It was hell, Gavin McLean

Diary of a Kiwi Soldier in World War II
Cecil Coughlan (ed Garrie Coughlan)
Reed, $19.99,
ISBN 1007900104X

No Better Death: The Great War Diaries and Letters of William G Malone
ed John Crawford (with Peter Cooke)
Reed, $49.99,
ISBN 079001062

Until the upsurge in interest in oral history three decades ago, war diaries and letters were the closest we got to a fly-on-the-wall treatment of war. Or perhaps queen- bee treatment, since the generals and admirals typically dominated publishers’ lists – indeed, some of the Great and the Good’s diaries still sustain mini-industries. Take Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, for example. Arthur Bryant made a splash with his diaries in the late 1950s. More recently new editors Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman published Alanbrooke’s War Diaries 1939-1945, enabling a new generation of readers to share the chief of the imperial general staff’s surprise and frustration at being caught dressing in his tent by Winston Churchill who burst in, firing off orders and grumbling about his generals.

Modern military history has followed trends in broader social history and now pays greater attention to the experience of the rank-and-file and to non-combatants. As popular histories such as Richard Holmes’s Tommy and Sahib show, the other ranks also toted cameras and diaries with them. They also wrote letters to their loved ones that, even allowing for the censorship of the times, have informed the secondary literature that still shapes our view of war. New Zealanders have been part of that process. My most influential voice from the Front before Maurice Shadbolt tape-recorded the last WWI veterans for Voices of Gallipoli (1988) and Jock Phillips, Nicholas Boyack and E P Malone took a more scholarly look at soldiers’ letters and diaries, was that of a mere private, Cecil Malthus from Canterbury. Fittingly, Malthus dedicated his 1965 classic Anzac: A Retrospect “to my wife who kept my letters”.

There is, of course, a world of difference between an archive and a book. The strength of the new treatment of old warriors’ letters lies in work that historians and biographers put into explaining the context for the documents. Books written after the declassification of the Ultra code-breaking secret, for example, have thrown new light on the performance of battlefield commanders.

The contrast between both the subject and the treatment of Cecil Coughlan’s and William Malone’s letters and diaries could hardly be greater. Garrie Coughlan presents his father Cecil’s diary as an artefact as much as a text. He tells us frustratingly little about the late Cecil Coughlan. A short paragraph on the back cover tells us that he was a Dunedin bookbinder, who was drafted in January 1944 to serve as a medic with the army in Italy. What he did after the war or how his war service influenced him (or his family) remains a mystery.

Granted, he had little to work with. The facsimile reproductions of the diary at the front and rear of the book suggest that Coughlan’s diary was similar to those cheap little two- to-three-days-a-page pocket diaries we still carry today. A limit of 50-60 words a day leaves little room for introspection or analysis, but even so I would have liked to learn more about the diarist and the incidents and places described. Reeds’ designer has inserted some snapshot photographs and maps, and has gone for a typeset, but pseudo-facsimile look on tiny pages, giving the cover a pocket diary appearance. Perhaps the publisher saw it as the Anzac Day equivalent of the Christmas stocking filler?

The book has its charms. Cecil Coughlan comes across as something of the classic “soldier tourist”, along for the ride of his life, as the photos (predominantly of sun, sand and relaxation) suggest. February 1944’s entries are all about the long sea voyage and encounters with places where this Dunedinite seems to equate foreigners with flies: 10 February (Bombay) – “very dirty town and very disappointed. Yanks have spoiled things as usual. Dear prices for everything …. Natives here are pests, and real scroungers, rob the eyes out of your head.” A fortnight later Maadi camp in Egypt also cops the description “very dirty”.

Much of the rest of the diary records the mundane aspects of life in the Mediterranean – church parades, scrounging, trading, ice cream, snake hunting and far too many injections for his liking. By April, however, Coughlan was in the thick of it. “Cassino is a hard nut,” he writes on 10 April. He comes across as the archetypal laconic Kiwi. And 17 days later: “One of our new chaps got it yesterday. Bad start for him.”

Other entries simultaneously intrigue and frustrate. On 30 December 1944, for example, Coughlan recorded: “Maoris are shooting all Jerry prisoners, & Jerry
dropped leaflets down to say he heard all about it. God help our boys if they are caught by him. Very bad show on the Maoris part. Can’t blame the Hun either.” Who? Where? When? Your guess is as good as mine.

In contrast, No Better Death: The Great War Diaries and Letters of William G Malone presents the frequently cited letters and diaries of one of New Zealand’s Gallipoli legends, Lieutenant Colonel William Malone. Scarcely a Gallipoli book, movie or TV programme fails to mention this stoic Taranaki farmer these days, and it is a tribute to his importance that this substantial book, the product of two professional historians’ efforts (Peter Cooke did the photographic research), carries forewords by Prime Minister Helen Clark and the Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal Bruce Fergusson.

The book begins with a chapter-length introduction to Malone’s “full and varied life”. That shows that he was no ordinary man. He was already 41 in 1900, when he helped form the Stratford Rifle Volunteers, but he gave up alcohol and tobacco, took up physical fitness and reputedly even took to sleeping on a military stretcher to toughen himself up. Malone believed that “the world is made up of conquerors and conquered”. Intelligent, well-read, conservative and obsessed with cleanliness, he cannot have been the easiest of men to get along with.

Six chronologically organised chapters cover Malone’s departure for Egypt (chapter 1) and his service there (chapter 2); then chapters 3-6 take him through the landings at Gallipoli and the struggle for Walker’s Ridge, the Second Battle of Krithia, Courtney’s and Quinn’s posts, and then his experience up to his death at Chunuk Bair in August 1915. It was barely a year as the clock ticked, but as Malone’s lengthy diary extracts and his letters to his wife, family, friends and to other soldiers show, “it was hell”.

Malone’s personality comes across strongly. He, too, observed flies, heat and foreigners, but his rank as an officer and his enormous drive and determination to excel at every task given him, ensured that he had a better view of what was going on than Coughlan. His letters show that he focused on keeping his men safe, busy and clean. He was not always impressed by what he saw: “The Briton is a muddler all right,” he complains, reflecting on the bungling he saw. “If only some of the German thoro’ness could be put into us.” He prefers the Turks to the arrogant “Hun”. His last letter to his wife Ida concludes fatefully: “My candle is all but burnt out and we will soon be moving.”

Although I suspect some lay readers might welcome more background to the battles, Crawford and Cooke nevertheless weave a lot of helpful information around the documents. The photographs are placed near the relevant text, manuscript numbers precede the extracts, and extensive endnotes provide brief explanations of the people that Malone mentioned in passing.

Crawford’s conclusion pulls things together masterfully, recording the impact the news of Malone’s death had on New Zealand, how it influenced the later lives of his family, and the shifts in our perception of Malone’s reputation and legacy. Although Taranaki never forgot him, it was Shadbolt’s play (and later film) Once on Chunuk Bair, and Chris Pugsley’s 1984 bestseller, Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story, that restored him to a place of prominence in the national mind. Crawford notes that politicians have talked about affording Malone some form of posthumous official recognition. We shall see. In the meantime, this excellently produced book will serve as a generous tribute.


Gavin McLean’s The Governors, a history of New Zealand’s governors and governors-general, will be published by Otago University Press this year.


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Posted in Letters, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review, War
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