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.

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