Explaining WWI, Steven Loveridge

The Bantam and the Soldier
Jennifer Beck (Robyn Belton illus)
Scholastic, $19.50,
ISBN 9781775432074

The Anzac Puppy
Peter Millett (Trish Bowles illus)
Scholastic, $19.50,
ISBN 9781775430971

Best Mates: Three Lads Who Went to War Together
Philippa Werry (Bob Kerr illus)
New Holland, $20.00,
ISBN 9781869664114

Jim’s Letters
Glyn Harper (Jenny Cooper illus)
Picture Puffin, $25.00,
ISBN 9780143505907

Anzac Day: The New Zealand Story
Philippa Werry (Bob Kerr illus)
New Holland, $25.00,
ISBN 9781869663803

The contemporary challenge of making sense of WWI is made considerably trickier in regard to young readers with the, (understandable) limits on how the realities of war might be conveyed to the 5-12 age group. Rising to this challenge, and joining the surge of publications accompanying the war’s centenary, the five works reviewed here present aspects of New Zealand’s war experience to young readers. Striking illustrations, some sketched from familiar photographs, aid in this task, conveying scene and tone. Indeed, the attention to expressions and pose (which range from scenes of mirth to downward gazes and thousand-yard stares) are well used to convey mood. They are also imbued with an impressive attention to detail; though I’ll have to ask Bob Kerr how available The Māoriland Worker, which the Best Mates are shown reading, was at Gallipoli.

The narratives of these works represent the war in simple themes, typically expressed in pared-back prose. Three of the five stories revolve around representations of the war as a grim and deadly experience which impresses the importance of comradeship and the value of peace. Consider Jennifer Beck’s The Bantam and the Soldier. Drawing from family history to tell “a story of what might have been”, the tale pairs a bantam hen, whose French farmyard is immolated by shelling, with Arthur, a young farmboy-turned-soldier “from a country on the other side of the world”. In an act of kindness, Arthur adopts the hen, christening her Bertha after his niece (the author’s mother). The two titular characters band together with Arthur protecting and feeding Bertha, who becomes a mascot and egg provider for the men. This association endures during the strains of the following offensive which is represented with references to mud, deprivation, “shell-shock” and homesickness.

Similar elements are covered in Peter Millett’s The Anzac Puppy; inspired by, and dedicated to, Freda, a Great Dane who became a mascot for the New Zealand Rifle Brigade and whose memory is preserved in the Waiouru Army Museum. Another story of human-animal companionship, the book follows the bond between youthful soldier Sam and newborn puppy Freda, adopted on the way to the front from a young girl, Lucy. The two are faced with trench conditions defined by death, strain and attacks “worse than he [Sam] could ever have imagined”. Again, the focus is on companionship as a source of endurance in harsh circumstances, with Sam sharing his food and Freda serving as a rat-catcher. Like so much WWI fiction, the focus on select experiences unfortunately crops much from the picture; a story, explicitly set over the entire second half of the war, totally ignores the three-fifths of the time Dominion armies spent out of the line. While there are good dramatic reasons for this, a young reader could be forgiven for assuming that Sam and Freda resided continuously in the mud for two years.

Lastly, moving the scene to the Gallipoli campaign, Philippa Werry’s Best Mates tells the story of boyhood friends, Joe, Harry and the unnamed narrator, who enlist together. Travelling from small-town New Zealand, through Egypt to Gallipoli, the story is firmly based on the familiar touchstones of popular mythology of the campaign; enthusiasm for adventure and action is eroded by harsh conditions and severe circumstances which drive home the importance of mateship, a sense of common humanity with the Turkish soldiers and the pity of war. The Australian presence is referenced but, as too often happens, British, Indian and French armies go unmentioned.

All three of these books close with characters finding new lives in the post-war world and connecting their personal stories with posterity. A different focus is taken in Glyn Harper’s Jims Letters. One of New Zealand’s chief military historians, Harper utilises his expertise in studying soldiers’ letters to explore the wider ripples of war in family life. The story follows the correspondence between younger brother Thomas, at home in rural Otago, and older brother Jim, passing through the Middle East on his way to Gallipoli. The plot progresses with this exchange of letters and alternations between Thomas’s familiar and peaceful domestic surroundings and Jim’s exotic and increasingly tumultuous circumstances. The book impresses the gulf of experience and uses the personal nature of the brothers’ exchange to generate an intimate and nuanced mood which Harper uses to formidable effect. In this the story is well served by Jenny Cooper’s vivid watercolours and there is a high degree of detail in the book’s design. The letters (some printed and some removable) are given character with ink blots, personalised handwriting and, to impress frontline shortages, occasional improvised writing material. The background spreads include various ephemera pieces which complement the book’s creation of a contemporary mood.

The last work considered, also from Werry, is Anzac Day, which provides an introductory overview of Anzac Day, “what it is and why it matters” to 8-12 year olds. The book is divided into four chapters providing overviews of the Gallipoli campaign, aspects of the wider war, efforts made to memorialise the dead, and the history of Anzac Day services. Approaching this subject without the safety-net of a narrative demands accessible writing and presentation, and Werry ably rises to the task. Indeed, the level of detail imparted through text-blocks, maps, pictures and statistics means the book can serve as an introductory source well beyond its target age. Particular laurels include the concise overview of the Gallipoli campaign (with overviews of the other armies at Gallipoli!) and a very impressive documenting of a range of New Zealand memorials and remembrance traditions. Unfortunately, the high standard is not always maintained. The war beyond Gallipoli is given very little space with the second chapter, “New Zealand at War, 1914-18”, flitting across diverse subjects; the Western Front, nurses, Māori, Pacific Islanders and conscientious objectors are cramped into six pages. Furthermore, the text is prone to the odd instance of odd phrasing. We are told, for example, that “The First World War was once called the Great War because people thought nothing so terrible could ever happen again”. There is at least one missing premise between recognition that the war was terrible, thinking that there could never be another war and dubbing the conflict “the Great War”.

All of these works have demonstrated an impressive capability to address sensitive subjects. One curious contrast, however, is the pervasive silence around the context of the war. I do not believe I am seeding false memories to think that my eight-year-old self would want to know why the world and New Zealand were at war. Yet, none of the works reviewed here would give my younger self a clue. Werry’s Anzac Day, the most informative of the titles (other books offer brief supplementary information), effectively leaves “The New Zealand Story” of the title floating free from wider historical context. While the difficulties of communicating the complex realities of the war to young readers should, again, be acknowledged, I wonder if this silence reflects some wider uncertainties around representing and making sense of the war. Hopefully, these works will serve to introduce and stimulate young inquiry in the subject.


Steven Loveridge is a Wellington-based historian and writer.

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Posted in Children, Literature, Review, War
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