Captions and context, David Littlewood

The Anzacs: An Inside View of New Zealanders at Gallipoli
Auckland War Memorial Museum
Penguin, $45.00,
ISBN 9780143572336

Brothers in Arms: Gordon and Robin Harper in the Great War
Jock Phillips with Philip Harper and Susan Harper
NZHistoryJock, $40.00,
ISBN 9780473308773

One of the more encouraging historiographical developments of recent times has been a greater willingness to prioritise alternative sources. Instead of producing blocks of text with a few pictures thrown in for embellishment, scholars are increasingly using images as a central part of their efforts to communicate the “experiences” of the past. Both The Anzacs and Brothers in Arms demonstrate the potential of this approach for studies of New Zealand soldiers during the Great War. However, one of them manages to structure and balance its various elements more effectively than the other.

The Anzacs is based on over 150 photographs taken by New Zealand soldiers before and during the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. Comprising a selection from the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s extensive holdings, many of these images have never previously been published. The book also includes a concise overview of events by historian Damien Fenton, a fascinating account of amateur photography amongst the Anzacs by pictorial curator Shaun Higgins, and seven brief biographies of the photographers.

The photographs themselves are simply stunning. Sometimes humorous, frequently harrowing and always emotive, they have clearly been selected with considerable care. Even when there are so many excellent written accounts of Gallipoli, nothing can rival an image for appreciating the immense difficulty of the terrain or the exposed nature of the Anzac beachhead. The photographs of dead bodies and preparations for battle have a profound impact. Yet there is considerable poignancy, too, in witnessing the men going about everyday tasks, such as resting, building shelters or getting a haircut.

The photographs also starkly illustrate the costs of the campaign. Between the unappealing food, squalid quarters and ever-present danger of death or injury, it is little wonder that the men’s health deteriorated to such a visible extent. Certainly, the photographs help us to understand how soldiers could become so desperate for a wash and a cool down that they would brave shellfire just to swim in the sea. Perhaps the most striking images are those contained on a double page at the end of the collection. On one side, mountains of stores can be seen burning on a beach during the Allied evacuation. Opposite, a body covered in the Union Jack is committed to its final resting place in the Aegean Sea. These photographs constitute a powerful summary of what was a military and humanitarian disaster.

Yet, for two reasons, The Anzacs is not as satisfying to read as it could have been. The first concerns presentation. On leafing through the book, it becomes apparent that there is an awful lot of empty space. Large white borders threaten to swallow up the smaller photographs, while many pages feature nothing more than a caption pressed against the right-hand edge. Even more jarring are the handful of completely blank pages, and the fact that some captions are not alongside the photograph they refer to.

Presentation is obviously a subjective concept, but the second issue is more fundamental. The book is structured with one essay at the start and one at the end, with the photographs grouped together in the middle. Having such a rigid three-part structure means the different elements do not interact with each other and that the photographs are separated from their wider context. While every image has its own caption, these are very brief and often include technical terms and feature names that make little sense without access to the overall narrative of the campaign. This problem of context is exacerbated by the lack of any references for the first essay, and by the absence of recommendations for further reading.

A comparison with Brothers in Arms is revealing. This book tells the story of Gordon and Robin Harper, who served together in the Canterbury Mounted Rifles at Gallipoli and during the Sinai campaign in the Middle East. It features a series of essays by historian Jock Phillips, in addition to the brothers’ letters and photographs, and images of a collection of artefacts that they brought or sent home.

Robin’s and Gordon’s tale is intensely moving. Fighting alongside each other was clearly a source of pride and comfort, but also magnified their worries and created considerable heartache whenever they were separated. Phillips’s essays provide just the right amount of background, while the inclusion of such a unique set of artefacts (including a captured machine-gun) and photographs help to set this volume apart from other biographies of New Zealand soldiers.

Brothers in Arms successfully avoids the pitfalls that somewhat mar The Anzacs. In terms of presentation, its pages are full without being cluttered, and the captions are always situated alongside their respective images. The book provides plentiful references for its material and gives some useful recommendations for further reading on both the Harpers and the war in general. Crucially, the text, diaries, photographs and artefacts are also woven together, rather than being separated into different sections. This means there is no need to keep flicking back and forth for reminders, while the impact of each element is greatly enhanced by being situated alongside the others. As one reads about the nine-hour armistice at Gallipoli, or about Gordon’s death in action during the Sinai campaign, it is simply a matter of glancing across to the accompanying image to visualise what is being described.

The centenary of the Great War has already seen the release of many publications about New Zealand soldiers, and doubtless there are many more still to come. These books are both valuable additions to this growing body of work, with an extensive use of images adding considerably to their appeal. However, while The Anzacs provides some compelling visuals, Brothers in Arms is a more rounded and immersive account of the Great War experience.

David Littlewood is a lecturer in history at Massey University in Palmerston North.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and War
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