The Territorials by Peter Cooke and John Crawford review

by Fiona Rae / 11 February, 2012
A history of our citizen-soldiery was overdue, but this one lacks sparkle.
Once upon a time, we were a nation of "weekend warriors" – the Territorials, an institution variously dreaded, accepted or fondly remembered by generations. The story of our "Terries" is long overdue for the telling and New Zealand Defence Force historian John Crawford and independent historian Peter Cooke have filled the gap with a history of New Zealand's citizen-soldiery commissioned by the NZDF.

This is an impressive tome – case-bound, fabulously illustrated, a joyful expression of book-making art. There is even a bookmark bound into the spine. Wonderful stuff. The picture selection and reproduction is superb, as are the colour maps showing unit locations around New Zealand. The research is impeccably detailed.

Unfortunately, Cooke and Crawford have presented much of this in a passive writing style so awkwardly phrased, in places, as to have a certain inept charm: "Despite national service having ended, its enabling act was retained pending new legislation to carry on the employment protection." Or: "With the Territorial units formed, men posted to them and the administrative and training support in place, training of the new force could begin." The flow is sometimes broken by extra data or qualifying comments in parentheses. Although some chapters are better, the clumsy barrage makes the overall book a slog to read.

The more crucial problem is a lack of wider human interpretation. The text is a narrative that focuses heavily on administrative change and policy development. Cooke and Crawford tell us what happened, often in infinitesimal detail – even devoting five pages to reproducing an Order of Battle. But they do not particularly explain why or much explore the human depth. There are potted biographies of leading figures, but other than James Stichbury's diary, isolated in a sidebar, there is little on individual Terries as people – their words, thoughts, impressions. In short, what it was like as a human experience.

This is what makes history meaningful, and it is not as if the story has been lost – there are diaries, letters, people to talk to. A generously large infusion of their words and emotions would have nourished the reading experience. To me, the standards for public military history were set over 50 years ago by the first generation of government war historians – highlighted by Dan Davin's Crete. The Territorials has nothing of that sparkle.

THE TERRITORIALS: THE HISTORY OF THE TERRITORIAL AND VOLUNTEER FORCES OF NEW ZEALAND, by Peter Cooke and John Crawford (Random House, $59.99).



Matthew Wright is one of New Zealand’s most published historians. He blogs at mjwrightnz.wordpress.com.
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