For better or worse

by Matthew Wright / 29 January, 2015
The 2nd New Zealand Division’s experiences have been woven into a fast-moving narrative.
Monte Cassino
Monte Cassino, Italy: the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944 was costly for the 2nd New Zealand Division.


Nearly 30 years ago, Christopher Pugsley redefined the art of military history writing in New Zealand with Gallipoli. In his latest book, A Bloody Road Home, he lifts the bar once again.

Pugsley tells the tale of our main ground force in World War II fighting their long and weary way from Greece to Crete, North Africa and finally Italy’s Taranto where – at the beginning of May 1945 – they confronted communist forces in the first encounter of the Cold War. It’s an enormous story, reflected by the fact that the official history of the division required over a dozen volumes. My own account of this force and its commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, spanned four books.

Pugsley has met the challenge of reducing this huge, intense, utterly human journey to a single volume. The emotional experience for those involved is emphasised by his bold decision to write in present tense. It gives his words an immediate impact – underscoring the point that the war was in the moment for those who fought it, just as our present is for us today. And neither the commanders of the 2nd New Zealand Division nor their men could know their futures. All they could do was give their best, working to what they could see in the often confused battles unfolding around them. This reality comes through time and again in Pugsley’s words.

The approach renders the book more than just another military history. Pugsley has given the story a life that any of us can identify with. The decision lifts his text well above the pack. It will be an enduring work.

In some ways the tale is a little breathless, but there is a lot to tell; the men of the 2nd New Zealand Division had a job to do, and Pugsley has kept to that theme, weaving events into a fast-moving narrative. Along the way he reveals his take on the decisions of battle – moments when, inevitably, commanders didn’t have the luxury of time or full knowledge of circumstance.

The fact of that combat as everyman’s war – as a shaping experience for more than 100,000 Kiwi soldiers – emerges through Pugsley’s extensive use of personal diaries and letters. Those involved included “Gentleman Jack” Marshall, commanding Robert Muldoon. And so we understand a little more about why they behaved as they did, later, as politicians.

Freyberg, divisional commander and much maligned afterwards by historians, comes through as he truly was – a talented fighting general who inspired men to follow and whose spirit infused the division in unique ways.

A Bloody Road HomeThe book’s production is a testament to Penguin’s team and a wonderful example of the art of bookmaking. The maps are clear and informative. Illustrations include official pictures by George Kaye, a selection of unpublished personal photos and a colour section featuring the paintings of Peter McIntyre.

If you buy only one military history this year, this is the one to get – a book exposing the key Kiwi experience in a war that, for better or worse, shaped New Zealand’s mid-20th century.

A BLOODY ROAD HOME: WORLD WAR TWO AND NEW ZEALAND’S HEROIC SECOND DIVISION, by Christopher Pugsley (Penguin, $70 hardback).

Matthew Wright is a Wellington author and historian.

 

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