1910-1983 | VIC | War correspondent
Moorehead was renowned as a correspondent for his coverage of World War II campaigns in the Middle East and Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe, for his Nile series African Trilogy, his biography of Field Marshal Montgomery, and his history Gallipoli. The critic Clive James wrote of African Trilogy that it was "perhaps the best example of Moorehead's characteristic virtue as a war correspondent: he could widen the local story to include its global implications". James rated him "a far better reporter on combat than his friend Ernest Hemingway".
Alan McCrae Moorehead was the outstanding Australian writer-journalist of his generation. He melded the role of reporter, war correspondent, eyewitness to history and literary historian in a remarkable career cut short by a stroke in 1966 that robbed him of his ability to communicate.
But before that happened Melbourne-born and educated Moorehead had created a body of work that ensured his reputation as an Australian author of the front rank, and someone of unusual cultural significance. As Australia marks the Gallipoli Centenary in 2015, it is worth recalling Moorehead re-awakened interest in the Gallipoli story with publication of his book, Gallipoli (1956), and before that his account in New Yorker magazine of a visit to the Dardanelles that appeared in its April, 1955 edition. In that essay, Moorehead, who had been sceptical about the “whole elaborate Anzac legend’’, described his conversion.
The Australian expatriate broadcaster Michael Charlton paid Moorehead a great compliment when he told Moorehead-biographer Tom Pocock: “He [Moorhead] gave Australia back its history.’’ Ann Moyal, another Moorehead biographer, described his Gallipoli book as the “first fully rounded, interpretive study of the Dardanelles campaign.’’ But beyond publication of the book itself and its impact on an audience at home and abroad (British critics took exception to Moorehead’s interpretation) the author had a more immediate influence on two other culturally significant Australians of similar vintage. Moorehead’s Gallipoli inspired Sidney Nolan’s seminal Gallipoli series in the Australian War Memorial, and George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, the story of a conflicted war correspondent between the wars. My Brother Jack is regarded by some as the great Australian novel. The three – Moorehead, Nolan and Johnston – were neighbors and friends in the Greek Islands in the mid-1950’s.
Alan Moorehead’s journalistic career began at The Herald in Melbourne in 1933 after he graduated BA from Melbourne University in history and English (among Moorehead’s contemporaries and friends at university was the journalist and writer Cyril Pearl). Moorehead tired quickly of the mundane world of lowly reporter in his home town, and set sail for London three years into his apprenticeship.
He became a stringer for Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express during the Spanish Civil war, based in Gibraltar, but frustratingly removed from the action. ‘‘I was used mainly as a courier,’’ he recalled later. By 1937, he had joined the staff the Daily Express, first in Paris, then in Rome and later Cairo in 1940 where he was able to fulfill a dream of becoming, in his words, a “high-powered war correspondent.’’
In the years that followed Moorehead’s achievements far exceeded expectations, including probably his own. Beaverbrook’s mass circulation Express provided the ideal vehicle for his talents, including a crisp writing style and growing self-confidence. He became the pre-eminent war correspondent of the desert war in North Africa before he was assigned to report on the struggle for Europe. In a prodigious effort for a journalist operating under the difficulties of wartime censorship and constraints on communications, he constructed what became The African Trilogy – Mediterranean Front (1941); A Year of Battle (1943); and The End in Africa (1943). He followed that up with Eclipse (1945) about the struggle for Europe, and in 1946 a biography of British World War II commander Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein titled Montgomery. In his mid-thirties with a wife (Lucy Milner, formerly women’s editor of The Express) and children he was on his way to a challenging post-journalism career as a freelance writer, equipped with a restless curiosity, extraordinary energy and superior writing and reporting skills.
Dividing his time between Italy and London, he churned out book after book, including Gallipoli. This was the work that cemented his reputation as a writer, winning The Sunday Times literary prize as Book of the Year and the prestigious Duff Cooper Memorial prize. Fellow war correspondent Winston Churchill presented the prize. Other notable works followed, including No Room in the Ark (1957), an early conservation treatise on the effects of big-game hunting in southern Africa. The White Nile (1960) and The Blue Nile (1962) proved his most successful commercially. In 1963 he turned his attention to Australian colonial history with publication of Cooper’s Creek (1963). He visited home periodically, overcoming earlier estrangement from the country of his birth. He had accepted an invitation to join the history department at Monash University when felled by his stroke. Alan Moorehead died on 29 September, 1983 in London and is buried in Hampstead cemetery.
Tony Walker is international editor of the Australian Financial Review and a former foreign correspondent for Fairfax and the Financial Times in the Middle East, China and the United States.
A Late Education: Episodes in a Life, Alan Moorehead, Grants Books, 2000.
Gallipoli, Alan Moorehead, Wordsworth Editions, 1997.
The Fatal Impact, Alan Moorehead, Penguin, London, 1956, 2000.