Many years ago in Murray Sharp's 5th form history class at Gisborne Boys High School the history of World War Two was my favourite subject.
Today the memories of that class, the room itself (it got the morning sun), our late wonderful teacher, my fellow students, and the green covered text book on modern European history that we studied, all came flooding back when I collected the New Zealand Listener from the mail box to see that the cover issue featuring the 70th anniversary of the commencement of World War Two which is observed this week.
The Listener is marking the event in style with an editorial on the subject, a four page story by Ruth Laugesen built around historian Gerald Hensley's new book, BEYOND THE BATTLEFIELD: NEW ZEALAND AND ITS ALLIES 1939-45 (Viking), a further four page piece by Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill's official biographer, an interesting piece from columnisy Bill Ralston in which he sifts through the myths and truths of his father's wartime experiences in Africa and Europe, and an extract from Ron Palenski's just-published HOW WE SAW THE WAR; 1939-45 THROUGH NEW ZEALAND EYES (Hodder Moa).l
Thank you NZ Listener.
In keeping with the above The Bookman is pleased to post a review of Gerald Hensley's Beyond the Battlefield written by historian and guest reviewer Gavin McLean.
Beyond the Battlefield: New Zealand and its Allies, 1939-45
By Gerald Hensley
Hardback, 415 pp, $65
There have been many books on our generals and on their generalship, but the country’s wartime political leadership has received comparatively little attention since Freddie Wood’s volume in the official war history series nearly fifty years ago.
Beyond the Battlefield fills an important gap and does so impressively. Gerald Hensley, a former diplomat and head of the Prime Minister’s Department, brings an insider’s perspective to a book further strengthened by the National Army Museum’s Literary Fund, which took him to archives in America, Britain and Australia. ‘Relying mainly on New Zealand sources is like listening to one end of a telephone conversation’, he observes in his preface.
And what a conversation! It’s important to remember that in 1939 New Zealand had little experience of conducting diplomacy. London had always set the empire’s political and trade policies and the governor-general’s office had handled all official communications between Wellington and Whitehall. That changed right on the eve of war when Britain sent out its first high commissioner.
Everything had to be done from scratch, and as Hensley shows, many doubted whether the Labour government, immersed in a financial crisis, was up to the job. Fortunately it was. Mickey Savage – ‘the most Christ-like man I have ever known and an absolute ninny’ – and his successor, the dour but principled and masterful Peter Fraser weathered the storm, backed by a small team of skilled advisers such as Carl Berendsen and Alister McIntosh.
Peter Fraser towered over everyone. He could be hell to work with – he had no time for agendas or structured meetings – but he, Walter Nash and the civil servants worked together to balance competing demands on forces in the Middle East and the Pacific, feed both Britain and the American forces in the Pacific and establish diplomatic relations with an increasing number of countries.
Of course there were some glitches. The trade union movement stymied a full coalition government with National. Britain and America resented New Zealand’s comparatively generous domestic spending, and relations between Wellington and Canberra were not always good, but as Hensley shows, the overall war strategy was sound, the economy was robust and New Zealand ended the war on a high note with Fraser and his bureaucrats playing a surprisingly strong role in the creation of the United Nations and its various agencies.
Well researched and told with a dry wit, Beyond the Battlefield is history at its best.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, in the mail today was a review copy of The Penguin Book of New Zealanders at War (Penguin $45).
Haven't yet had a chnace to read it of course (it is a 500+ page whopper) but spent a happy hour this morning browsing through it at my favourite coffee haunt (Agnes Curran) and I can report that it is drawn from the letters, diaries and memoirs of ordinary New Zealanders in which they describe their experiences of war.
The accounts are first-hand, fascinating, vivid and often moving. They cover wars from the New Zealand Wars of the 1840's through to the Gulf War and all conflicts in between.
Not even the absence of paper stopped some from reaching out
to loved ones. In 1915 Llewellyn Beumont wrote a ‘letter’ (left) on a flat piece of wood to his sister from Gallipoli.
This handsome tome is edited by Gavin McLean, Ian McGibbon and Kynan Gentry who are all historians employed by the History Group of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.
Gavin McLean is the author of a large number of books of NZ history while Ian McGibbon's military historiesinclude a guide to the battlefields of the First World War and a general history of the Second World War.