“Offspring of the battlefield” – WWI Kiwi soldiers in their own words at WCL

009100 years on from the First World War, there is no shortage of beautifully researched and written books on the subject by historians, sociologists, poets and others. Over the last few months, Wellington City Libraries has highlighted some of these books in our collection. However, our collection doesn’t stop with books written about New Zealanders in the First World War – we also hold those beloved items, original sources – items written and published by New Zealand troops, while still engaged in the war. New Zealand at the Front is one of these – words (and pictures and cartoons) from soldiers’ own pens.


The two editions of New Zealand At the Front (1917 and 1918) were written as an ‘annual’, a yearly magazine stuffed full of poetry, short funny stories, cartoons and drawings. “Written and illustrated”, as the cover boasts, “in France by Men of the New Zealand Division”. The editor’s note introduces the contributions and the men who wrote them:

   The contributions for this book have come from Trench, Dug-out, and Billet. They are the offspring of the Battlefield. … If they have neither the quality of culture nor of genius, at least they … reflect something of the ideas, the temperament, and the life of men who, from a sense of duty, find themselves engaged in a mighty conflict in a strange environment, far from their own land.

These might be modified raptures, but the contents of the annual lived up to their introduction as a reflection of the men who wrote and drew for its pages, many of whom are identified only by initials, or various nom de plumes.


The articles are stuffed with in-jokes and references obviously well-understood among the troops who penned them at the time, but bewildering today. Luckily, the editors seem to have anticipated some difficulties in translation, and provided a handy and tongue-in-cheek glossary for confused readers (a modern reader may wish to have a dictionary handy nevertheless!)

Other sections, and formats, are instantly recognisable. The annual contains many cartoons, often poking fun at officers or other soldiers’ quirks – the familiarity of life in close quarters visible in modern comic strips. Those familiar with the “How my boss sees me/ how my mother sees me/ how my friends see me” internet comic form can even see a distant cousin in one cartoon published in the annual, which compares, wryly, how “the padre sees us”, “higher command ‘seize’ us”, “mademoiselle sees us”, and “Mater sees us” – each sketch wildly different from the others (and proving the point that acute punning transcends time!).

013010The pre-occupations and domestic details of life behind the line loom large in the contents of the annual. From a full-colour watercolour of “Private Purripeef” displaying a haul of cans, to a story of nicknaming friends after “bulla-biff”, to a mournful piece titled “A Tragedy of the Line” – in which the tragic victim of a bombing is revealed to be a can of ‘Fray Bentos’ bully beef – tinned beef recurs as a subject at the top of many minds. Long marches are also a popular subject – a soldier identified only as ‘Rewi’ writes a tragi-comic poem about the significance of good footwear, which including the lines

Boots! Boots! Boots!

Till your latest breath

They will climb the hill to fame,

Trudge the road to Death,

Or march back the road you came.

Although many articles in the annuals are light-hearted or tongue-in-cheek, others are sombre, describing the desolation of their authors’ surroundings. A soldier named only as “Q” submits an article describing the “Red Lodge … as lovely a spot, maybe, as there is in the whole of Flanders”, which he and his companion Bob discovered in a Flemish field. Q writes “Bob said I remember, that it reminded him of a scarlet poppy on the mossy bank” – echoing the now-familiar theme of poppies marking war graves. “It is all changed now,” Q continues, describing the later destruction of the lodge. “Bob was killed on that accursed corner…” It’s possible that Q had read the 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields”, published in Punch, before he wrote his 1917 piece. The image of red poppies marking a war grave or memorial is one we now all recognise.020

The editor, who hoped these annuals would provide an honest reflection of their authors, may have been more right than he knew. The two volumes of New Zealand at the Front display incredible diversity of subjects, tone, and breadth of ability, many contributions beautifully and humorously done. The diversity of the men who wrote and sent in their contributions from “Trench, Dug-out and Billet” is just as apparent as their humour, and leaves us, 100 years later, a fascinatingly direct snapshot of New Zealanders at war.

New Zealand at The Front is held in the New Zealand Reference Stack Collection, and can be requested for viewing at the Second Floor Reference Desk, Central Library.

