Harry Ricketts gave a talk about the Great War at the Tauranga Arts Festival. He began the session by reading two poems, the familiar Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen, and another by a New Zealander which is included in this book, Gold Stripe by Donald H Lea. I have always loved the Owen poem for it realism. Now I know there was a New Zealander to rival him in that. I also never knew that Owen’s verse didn’t really become well known until the 1960s after the fifty-year anniversary of WW1. I wonder if the hundred-year anniversary will do anything for Lea?
The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing is a weighty tome of over 500 pages, its thick transparent dust jacket hiding a design of multi-coloured rifles beneath. I found it interesting, fascinating and informative throughout. I was also moved by many of the passages, but having faithfully read it from cover to cover I was most of all inspired by what I learnt about New Zealand and its people.
The book has its beginnings in the pre-colonial days of Cook’s visit, before moving on to the New Zealand Wars. It is interesting to reflect that some of those early settler’s houses, that still survive today, witnessed all manner of dangers in their early lives. Finally I can understand some of the perils. The writing throughout the book is a great mix of both contemporary source and modern re-imaginings from some of our finest writers. This works well to give different perspectives on those past events.
By the time we arrive at the Boer War in South Africa around 1900, the troops supplied by New Zealand have already created their own mythology. They bring their own horses, which are far superior and hardier than all others and the men themselves seem able to perform almost superhuman feats, crossing long distances and suffering untold hardships with no murmur of complaint. Other nations’ forces fall well short. The myth of the rugged, hardened colonial has arrived already, after no more than 60 years of nationhood.
The stories of the First and Second World Wars tell of remoter places than the usual war stories. I was particularly moved by the account of a returning soldier’s attempt to fit back into a life with a son who was a new born when he left and had enjoyed the full and undivided attention of his mother for the past five years. Both had to learn about sharing.
This is a book to read right to the end because there are a few a few amazing pieces in the final chapter called Reflections. The harrowing tale of a modern soldier back from peacekeeping in Angola is brilliantly placed to remind us that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a modern title for something many just had to live with and got no help for or understanding about. Thoughtful, powerful, moving, inspiring and sad; not many books can claim all that.