Further First World War stories

Although the commemorations marking the centenary of the First World War have come to an end, the war continues to be remembered and its stories continue to be told.

The war is a huge, big subject which sometimes, to me, feels too massive to truly comprehend. Therefore it really is those individual or local stories that can connect us back to the subject.

image_proxyThis year two books about very specific aspects of the war have stood out for me. One is In the shadow of Bois Hugo: The 8th Lincolns at the Battle of Loos by Nigel Atter. I like is because it is a detailed reexamination of one battalion at one battle, something quite rare.

The 8th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment were one of the volunteers units raised soon after the war broke out in 1914. Very new to the Western Front in September 1915 they were part of a group of untested battalions thrown into the Battle of Loos. Following the men of the battalion through their training and the confusion of this first battle, Atter has researched and told their story in incredible detail. This is an excellent book if you want to find out about some, perhaps, less well-known aspects of the war.

image_proxy (1)The other book that stands out for me is Percy: a story of 1918 by Peter Doyle and with illustrations by Tim Godden. This is the story of an individual, based on a small archival collection, poignant and moving.

From this archival collection Doyle has fleshed out the story of Percy Edwards, a conscript from North Wales who joined the army in 1918. We are introduced to his family of miners, the village of Cefn where they come from, and his sweetheart, Kitty. The illustrations really add to the atmosphere of the book, which reminds us that however big the big picture is, its the stories of individuals that connect us to and create that picture.

Are there any recent (or not) First World War book that have made an impression on you?

Armistice Day – Will you remember them?

Now more than ever it is important that we remember. As we approach the 99th anniversary of Armistice Day, on Saturday 11 November, it is good to reflect on the enormous sacrifice of our forebears, lest we ever find ourselves at war again.

Armistice Day – Wreath Laying Ceremony
Bridge of Remembrance, Christchurch. Saturday 11 November

  • 10.45am Gather with the veterans if you wish to walk in the procession up to the bridge for the ceremony.
  • 10.50am Viewing public gather for ceremony at the bridge.
  • 11.00am 2 minutes silence will be held.
Crowd in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, celebrating Armistice Day. Head, Samuel Heath, d 1948 :Negatives. Ref: 1/1-007108-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22898377
Crowd in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, celebrating Armistice Day. Head, Samuel Heath, d 1948 :Negatives. Ref: 1/1-007108-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22898377

I grew up in Australia and I can still remember being told at school to sit in silence for a minute – and not fully understanding why. This followed by many silent but awkward looks around the classroom as one and all struggled to either remain silent; or willfully goaded their classmates into doing something that they would be reprimanded for. It wasn’t lost on me that it was out of respect for people that had fought in the war but what that means to me now is vastly different to what it meant to me then.

Fortunately, most of our children today have very little concept of war and the suffering it brings; as it is something far beyond their living memory. Even their grandparents are now the baby boomers rather than coming from a generation that lived through either of the world wars. Maybe because of this, you get the sense that recent years have seen a decline of recognition of such solemn occasions as Armistice Day. I honestly can’t recall a time in the last few years that I paused at work to mark the moment. With all of us attending to busy lives, 11am has simply passed without comment from everybody in the vicinity. And this is rather sad.

Armistice telegram. Kete Christchurch. Armistace_telegram.jpg
Armistice telegram. Kete Christchurch. Armistace_telegram.jpg Creative Commons License

I think we need to bring Armistice Day back into the spotlight. I think it would stand us all in good stead if we do have timely reminders of the loss, misery and horror that war represents. So let us not forget, let us always remember, let us instill these values into our children so they can lead the way for theirs.

Come down and see us at the library and we will be more than happy to share our numerous Armistice Day resources with you. Then gather up your loved ones and head over to the Bridge of Remembrance on Saturday 11th November. Arrive in plenty of time to get a good spot where you can share in this solemn occasion and quietly reflect at 11am for a minutes silence.