Anzac reflections – books from our closed stack

Anzac Day falls on Wednesday – a special day in the New Zealand calendar and one which is attracting increasing attention. Thousands of New Zealanders young and old visit Gallopoli, and many travel to the battlefields and war cemeteries of France, Belgium, Greece and Italy. Here at home the ranks of those attending Anzac Day services are swelling every year (even as the numbers of war veterans dwindle) – with many children taking part.

PoppyTo mark this day in a literary way, we’ve scoured our stackroom shelves for a few gems you might be interested in — have a browse!

(Please note – although these books are from our closed stack, they are able to be borrowed. Ask at any reference desk at the Central Library and a librarian will retrieve them for you!)

The desert war, by Alan Moorehead. (1965)
“Alan Moorehead was sent to cover the North Africa campaign in 1940 by the Daily Express, and he followed its dramatic course all the way to 1943. The three books he subsequently wrote about his experiences – collected here as The Desert War – were swiftly acclaimed as classic accounts of the tussle between Montgomery’s Eighth Army and Rommel’s Afrika Corps, amidst the endless harsh wastes of the Western Desert. It was Moorehead who was responsible for the celebrated insight that tank battles in the desert are like battles at sea, the lumbering tanks like ships lost in a vast ocean of sand. The New Statesman could not have put it better when it described his achievement in this riveting book: ‘There is something of genius in the breadth and penetration of his vision which encompasses the whole panorama of war and then narrows it down to the particular: the soldier stubbing out his cigarette before going into action, the expression on a tank commander’s face as he is hit . . . The story of the African campaigns will go down in history as one of the great epics of mankind, largely thanks to Mr Moorehead’s account.” (Summary from globalbooksinprint.com)

The painted years / by Peter McIntyre ; illustrated by the author. (1962)
“In 1941,when the English-speaking world was still stunned by the fall of Crete, a series of paintings was reproduced in the New Zealand press and in “The Illustrated London News” that portrayed the battle in dramatic reality. The paintings were the work of the New Zealand Official War Artist, Captain Peter McIntyre, lately appointed to that position by General Freyberg. Ahead were the momentous desert battles of the New Zealand Division, a remarkable journey with the Long Range Desert Group, and the weary slog through Italy, from which campaigns came a flow of compelling war paintings” (Adapted from summary on book jacket)

Bernard Freyberg, VC : soldier of two nations / Paul Freyberg. (1991)
One of Peter Mcintyre’s portraits of General Freyberg features on the cover of this book. The charismatic soldier fought in both wars and for both Britain and New Zealand, becoming the Commander of the New Zealand Division when the Second World War began. A hero in the classical mould, he was athletic, oustandingly brave, (he won four DSOs and the VC), intelligent and humane, and always concerned for the safety and welfare of his troops. His son Paul has written a worthy biography of this great man.

The trumpet in the hall, 1930-1958, by Bernard Fergusson. (1970)
Bernard Fergusson was a soldier, an intellectual and a romantic. He arrived at Sandhurst in 1930 and was subsequently commissioned into The Black watch, by which time he realised he had found his true vocation. He was General Wavell’s ADC, served in Palestine ,Syria and Turkey before joining Orde Wingate in his arduous campaigns in Burma.The book is an affirmation of his faith in and love for an ancient institution with all its values and traditions, but by no means an uncritical one. Bernard Fergusson ended his army career in 1958 and subsequently became Governor-General of New Zealand. a distinction he shared with Bernard Freyberg.

HISTORIC TRENTHAM, 1914-1917 (1917)
This delightfully nostalgic book is a stack gem. Produced in 1917 to “give some inkling to the civilian mind of what a sodier’s life in a New Zealand training camp is like and at the same time an opportunity has been taken of writing briefly the story of Trentham camp. Very many of the heroes of Gallipoli, France, Mesopoamia and Egypt were trained at Trentham.” It contains black and white line drawings and chapter ornamentations. Bracing jingoistic verses head each chapter and are scattered throughout the book. There are many many photographs of the men and daily activities at the camp, but looking at the serried ranks of serious, steadfast soldiers in the regimental photographs it is impossible not to think of the fate that awaited so many of them.

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