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We still remember them: The best in new Anzac Day reading

Men from 28 Battalion drive through the Italian town of Sora in a Jeep in June 1944. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

The tide of great New Zealand books on the world wars shows no sign of going out. Russell Baillie reviews four new Anzac books.

Weighing enough to suggest it may need its own gun carriage, the latest study about the much-documented and much-mythologised Māori Battalion is the heaviest artillery among this year’s books published in time for Anzac Day.

Sir Wira Gardiner’s Ake Ake Kia Kaha E! Forever Brave!: B Company 28 (Maori) Battalion 1939-1945 (Bateman, $50) is an exhaustive, richly illustrated military history. Its wider scope is the battalion’s entire World War II campaign with the New Zealand Division, from defeats in Greece and Crete to victories in North Africa and the long-slog invasion of Italy.

But as the title suggests, it concentrates on the men of B company, who were recruited from iwi in the central North Island and the Bay of Plenty and were nicknamed the Penny Divers (Ngā Ruku Kapa) after the kids of Whakarewarewa who would dive off a bridge into the stream below for coins tossed by tourists.

Gardiner’s effort follows his own concise Te Mura o Te Ahi: The Story of the Maori Battalion from 1995, as well as military historian Monty Soutar’s big-selling 2009 Nga Tama Toa: The Price of Citizenship about C Company recruited from the East Coast.

The new one is certainly an epic production. As well as 21 chapters, the book, on its closing pages, features a pictorial virtual who’s who of 650-plus of the 900 who served in B Company as well as a roll of honour and battle maps of the pivotal conflicts. It’s immensely thorough, from its scene-setting opening chapter about Māori service in World War I, giving context to the formation of the battalion, to life post-war and the efforts to protect its legacy since.

Although it’s very good at documenting what and when B Company went through and the military politics behind it all, it’s a little dry on seeing that history through those men’s eyes. However, the abundant photographs help give the book some emotional heft, as do occasional anecdotes about battlefield derring-do or off-duty mischief.

The weight of the research is impressive, as is Gardiner’s bundling of the operation and the personnel involved into one densely detailed narrative. It’s quite a feat, and if it’s more likely to be studied than read, for those whose tupuna feature in its pages, it will be rightly treasured.

The centennial may be over, but the World War I books continue. For King and Other Countries: The New Zealanders Who Fought in Other Services in the First World War by Glyn Harper with Christine Clement and Rebecca Johns (Massey University Press, $59.99) is its publisher’s latest in a line of illuminating works generated by the 100th anniversary. Like last year’s With Them Through Hell: New Zealand Medical Services in the First World War and 2017’s Fearless: The Extraordinary Untold Story of New Zealand’s Great War Airmen, For King and Other Countries has found a fresh angle on our WWI history – an engrossing catalogue of those New Zealanders who served under other flags. Of course, with our close ties to Australia and Mother England, it’s unsurprising that many Kiwis fought or nursed in other forces. Harper estimates some 12,000 or so New Zealanders did that, with some 1400 casualties among them. What’s so engaging about his book is the individual stories of some of those, the odd places many ended up and the occasional tragic ends they met.

Some familiar names leap out, such as future WWII NZ Division commander Bernard Freyberg and tennis champ Anthony Wilding, who died in 1915. Both served in British forces, as did Katherine Mansfield’s beloved brother, Leslie “Chummie” Beauchamp, who was killed in a training accident shortly after arriving on the Western Front.

Elsewhere, though, there are heroic tales, such as that of Dunedin-born James Waddell, who ended up as one of France’s most decorated soldiers of WWI for his service in the French Foreign Legion, which he’d joined in 1900; he offered to join the New Zealand forces in France but was rejected.

And the stories of the occasional conmen and scallywags who would jump from one army of the Empire to the other and of selfless nurses who just wanted to make a difference wherever they were needed round out this refreshingly entertaining volume of war stories.

Occasionally, the Listener review desk is sent the worthy efforts of folk who have had a jolly good go at turning the war experiences of their forebears into a book. The majority just don’t measure up and go mercifully unreviewed. An exception is Close to the Wind: A Story of Escape and Survival out of the Ashes of Singapore 1942 by David B Hill (Huia, $40). Essentially, it’s an ambitious novelisation of how his father, Len, and his young mates went from larking about in boats on the Waitematā Harbour as naval reservists to heading to Britain to serve in the Royal Navy. They soon found themselves caught up in the fall of Singapore, where Len crewed aboard fast but vulnerable Fairmile patrol boats. It covers just two or so years of Len’s war, in which he manages to be strafed by both the Germans and Japanese, and it contains quite a few scenes where one may wonder whether Hill had a screenplay in mind first.

It also has city-raised Len undergoing a slow awakening to his Māori heritage, which may sound like a sop to modern sensibilities but doesn’t feel that way. The story, though a join-the-dots exercise, is backgrounded with what feels like copious research. It has a great sense of atmosphere, whether it’s in peacetime Auckland or under-bombardment Singapore, and Len is but one of a bunch of memorable real-life characters.

Len Hill. Photo/David B Hill/Supplied

Though the writer’s existence shows that his father survived the hazardous escape from Singapore to Fremantle, which required calling on his Waitematā-honed sailing skills, there’s a real sense of peril as we go along on the ride with him and his diminishing number of comrades. Anyone who grew up with the likes of Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea on the family bookshelf will find this exciting stuff.

For a real-life tale offering lashings of old-fashioned hero-worship, there’s Partisan: The Incredible True Story of a New Zealand Soldier Behind Enemy Lines by James Caffin (HarperCollins, $25). It’s a reprint of a 1945 book about John Denvir, a New Zealand soldier who, following his capture in Greece after escaping from a prisoner-of-war camp for the second time in 1941, opted to join partisan forces in the mountains of Slovenia, then a part of Yugoslavia. There he made himself very handy for two years in the forces eventually commanded by Tito.

This account by Christchurch journalist Caffin is something of a time capsule, written after an injured Denvir returned home for a quieter life as a Temuka taxi driver. The writing is of its time but also taut and vivid – helped no doubt by Denvir having kept a diary – and unsullied by the complications of the internecine warfare between Yugoslavia’s various factions of the time. A ripping yarn.

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.