Lest we forget…


Armistice Day

The Alice Network – Review

I spent the last couple of weeks down the rabbit hole, head buried in The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. The story captured me from the very beginning—no need to read to page 90 with this one; I was hooked by page two!

Cover of The Alice network

Nineteen forty-seven was hell for little bony girls like me who couldn’t wear the New Look. Then again, 1947 was hell for any girl who would rather work calculus problems than read Vogue, any girl who would rather listen to Edith Piaf than Artie Shaw, and any girl with an empty ring finger but a rounding belly.

It was a surprising, rabbit-warren of a novel, following the interconnected paths of two very different women, and spanning both world wars. One path is the story of Charlie St Clair, the little bony  girl with the rounding belly, on her way to an Appointment to deal with her Little Problem. The other is the story of Eve Gardiner, a stuttering half-French girl plucked from her life as a file girl in an English law office and dropped into the spy network in France during World War I. It’s also the story of their two quests—Charlie’s search for her French cousin Rose, missing since 1944, and Eve’s quest for retribution and for peace.

And, it’s the story of Louise de Bettignies, code named Alice Dubois, queen of spies.

Cover of A tangled web: Mata Hari

Have you heard of her? If you have, you’re doing better than me! Before reading this fascinating novel, I knew nothing about women spies in WWI apart from some vague recollections about Mata Hari. I was surprised when I realised that I was reading about a woman who had truly risked her life providing the allies with information. I mean, I’m not completely ignorant about the world wars. I studied Gallipoli in History and War Poetry in English, not to mention a having a fair few novels set during the wars on my Completed Shelf. But Louise de Bettingnies was a stranger to me. It’s a shame she isn’t better known, as Kate Quinn says of her in the authors note:

The courage, ingenuity, and resourcefulness of the woman christened the queen of spies needs no exaggeration to make for thrilling reading.

Not only was Louise a real person, so too were several other characters, and many of the events in the story are based on historical events. I didn’t realise this while I was reading, so this realisation, at the end, made the book even more enjoyable.

This book is, by turns, exciting, harrowing, poignant, a little romantic, and quite funny. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Charlie, after being refused access to her own bank account because she’s lacking a man, decides to pawn her grandmothers pearls, and Eve surprises her by pretending to be the said grandmother and browbeating the pawnbroker into giving Charlie a decent price. I’m definitely going to be adding Kate Quinn to my list of must-read authors, and I hope you do too!

The Alice Network
by Kate Quinn
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780062654199

Dear Mum, I received three letters this week

During World War One, many soldiers sent a weekly letter full of news to family, friends and loved ones back home. Many of those letters didn’t arrive, but those that did were kept. The letters lived on, long after the writers and recipients had passed away. Eventually the letters were stashed away in boxes in attics.

In recent times, these letters have been recovered and read for the first time in decades. Some families decided to keep these letters private, but others have chosen to have the letters published. These letters do not glorify war, telling instead of young men far from home ‘doing their bit’ for king and country.

But what happens now? In an era of Facebook and Twitter, cellphones and email, do soldiers still send letters home, and if so what do they say?

Do they tell you that the cook is not as good as Mum? Were they pleased to hear that you won a prize at the local A&P? Do they want to know how your exams went? Will they tell you that is is snowing hard and they had a snowball fight? Will they tell Mum and Dad not to worry, and all is going well? Will they tell you that they will be home soon?  And will they ask you to wait?

95 years ago today: Armistice Day in Christchurch

Photo of Crowd in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, celebrating Armistice Day.
Crowd in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, celebrating Armistice Day. Head, Samuel Heath, d 1948 :Negatives. Ref: 1/1-007108-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22898377

Armistice Day marks the anniversary of the agreement that ended the First World War (1914 – 1918) and commemorates the sacrifice of those who died serving New Zealand in this and all wars and armed conflicts. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month marks the moment when hostilities ceased on the Western Front in 1918, with the signing of the Armistice.

