The Forgotten General by Jock Vennell review

by andrew.mcnulty / 12 November, 2011
Jock Vennell’s fabulous and insightful biography remembers the Forgotten General.
It is around six years since I heard Jock Vennell was writing this book and abandoned my own plans to write a bio­graphy of our most famous unknown general.

Major-General Sir Andrew Russell led a brigade at ­Gallipoli and New Zealand’s division on the Western Front in 1916-19. A local boy made good, the Hastings pastoralist was known to a generation as “Our General”. Yet he has attracted virtually no attention from historians. His command has been studied overseas – it is hard to go past Christopher Pugsley’s essays on Russell’s performance as officer and tactician. But Russell’s wider story remained unpublished.

Vennell has filled that void with a fabulous and insightful account that reveals there was far more to this man than his war. Russell abandoned a promising military career to look after the family farm in the 1890s. Ultimately, World War I was simply one chapter in the long life of a determined, colourful, hard-working farmer – and dedicated family man.

More context would have been handy. Russell’s inter-war ­membership of the British Israelites, his dalliances with right-wing Bible politics and his enthusiasms for unorthodox economics were personal. But alternative thinking was characteristic of local pastoral circles of the day, which flowed around a secretive hermetic sect in Havelock North. Russell was a member.

That does not diminish the book. Vennell is a dab hand with words. He has brought Russell’s character alive, penetrating – as all biographers should – to the heart of a complex, great and forgotten figure. This is more than a military history. It is a great insight into a 20th-century character that should be read by anybody interested in New Zealanders.

THE FORGOTTEN GENERAL: NEW ZEALAND’S WORLD WAR I COMMANDER MAJOR-­GENERAL SIR ANDREW RUSSELL, by Jock Vennell (Allen & Unwin, $39.99).

Matthew Wright’s books include Western Front: The New Zealand Division in the First World War Guns and Utu: A Short History of the Musket Wars.
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