The Brookes: a hell of a place

by Jane Tolerton / 25 April, 2013
Oral historian Jane Tolerton, author of a new book of Kiwi soldiers’ extraordinary World War I memories, shares a rugby family’s tale.
New Zealand soldiers at Trentham Military Camp – of these eight men, only one, in centre with hat, would survive; Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

"This shell exploded right in my face, went everywhere – through my shoulder, my leg, my knee.

“Somebody said, ‘My god, Brookie. It’s a wonder it didn’t kill you’.

“I said, ‘I’ll never get killed. I’ve been preserved for better things.’”

Martin Brooke’s left arm was shattered by that shell at Gallipoli, but he came back to New Zealand, got a farm in Karaka, south of Auckland, and strengthened the damaged limb milking cows by hand.

He married teacher Sybil Zinzan – “the loveliest woman anybody could meet” – in 1921. They had four children and 15 grandchildren, including rugby players Martin (Marty), Zinzan and Robin.

Martin Brooke died aged 102, never having missed an Anzac Day parade – and never having told his family about the incident that mangled his left arm.

“He never talked about the war,” says the only one of Brooke’s children still alive, 83-year-old Sandy, father of the rugby-playing trio as well as Naera, Margaret and Simon. “He only said, Gallipoli, what a hell of a place it was! He just said it was absolute slaughter. The Turks were up on the hill and the New Zealanders just came at the base and they just machine-gunned them down. Absolutely suicidal.

“He said the rations were diabolical. They [those in charge] didn’t seem to care about them at all. He reckoned it was the British, the generals back in England. He said they were drinking their pink gins and saying, ‘Send in more Kiwis and Aussies.’”

In not talking about the war in any depth with his family and with those scathing comments about the British leadership, Brooke was typical of Gallipoli veterans.

The soldiers of the New Zealand Division, dubbed The Silent Division, who fought on the Western Front in the three years after the Gallipoli campaign, also kept quiet about their wartime experiences. As historian Jock Phillips has termed it, there was a “national amnesia” about the war. It was a “mass trauma”, and the New Zealand way of coping with such extraordinary loss and suffering was to repress it.

However, the men did not forget and many were happy to talk about it – but only when they were very old and then only to people who were prepared to sit down and listen to what they had to say. What they said often did not square with what New Zealanders believed about the war – and that is one of the reasons for what was clearly an informal “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that took hold after the war and remained in place until the majority had died.

Only several hundred veterans were still alive when Nicholas Boyack and I set up the World War I Oral History Archive (WWIOHA) in 1987. When we put out a press release, dozens wrote inviting us to interview them. Having been given the opportunity, many wanted to put on the record not only their war experience but their abhorrence of war. The war had turned them into pacifists, but this had remained hidden while younger people protested for peace, even at Anzac Day, which most veterans held sacred in memory of their dead mates, often killed beside them.

We interviewed Martin Brooke when he was 96 and living in a retirement home in Takanini in 1988. He is the most comedic storyteller in my new book, An Awfully Big Adventure, which takes a chronological march through World War I in pieces drawn from the 84 interviews in the WWIOHA – although for lively telling of a Gallipoli story he is closely rivalled by Jack Moller, the grandfather of another famous New Zealand sportsperson, Lorraine Moller.


Brooke, born in London in 1891, said he heard about New Zealand from his mother’s father, a remittance man who came back with stories about the country and the Maori people. As a little boy he would touch New Zealand on the map and dream of going there.

After leaving school, he started working in a bank but “hated sitting there with the pen”. One day he went to the docks, got a job on a ship and phoned his father – a commercial traveller and domestic tyrant, according to Brooke – to say he was off to New Zealand.

He worked as a farm hand in Pukekohe, loved horses and in 1913 volunteered to be a Special Constable – one of “Massey’s Cossacks” on horseback; he had no regrets about being a strike-breaker.

When war broke out on August 4,1914, about 1400 wildly enthusiastic New Zealanders joined up in the first week. Brooke enlisted with the Auckland Mounted Rifles on August 13 and by coincidence his army number was 13/14.

Circa 1915: Troops landing at Anzac Cove in the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War. Photo/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

He sailed on October 16 with the Main Body, the 10 ships carrying about 8500 men and almost 400 horses going first to join the 27 Australian ships to travel in convoy.

At Colombo, Brooke and three mates went on a pub crawl and missed the boats back to the ship. They slept it off, ate a breakfast they could not pay for and were picked up by an armed guard. “We were on the mat before the major. They put a black mark in your pay book and what it cost you – a fine. I had a few in my book.”

Instead of going to the Western Front, the New Zealanders landed in Egypt and set up camp at Zeitoun, near Cairo. For four months they did hard training in the desert, climbed the pyramids and went to town to get a drink because New Zealand camps were dry until the adulterated liquor and a high venereal disease rate in town made a wet canteen a safety measure.

The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade did not land at Gallipoli on April 25, but stayed in Egypt with their horses. When they heard about the landing, with one in five of the 3000 men dead or wounded by the end of the day, they volunteered to go, arriving at Anzac Cove on May 12.

Brooke was wounded about six weeks later, on June 24, and underwent surgery on his arm aboard a hospital ship. After a spell in hospital in Port Said, he was sent to Cardiff in October, facing another operation as they tried to piece his arm together. A February 1916 note on his file says, “X-ray shows a gap in the ulna one inch long. This is bridged across by a thin strip of bone.”

