Books for children and adults mark Anzac Day

by Matthew Wright / 18 April, 2011
A 2011 roundup of the best war-related literature.
A few years ago, the managing editor of what was then our oldest publisher, Reed, suggested to me we would look back on the early 2000s as the golden age of military publishing. He was right. Seventeen books were published about New Zealand’s military history in April 2005 alone – two of them mine.

With hindsight, that volume was unsurprising. Anzac Day – the day our first great campaign overseas opened in 1915 – was inextricably tied up in our self-identity as a nation. By 2000, it had become our de facto national day. Suddenly, after a generation of post-Vietnam guilt by association when it came to military matters, it was all right to be interested. And rightly so; the two world wars did much to shape New Zealand’s society.

Saturation has not dimmed the effort of late. History is really about understanding humanity – a field that never stops giving. There is always something new to say and the territory expands with its authorship; our view of our past changes as we do – and war history is one of the best lenses for exploring the hard truths of the human condition.

Chris Slane and Matt Elliott’s NICE DAY FOR A WAR: ADVENTURES OF A KIWI SOLDIER IN WORLD WAR I (Harper­Collins, $29.99) reveals that in spectacular fashion. Their book – framed around the diary of Elliott’s grandfather Cyril – splices memorabilia and text with the dramatic pictorials of a graphic novel to unveil the awful experience of our war in northwestern Europe from 1916 to 1918. Conceptually, it was probably a gamble, but it works – brilliantly.

Here we have an intimate melding of art, literature, humanity and history, a synthesis giving life and a startling immediacy to their themes. Although aimed at younger readers, and coyly avoiding the dark side of New Zealand’s leave experience – an STD rate that ran well ahead of other forces – this book is laden with poignancy for readers of every age.

Peter Hart’s GALLIPOLI (Profile, $75) is a British account that pivots on the notion that the whole Gallipoli campaign was basically a giant cock-up. He gives due dimension to the Anzacs and shows without doubt that the Anzac landings were in the wrong place – using the words of the man who misplaced them. Midshipman John Metcalf of HMS Triumph, worried about enfilading fire from Gaba Tepe, turned the first wave of boats 40 degrees left as they rowed in, on his own authority. “There was no one to consult,” he explained.

Instead of coming ashore on a gentle beach, thanks to Metcalf the Anzacs debouched into the steep-sloping “Anzac Cove”. John Dix, Metcalf’s senior officer and one of the few who were privy to the plan, was horrified to see the boats landing “some way to port of our objective”.

Glyn Harper, professor of war studies at Massey University, nevertheless believes the landings were correctly placed, in his edited compilation LETTERS FROM GALLIPOLI: NEW ZEALAND SOLDIERS WRITE HOME (AUP, $45). The book is built around 200 letters written home during the Gallipoli campaign, which Harper tells us he assembled with the help of his wife.

Unfortunately, Harper’s editorial discussions are limited to a brief preface. This is a pity; more fully exploring the meaning of his chosen content would add huge value to this book. The fact was that, despite frankness, our young soldiers did not reveal all the horrors to their mothers, as their diaries make clear. Harper’s main introduction instead offers a shallow once-over of the campaign based on others’ work, History 101-style. Without primary references, his shots at our leading military historian, Chris­topher ­Pugsley, seem cheap.

The title of Ron Palenski’s KIWI BATTLEFIELDS (Hodder Moa, $44.99) suggests a different spin on the well-known history of our land battles. The cover uses a fabulous palette and style redolent of war memorials. However, Palenski’s knack for dimensional character portrayal and a great writing style do not entirely make up for the fact this book is yet another once-over-lightly collection of battle narratives. Palenski’s main problem is he doesn’t use much recent source material. Consequently, he wallows behind current thinking – as with the battle for Crete, where he summarises the debate to 1994, but no further.

A different sort of battlefield features in Max Lambert’s DAY AFTER DAY: NEW ZEALANDERS IN FIGHTER COMMAND (HarperCollins, $44.99). This remarkable book looks at Kiwis in the RAF’s Fighter Command, especially in that dire summer of 1940 when Kiwi pilots were in the forefront of the defence against Hitler’s Luftwaffe. It’s a great read that consciously avoids the enthusiast techno-details that are of no particular relevance to the human side of fighting.

Keren M Chiaroni’s THE LAST OF THE HUMAN FREEDOMS: THE FRENCH CIVILIANS WHO CHOSE TO HELP KIWIS DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (HarperCollins, $38.99) uses tales of New Zealand airmen shot down over occupied France to explore deeper questions about human reality and the complexities of character. The strength of this book is Chiaroni’s deft use of war as a device for exposing the essential nature of humanity. Why did some French people put their lives on the line to save strangers? Chiaroni buoys her theme on the words of concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl – that when all was lost, there remained the “last of the human freedoms”, the choice of attitude. And against the weakness of a compliant Vichy regime, many French chose an affirmation of “humanity in the face of human failure”. This is war history at its very best.

The heart of our war memory, of course, remains Anzac Day, and writer Feana Tu‘akoi’s and illustrator Elspeth Alix Batt’s LEST WE FORGET (Scholastic, $31), for children, explains delightfully why we attend Anzac services.

Her message is clear – and one we should all remember. The 20th century was the most violent era in the history of the world. The wars were a human catastrophe of colossal scale, so terrible we rightly decry the folly of it all. And we must never forget those who died so we could live.

Matthew Wright’s books include Shattered Glory: The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front. He blogs at mjwrightnz.wordpress.com
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