairing the archival committee workshop for the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Sydney II Wreck Location Seminar in 2001. He subsequently assisted David Mearns in the lead-up to the successful search and discovery of the wrecks of HSK Kormoran and HMAS Sydney in 2008.
Eight years service in the Australian Army Reserve led to Wes becoming a volunteer at the Army Museum of Western Australia, where he was responsible for the mannequin and weapon displays in the WWI, WWII and Post-1945 Galleries. This work resulted in Wes receiving two Commendations from the Australian Army History Unit. Wes is now assisting the WA Museum with the new National ANZAC Centre in Albany, which is scheduled for opening in November 2014.
Wes’ second book, Gallipoli – The Western Australian Story, was published by UWA Press in 2006 and was short-listed for the WA Premiers’ Book Award.
His third book, Battalion into Battle – The History of the 2/11th Australian Infantry Battalion 1939-45, was self-published in 2011. A second edition was released in 2012.
Wes is also a regular contributor to the West Australian Newspaper’s ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day wraps, and he is currently working on the history of HMAS Sydney II. The latter book is scheduled for release in 2016.
Wes has also made appearances in a couple of Who Do You Think You Are? episodes and also got an airing in the final episode of Coast Australia, which screened on Foxtel recently.
1/ What gave you the motivation and desire to write about the 2/11th Battalion which led to the publishing of ‘Battalion Into Battle’ on the 10th December 2011? Why this specific Unit for you?
Wes? The initial interest was there because my original ARes unit, the 11th Independent Rifle Company was historically linked with the 2/11th Battalion. Our drill hall was named Retimo Lines. The idea for the book came from a 2/11th veteran – Ivan Walter – who provided information on his uncles for my Gallipoli book. While I was still writing the Gallipoli book he asked me if I would consider writing his battalion’s history.
2/ The first edition was a limited edition of 1000 copies and was launched at the Army Museum of Western Australia (Fremantle) in December 2011. How did you feel when it was finally done?
Wes/ I felt very satisfied, but also privileged to have been able to help tell the 2/11th Battalion story.
3/ How many years by the candle light did it take you?
Wes/ 6 years.
4/ Were you surprised to see it go out of print so quick? It was out of print in about 6 months. Even we didn’t get a copy of that edition!
Wes/ Yes and no. I thought 1,000 copies was about right, and that there would be enough 2/11th Battalion families to absorb the print run. To this end the first edition was numbered and where possible I would match the book number with their soldier’s service number. For example WX764 Norm Eaton received book No.764. Olwyn Green received No.121 because her late husband Charlie was NX121.
But I was surprised by the interest shown by folk with no connection with the battalion.
5/ Is it a surprise to you that there is still so much pride and interest in these Australian Units? I mean 1000 copies in 6 months on one specific unit shows something?
Wes) To be honest I would like to sell 2 or 3 thousand. The battalion’s story is incredible and I would like to spread the word far and wide. One copy has already found its way into the US Library of Congress.
6/ Now, as I have mentioned to you in past, Battalion Into Battle is a top selling unit history. Why do you think that is? What is it with the Western Australian Unit 2/11th and also 11th Battalion AIF?
Wes/ Perhaps it is because the 2/11th Battalion was one of the last 2nd AIF battalions to have its history written.
The 2/11th, like the 11th, was the first to be raised in Western Australia, so it is the State’s premier infantry battalion Interest in the 11th Battalion (1914-19) is also huge and I think a re-write of Legs Eleven might be in order.
7/ When doing research, with so few original 2/11th Unit members left; how did you go about tackling the research? Memories fade overtime and people can slowly forget. (I can only guess at the thousands of hours double checking dates, times with much online and library research to ensure the most accurate history possible).
Wes/ Fortunately I had the blessing of KT Johnson, and his endorsement of the project opened many doors within the 2/11th veteran community. I was also able to draw on the wealth of material collected by the battalion association in their attempt to produce a history in the 1960′s Archives, museums and the general public (though newspaper appeals) were also very helpful.
Wherever possible I asked the veterans to proof-read chapters and provide comment/recommendations.
8/ Fortunately the 2/11th has a book written on their history to pass down over the generations; this due to the dedication and discipline it takes for research by authors like you. However, many of our Military Units have not been so lucky in that department – and sadly never will have their War histories documented.
For this reason, do you believe at the very least primary/secondary schools should have some regular lessons on what our men and women did during the war to ensure those sacrifices and histories are kept alive (on top of the once per year ANZAC day remembrance)?.
Wes/ Yes. I’ve noticed that attitudes to war history are changing, and that schools, interest groups, the media and families are now seeking information on individuals and unit/ship/squadron histories.
I noticed this change, especially in the media, when we started losing the last of our WWI veterans. We now have another generation, the WWII veterans, in decline.
I think I was very lucky to have started work on the 2/11th Battalion history when I did because quite a few of the men I interviewed have since passed away.
So yes, we need to get out there and record the story before it is gone forever. There are three ex-HMAS Sydney II veterans still alive in WA and I’m racing against time to get their story written.
9/ Do you find larger bookstores (walk in and online) are getting more interested in these types of specialty Australian Unit books? Or is it more the smaller specialty stores like Booksforever and direct to Customer sales? (e.g. are the larger online stores staying with what they may believe to be the safer titles like Gallipoli, Kokoda etc.)?
Wes/ Major publishing houses rarely take on battalion histories because there is not enough profit margin in it for them. So self-publishing is the only way to go. There are three big hurdles to overcome.
(a) writing the book
(b) publishing the book
(c) marketing and selling the book
Thank God for specialist book sellers like Booksforever which make (c) a little easier.
10/ I see you are now in the process of attacking a book on the history of the HMAS SYDNEY II due for release in 2016. I will speak with you on that when it comes closer. So watch out! But I love World War 2 Battalion histories, so I have to ask: Any plans for another Battalion Unit history? Or has the 2/11th drained you – at least for now?
Wes/ I contemplated re-writing the 2/28th Battalion history, but HMAS Sydney II comes first, and I’m receiving encouragement to produce a new history of the 11th Battalion AIF. Somewhere in between I would like to produce a detailed account of the Sydney/Emden action, but that’s another story . . .
I could add many more questions Wes, but glad to have you answer the above for Booksforever. I wish you all the luck in the world with your research on the HMAS SYDNEY II. We need more Wes Olsons to keep Australia’s Military History alive.