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Critics' Corner
8 July, 2009  
The Wolf

Former big wheel in the Canberra legal scene Peter Hohnen and feature writer Richard Guilliatt have produced a cracker of a book about the exploits of a German raider during WW1 … But there’s more to this than a boy’s own adventure … Graham Hryce reviews The Wolf


Peter Hohnen’s name will be familiar to many readers of Justinian and the Gazette of Law & Journalism.

Formerly senior partner of Macphillamy Cummins & Gibson, the prominent Canberra law firm, Peter almost single-handedly created the Canberra defamation jurisdiction in the 1970s and 1980s.

He acted for numerous high profile plaintiffs, including Alan Renouf, Lady Fairbairn, Sir David Smith and Sir Lennox Hewitt.

imageMore recently, he acted for Peter Costello and Tony Abbott in their libel action against Random House, the publishers of Bob Ellis’ book, Goodbye Jerusalem.

He also did The Canberra Times’ libel work for many years.

Hohnen (seen here, right) has now reinvented himself as an author.

Together with Richard Guilliatt he has written The Wolf, subtitled How One German Raider Terrorised The Southern Seas During The First World War.

Guilliatt is a well-known Walkley Award winning journalist and author.

Stephen Loosley, in a review in The Weekend Australian, described the book as “a ripping yarn”.

It is certainly that, but it is also much more.

The book chronicles the history of The Wolf, a German raider which inflicted a sizeable amount of damage on allied shipping for a period of 15 months between 1916 and 1918.

imageThe story focuses on the courage and determination of The Wolf’s crew – in particular her captain, Karl Nerger – and the people they captured, including Somerset Maugham’s young lover, Gerald Haxton (seen here left, Somerset far right).

The Wolf sailed from Germany, crossed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, circled Australia, destroyed more than 30 allied vessels and captured over 400 men, women and children.

The ship survived on fuel and food plundered from captured ships and returned to Germany undamaged.

Hohnen and Guilliatt also trace the post-war fates of The Wolf’s captain, crew and captives. This is the product of extensive historical research, including forays into numerous overseas archives.

However, the book explores more than one German raider’s extraordinary journey.

The duplicity and ineptitude of English and Australian World War I military officials and politicians is an underlying theme.

So too the unbalanced relationship between England and Australia during the First World War.

Then there are questions about the actions of governments during wartime, specially internment and the disregard for basic human rights.

This is highly pertinent following America, Britain and Australia’s recent ill-fated excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan and the accompanying illiberal domestic consequences.

The Wolf is written in a vigorous style and it is refreshing to read a traditional historical narrative. It’s mercifully free of post-modernist jargon and gender perspectives.

Anyone with an interest in military history, Australian history, the history of World War I and the politics of war generally will devour it.

imageThere is also an irony.

The Wolf is published in Australia by Random House, the publisher of Goodbye Jerusalem.

The Abbott and Costello libel case cost Random House a fortune, yet it has magnanimously published Hohnen and Guilliatt’s utterly readable tome.

Graham Hryce feels obliged to declare that he worked with Mr Hohnen for the best part of 10 years in Canberra.

The Wolf, Random House, William Heinemann imprint $34.95. The book will be launched by Mike Carlton on July 16 at Glebebooks.