Sunday, March 29, 2015

Annie's War - A New Zealand woman and her family in England 1916 -19. Edited by Susanna Montgomerie Norris with Anna Rogers

This is an extraordinary, and personal book.  There are plenty of diaries from this period floating around, especially from soldiers themselves.   But rarer is the first hand account from the perspective of a family caught up in the turmoil of war.  Viewers of the Downton Abbey series would have had a glimpse of life during wartime, through the thickly glazed windows of the Crowley's country seat.  But that was fiction, interpreted history.  This book is the real deal. 

War has broken in Europe.  Annie Montgomerie has two sons, Oswald and Seton sign up as pilots in the Royal Air force.  This means the whole family must up sticks and relocate to London.  That, in itself is a remarkable thing!   London is a million miles from Godzone.  London endures Zepplin attacks, shortages and endless news of the horrors of the Great War.  Whilst her sons are serving Annie billets Kiwis coming over to enlist.  She packs them off with a bit of cheer, knowing that some will not return.  Oswald falls to the influenza epidemic that comes by the end of the war.  There are plenty of other trials. too.  This is a very rare insight, from a Kiwi point of view of the UK at this time.  I wonder as I read it, how Annie felt about this place that all subjects of the Empire called "Home".  After all settlers left Blighty to escape the Empirical vices and squalor less than 50 years prior.  Now the spectre called them back like a horrific drug addiction demanding their very lives.  How strog was the pioneer spirit that people like Annie could allow their sons to not only go off to slaughter - all in the name of a King who was so distance and ethereal he was simply a vision on a postage stamp.  For a Kiwi like me, looking back at the delusion of Empire, that tricked an entire generation to support a war that was such an incompetent farce it all seems so bizarre that a mother would voluntarily support such a risk as to let, nay support her sons to take on such a wild, daring ad hair brained activity. 

Susanna Montgomerie's archives are exceptional.  There are many family photos, reference points of their trips.  Annie's had some means to document her trip in both words and pictures.  Also, letters and other documents illustrate with a real sense of reality.  Helping to paint the full picture is Anna Rogers' foot notes and asides, which a necessary to get a full picture, and sometimes to simply help the reader to understand what is happening.  Because Annie, I think was only writing for herself.  Diaries at this time were not intended as anything else but as a personal conversation between the writer and God.  In that sense we are prying, perhaps uninvited into a life that was not meant to be revealed.  None the less this is an extraordinary journey, perhaps not really understood - except to say that a mother will always do what they think is right by their Sons.  And in 1916, moving to London to support a foolhardy adventure to fly over the Western front was a seemingly legitimate pursuit.

Susanna Montgomerie Norris was born in 1940 and brought up on the family farm, Taukoro, near Wanganui. She qualified as a teacher and spent two years teaching in London, then travelling in Europe and North America. She later trained as a children’s librarian. Susanna, who has a lifelong interest in history, especially that of her family, has spent many years transcribing and working on her grandmother Annie’s diaries, which were discovered by her cousin, John Montgomerie, who has also supplied a large number of the photos used.

Anna Rogers has spent most of her working life as a fiction and non-fiction book editor. She is also the author of eight books, including While You're Away: New Zealand Nurses at War 1899–1948 and illustrated histories of the West Coast and Canterbury, and is a regular book reviewer.

Gallipoli in Minecraft® - Fri 24 Apr – Sun 11 Oct 2015 / Auckland War Memorial Museum

Anzac Cove, Gallipoli in Minecraft created by Alfriston College students.
Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.
Come and explore the Gallipoli campaign in an exhibition featuring the interactive world of Minecraft®. This hugely popular online game is about breaking and placing blocks. Since its inception players have worked together to create all sorts of incredible and imaginative things.
Over the past year students from Alfriston College have re-created the landscape of 1915 Gallipoli in Minecraft®, block by block. Working with the Museum’s staff and utilising our First World War collections, the students have learnt about the experiences of the New Zealand soldiers in the 1915 campaign.
The Gallipoli in Minecraft® world will be available to download from 25 April.

The Anzacs: An inside view of New Zealanders at Gallipoli - Author: Auckland War Memorial Museum - Published by Penguin

The Gallipoli campaign was one of New Zealand's darkest and most dramatic, one that resulted in a devastating loss of life and cultivated a lasting legacy of sacrifice and nationhood.

This carefully chosen selection from the Auckland War Memorial Museum's extensive catalogue, with many images never published before, sheds new light on New Zealand's Anzac story. Through soldiers' amateur photography – candid, unassuming, revealing and, at times, haunting – The Anzacs charts life for those who served in Gallipoli: from leaving New Zealand and encountering an unexpected landscape to the realities of combat and dealing with death and loss. It is a book that casts an unstinting eye on the history – and the men who lived it – presenting events as they unfolded through the photographic lens.