Reconciled with his family, Brooke thought of staying in England – till he heard about the loans the Government was offering ex-servicemen to take up rehab farms. He arrived back New Zealand in August 1916.


Like other men we interviewed who had been born in Britain and arrived here only shortly before the war, Brooke saw himself as a New Zealander – superior to the Tommies who were paid only a shilling a day. New Zealand privates were paid five (the Australians, six) and treated more equally by their officers.

“If I’d gone with the English, I’d have been just an irk; I’d have been a nobody,” he told us. “There was more freedom here, and they did something for those who came back. [Prime Minister] Mr Massey with this idea of putting them on farms – because the farms had to be developed.”

Three shillings a day were kept back from his pay, and as he had no dependants (to whom it would have been paid regularly), he received this as his gratuity, and put it towards the farm.

He struggled through the depressions of the early 1920s and early 1930s and was proud he didn’t walk off the land as many ex-servicemen hit with a double whammy of physical and/or mental disability and economic hardship had to when the butterfat price plummeted and they couldn’t pay the mortgage.

Brooke had joined the Returned Soldiers’ Association in 1916, the year it was established, and later went there on Saturdays to meet his mates, always attending Anzac Day parades.

Says Sandy, “Anzac Day is more or less glorified now. It was a complete lost weekend then. Everything was shut down. There wasn’t a shop open anywhere, except the RSA – and they had a ball. They had a real rev-up.”

Brooke took part in Red Cross fundraising and other community activities. “Anything in the district that was going, he’d get in behind it,” says Sandy. “In World War II a few came back wounded. We’d all go round to give them a hand with their harvesting.”

At 67, Brooke retired and went for an overseas trip with Sybil. They returned to the Papakura house their sons had built in their absence – and their grandchildren remember their grandparents at this house.

Robin Brooke recalls his grandfather reciting Banjo Patterson’s epic poem The Man from Snowy River, which Brooke had learnt by heart in hospital. “We used to beg him to recite it.” He also remembers rides in the white Mercedes-Benz that Brooke drove into his nineties, and working in his grandfather’s garden.

Zinzan was fascinated by his grandfather’s “cocked elbow”, as he describes the war wound. “We used to feel his elbow through his shirt. He never had that flexibility, but it didn’t stop him from doing what he had to do.”

But they never heard how it happened. “We were inquisitive about his elbow but I don’t think we were inquisitive enough to go into depth because he was a man of stature. That whole thing about respect. He was an amazing man, a real gentleman and you knew your place when you were a child. Now you go back and rack your brain and think, ‘Why didn’t you ask?’” says Zinzan.

He remembers how his grandfather came to watch them playing rugby as kids, and his comment, famous in family lore, that Robin could have a career in ballet as easily as rugby because of the way he was dancing about.

Zinzan still has one of the jerseys his grandmother Sybil used to hand knit for the boys each winter, with the blue tag identifying that it was his. He plans to give it to his son when he’s big enough.

Martin and Sybil Brooke and family. When war broke out on August 4,1914, about 1400 wildly enthusiastic New Zealanders joined up in the first week. Photo/Brooke Family Collection

Sybil died in 1984, aged 87. Martin Brooke always carried the handkerchief she had been holding.

He died suddenly one afternoon in 1994. Says Sandy, “My brother Dick had just been in to see him, and before he got home, my father had died. Just like a light bulb when the fuse went. They said he just passed on. He was fit as a fiddle right to the very end.”

“I’ve had a lucky life,” Brooke declared on tape in 1988.

Zinzan Brooke says he imagines his grandfather had suppressed his war memories. “For the guys who fought at Gallipoli, it was a suicide mission. You put it to the back of your brain. You never want to go back. It’s locked in the head like a black and white movie, and they don’t want to relive it.”

But like the other veterans interviewed for the WWIOHA, who had survived not only the war but the next seven decades, Brooke had packed away his Gallipoli memories and got on with developing his farm and raising his family, but he took the opportunity to talk about them when it was offered.

He told his story with lots of direct quotes as if he was reliving it as he spoke to us on the record 70 years after the end of the war.

To read the interview with Martin Brooke in full please click here. 


About 103,000 New Zealanders served overseas in World War I – more than a tenth of the population. By the time the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, more than 16,500 New Zealanders had died and about 2000 more would perish as a direct result of the war before the Roll of Honour was closed off years later. Thousands more would die from the effects of war service in the next two decades but not be counted. Total casualties of more than 57,000 amounted to almost one in four New Zealand males aged 18 to 45.

Robin Brooke with a photo of his grandfather. Photo/Brooke Collection

Your family’s military past

To find out about those who served:

Cenotaph Database: The Auckland War Memorial Museum’s Cenotaph website is a biographical database of New Zealanders who have served in the military. Googling a soldier’s name plus “Cenotaph” will take you to the individual’s web page with details of when he (or she, in the case of nurses) signed up, and possibly more information. Later, it will be possible to upload information and digitised photos and letters to soldiers’ pages.

Personnel files: All soldiers had a personnel file. These are held by Archives New Zealand. Many have been digitised in an ongoing project.

The World War One Oral History Archive: This is held at the Turnbull Library’s Oral History Centre in Wellington. It contains 84 interviews, including only one woman as nurses had to be over 25 to serve overseas. Photographs were taken at time of interview and if available wartime photographs copied. Families who have photographs that could be added are invited to email

WW100: The official website commemorating the centenary of World War I: Has information about New Zealand projects to which you can add your own.



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