The 2013 Armistice Day Commemoration in Christchurch will be held from 10.50am to 12pm at the Sergeant Henry Nicholas Statue in the Park of Remembrance on Cambridge Terrace.

Today also marks 89 years since the Bridge of Remembrance opened on 11 November 1924.

The tiger ate my arm is no excuse!

A Canterbury trooper, 3rd New Zealand Mounted Rifles (Rough Riders)
A Canterbury trooper (not Leopold Acland), 3rd New Zealand Mounted Rifles (Rough Riders), preparing to depart for the Boer War (1899-1902)
This amazing story from World War I raises the “dog ate my homework” excuse to a whole higher level. “The tiger ate my arm” is no excuse for missing military service it seems. How would that play in these PC and health and safety conscious times? Leopold George Dyke Acland (1876 – 1948) was the author of a well known series of books – Early Canterbury runs and served in the First World War despite having lost an arm in a tiger attack.

Acland lead an adventurous life. He began his working life on high country stations Mt Peel and Cracoft Station. He then bought Glentanner Station near Mt Cook.  He served in the Boer War with the 3rd New Zealand Contingent known as the “Rough Riders”. In 1902 he joined an expedition to New Guinea.

After the war he sold Glentanner and briefly owned Lavercost Station at Amuri. He sold this in 1906 and went on a tour to India where he lost his left arm in a tiger attack. Acland’s obituary in the Press described the event. Acland, an English officer and an Indian sergeant major set out bait for a tiger that had been attacking local people. They managed to wound the tiger but while tracking it were suddenly attacked. Acland was dragged away by his arm and only rescued when the sergeant major managed to kill the tiger. Asked what he felt he replied “Oh! I felt no pain but what worried me was the stinking breath of the beast after it had been feeding on dead horse”.

From India he went to Japan and managed a shipping office in Kobe. After a trip on the trans-Siberian railway to Moscow and St Petersburg, he went on to London and then back to New Zealand buying more sheep stations – Braemar in the Mackenzie Country followed by North Clumbar at Hororata.

At this point the First World War came along and despite his missing arm he joined the Army Service Corps and won the Military Cross at Gallipoli. The NZASC was not usually a front line unit, providing logistical and administrative support, but at Gallipoli geography changed that. The army would not normally have taken a one armed man on overseas service but Acland had past army service and good connections so that was probably how he managed it. His later army service  on the Western Front was on the staff of General Alexander Godley (nephew of John Robert Godley) who was commander of the ANZAC troops at Gallipoli and later on the Western Front. Acland rose to the rank of major, was mentioned in dispatches three times and was awarded the O.B.E.

Digitised map used to illustrate The early Canterbury runs Other stations he owned during or after the war included Loburn and Cecil Peak. He continued farming part of North Clumbar. Early Canterbury Runs was published in 1930 and revised in 1946 and he wrote numerous newspaper articles. He was famed for his wealth of stories (not all of them printable) about early days in Canterbury. He married his childhood sweetheart in 1935. In later years he lived at Hororata.

This man surely deserves a book and somehow dying at Number 50 The Esplanade Sumner, in 1948,  seems a rather tame ending.


Thanks to Richard Greenaway who asked the question of Te Ara “how come he was allowed to serve in the military?” and Te Ara for forwarding the fascinating information about Acland’s military record.

Boys at War: Jane Tolerton AWRF 2013

It’s a terrible thing to talk about what I’m talking about, you know. But I saw it. I was there.

So said one of the 84 veterans of the First World War interviewed for the World War One Oral History Archive, which Jane Tolerton helped to set up in 1987.

Cover: An awfully big adventureIn An Awfully Big Adventure Tolerton revisits these recordings and puts the reminiscences into a chronology for the present-day reader.  When the words “we will remember them” were intoned on Anzac Days after the First World War, it was the fallen rather than the survivors who were being remembered.