'There is an air of expectant calm; no evidence of artillery fire or shot and shell, just a scene that suggests a successful landing . . . " writes military historian Chris Pugsley, in the introduction to this remarkable boo. "...all of that would change by the afternoon, and the keen young men in these photographs would end the day fighting for their lives.'

Barges of men towed to shore, Gallipoli, 25 April 1915.
Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB-382p7-3.
And this sentiment s reflected in Damien Fenton's essay of the campaign, which opens the first chapters.  He skilfully covers the main points from the botched landing at what became Anzac cove (the intended position a 1/4 mile further on) to the final retreat.  He also reflects on the demise and resurrection of the ANZAC day parade in the Kiwi psyche and what that means for us today and into the future.  This is one of the most chilling parts of the book because as I reflect myself on what inspired all those young men to eagerly join up, how they were so easily duped by the flimsy propaganda devised by Empirical nationalism, I wonder how easy it would be to involve us all again in new war simply by reintroducing those elements: the axis of evil, the need to protect and the promise of glory.  Today, as in virtually every theatre of war since New Zealand was first colonised, Kiwis have been the first to sign up and get involved.  Our urges of FOMO (fear of missing out) seem insatiable.  You see it here in the early photos of these ghosts - young men and their supporting families, as they embark for the 'great adventure'.  These are photos almost exclusively taken on rugged and bashed box brownies, owned by soldiers who could barely find their way to the toilet, let alone fight as a crack garrison against the desperate and fanatical Ottoman army.  Many of these photos are taken in the quiet moments, but you can just imagine the smells, the heat, the sounds of continuous gunfire, explosions and shouting.  Most of these photos are of men at rest.  It would be very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to capture fighting in action, given dangers of the close quarters trench warfare.  Stick your head over the parapet to take a snap and you'll instantly lose it. There's a couple of particularly desperate images taken in June 1915 of men wedged into a trench on Quinn's post, the most notorious outpost of the peninsular.  It's the newly arrive troops from the Otago regiment.  In the background  spotter has just seen a trench of 20 Ottoman troops and is in the process of directing his snipers towards it.  The business is as soulless and clinical as pouring concrete on a building site.  It has to be.  No room for emotions here. The look on the faces of the kiwis is brave in the face of complete terror.  This is likely a situation that they will not survive!

Two thoughts struck me looking at these photos.  One: How did these men so blatantly snap away?  Weren't there military restrictions or issues of intelligence and secrecy?  It appears things were less regimented back then.  It would have been relatively simple to carry a camera into battle.  Troop's postcards and letters were censored but not their access to a camera it seems.  Some photographers like Kiwi John Burnet Davis, were likely officers, who were able to take in personal affects like phonographs, to the trenches.  Davis spent time in Egypt, at the training facilities, and like many early ANZACS were amongst the bored and restless who were initially in reserve to the main action in Europe.  He took shots of the men sightseeing and hanging around in camp.  At that point it was a lark of sorts, but for the venereal disease and gambling vices of Cairo.  All that was soon to change!

Harvey Maitland Crystall was another 'correspondent' with wide access - he and his four brothers were all volunteers, Crystall himself was in the Royal Engineers both at Galipoli and at the Western Front, so carrying a camera would have been a part of his job, or at least permissible.  He was also away from the firing line for some of the war.  Of course the engineers were also those responsible for building the telephone networks and restoring bridges and trench fortifications so they spent periods of time in the thick of it. 

The interesting thing about these photo collections, which make up this book, is that all photographers made it back, and on the whole lived until their 70's.  What happened to the photographers that didn't make it?  What happened to their work I wonder?  The book has a few insights on this, but  really wanted more back ground to these photos - and about the people in the photos.  Much of the accompanying dialogue is about the situation of the photo but not the detail.  Of course, it might not have been possible to interview the photographers - some in their later years of life, and perhaps understandably unwilling to part with the painful details.  It reminds me to talk to my relatives about my only family collections and quiz them in detail about the individuals in the photos - lest they fade to the graveyard of history and be forgotten.

About the Auckland War Memorial Museum Pictorial Collection

The Auckland Museum is an authoritative source of images depicting New Zealand and Pacific culture and history with a particular emphasis on the Auckland region including photographs, prints, drawings, posters and paintings.  The photograph collection in particular is a major New Zealand Collection.

The Museum holds one of the nation's most important pictorial collections - a wealth of historic paintings, rare watercolours, photographs and other artworks. Selections of these are periodically exhibited in the Pictorial Gallery along with other touring pictorial exhibitions.
The Museum's pictorial collections are truly world class.  Most of New Zealand's greatest photographers are represented here, while amateur albums of family snaps and soldiers mementos are a hidden treasure for descendants and social historians.
The Polynesian Photograph Collection in particular is one of the most complete collections of Pacific "pre-arrival" photography and imagery to be found anywhere in the world.

For more go to :

Many thanks to the Auckland War Memorial Museum and Penguin Books for an advance copy of this book.