The convention was that the New Zealand division was  ‘the silent division’. However, when researching her book on Ettie Rout, Tolerton discovered that those who had returned were willing to talk, but they had to be asked.

Just as well somebody did ask, as the World War One recordings are the most used part of the Oral History Archive. There were 84 interviews over three years and most of the men had never talked about the war.  Tolerton played some of the recordings and the voices came down all the years; vivid, candid and humble (the worst sin was to be a ‘skite’).

For an idea of what those at home were being fed about the war, Tolerton recommends looking at Papers Past. Small wonder civilians asked returned soldiers “did you have a good time?”  and no-one ever said “you must have had a crook time”.

Word of the session: tough.

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A hero for Anzac Day

Thursday 25 April 2013 is Anzac Day. You may have noticed last year that many wreaths and bouquets from the Dawn Service ended up at the statue of Sgt Henry James Nicholas V.C. M.M., northwest of the Bridge of Remembrance on Cambridge Terrace.

Wreaths by statue of Sergeant Henry Nicholas

Sergeant Henry NicholasHenry Nicholas was the first soldier from the Canterbury Regiment to be awarded the Victoria Cross. He died in action on 23October 1918 aged 26. He was awarded the Military Medal posthumously for his bravery during the fight for the bridgeheads at the River Ecaillon near the village of Beaudignies on 23 October 1918, 12 days before the New Zealanders’ capture of the town of Le Quesnoy.

All of our libraries are closed on ANZAC Day.

The other ANZACs – New Zealand e-book month

By the end of The Great War, forty-five Australian and New Zealand nurses had died on overseas service and over two hundred had been decorated. These were women who left for war on an adventure, but were soon confronted with remarkable challenges for which their civilian lives could never have prepared them.

They were there for the horrors of Gallipoli and they were there for the savagery the Western Front. Within twelve hours of the slaughter at Anzac Cove they had over 500 horrifically injured patients to tend on one crammed hospital ship, and scores of deaths on each of the harrowing days that followed. Every night was a nightmare.Their strength and humanity were remarkable.

Using diaries and letters, Peter Rees takes us into the hospital camps, and the wards and the tent surgeries on the edge of some of the most horrific battlefronts of human history. But he also allows the friendships and loves of these courageous and compassionate women to enrich their experiences, and ours. This is a very human story from a different era, when women had not long begun their quest for equality and won the vote. They were on the frontline of social change as well as war, and the hurdles they had to overcome and the price they paid, personally and professionally, make them a unique group in ANZAC history.

You can read The other ANZACs  as an e-book from our Overdrive collection.

The other ANZACs is also available as a paper book

Toby’s room is Pat Barker at her best

Pat Barker, famous for her World War I Regeneration series has returned to a similar theme with Toby’s room.

Elinor and Toby are brother and sister, they have an incredibly close bond with Elinor being the youngest and Toby the adored older brother. Early on we encounter a ‘situation’ between these two that affects the rest of their lives, and has a lasting impression throughout the book. Adulthood sees Toby starting training as a doctor and Elinor at art school. Neither are unscathed and both become unlikeable – but fascinating – adult characters.

Jumping to the outbreak of World War I, Toby volunteers and becomes a fearless medic leading his men into more and more dangerous situations, seemingly with little regard for his life. Elinor learns that he is missing, presumed dead, and this starts her obsession with finding out what happened. Her friend Kit from art school, who was in Toby’s regiment and has come home suffering dreadful facial scarring, seems knows what happened but refuses to tell Elinor. Why? The famous Queen Mary hospital that treated these returned soldiers for their horrendous facial trauma becomes a macabre backdrop from which the story now unfolds.

What makes this book so compelling are the main flawed characters, the descriptions of hospital and life for the men having returned with scars both physical and mental, and an increasing sense of intrigue and angst around Toby’s probable death. Stories of the First World War are always harrowing and this book is no different. It’s not a light holiday read, but it is enthralling and incredibly well written.