Book Review: A photo album, a scrapbook and World War 1

A review of two books published to commemorate the upcoming centenary of WW1:

New Zealand and the First World War 1914-19 by Damien Fenton (Penguin)
Images of War by Glyn Harper and the National Army Museum (HarperCollins)

These two books represent impressive and important illustrated histories ensuring New Zealanders have the opportunity to gain a visual understanding of the history of the First World War  as fought by our soldiers and experienced by our country and our people.  They are both compelling books, although each for its own reasons.

Highly experienced cv_images_of_warand noted military historian Glyn Harper has not only done an excellent job in sifting through many official archives but, following a public appeal,  has also caused many private citizens to  release photographs often taken on front lines or general operational areas by soldiers who were actually forbidden to do so.  By the time of the First World War, photography had left the purview of the professional photographer with expensive glass plates and long processing times, and had become a hobby for the people.  Kodak, with the box Brownie and advanced processing techniques had democratised photography as had Henry Ford popularised cars with the Model  T.  Thus many New Zealanders serving in the theatres of war had a “soldiers Kodak” tucked away – illegally –  in their kitbag creating the opportunity for the WW1 to be the most comprehensively photographed of any previous conflict.

From all sources, 20,000 photographs were searched, a “long list” of 1240 chosen with 700 photographs eventually included in the book.  Harper has laid out his selection to cover all the major theatres where New Zealanders served as well as their training and preparation in New Zealand. By doing so he has also woven the chronology of the war from start to finish and even something of the aftermath, into 400 pages of a compelling memorial to those who served. There are a lot of tragic scenes, but also many scenes that lift the spirit.

Harper also places the illustrative content into context with well written introductions to each  section and insightful captions  to the photographs.  Just as this book was made possible by advances in petrographic technology early last century, it is clear that modern digital image enhancement, printing and publishing technology have all been used to ensure a quality production.

The photographs of the aftermath of the war are also demonstrate technological advance – medical and surgical advances to heal the wounds especially related to plastic surgery and the work of Sir Harold Gillies.

cv_new_zealand_and_the_first_world_warLatest printing and production techniques combined with old fashioned manual labour lie behind the launch this month at Government House of the official WW100 New Zealand and the First World War by Damien Fenton.  Again, like Images of War, it covers the history of New Zealand at war, but with many intriguing differences. Firstly, colour is used in this book and it is very, very colourful.

Of course most of the photographs are black and white but often with sepia finish and  bordering on the one hand or bleeding into a marbled like treatment across each page which appears to be achieved by a progressive fading of a photograph. The effect is a sense of age. But then comes the reproduction of colourful paintings such as Ion G Brown’s 1990 image of the last moments of New Zealand heroism at Chanuk Bair and portraits of war leaders such as Haig and Joffre.  But most colour comes from the ephemera of the war. There is an abundance of tickets to fundraising queen carnivals in kiwi towns and cities, programmes to concerts, occupation currency to be used by New Zealand occupation forces in Germany in 1919, programmes to victory marches and victory balls.

Then comes the manual labour associated with this remarkable scrapbook-like publication. Scattered throughout are pasted-in envelopes containing for instance, enlistment posters for the young lions of the empire, Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand to support the Old Lion as he “defies his foes” . Another of these opaque envelopes contains the list of New Zealanders missing or wounded as published by the Red Cross enquiry Bureau for May 1917 while another has inside reproduction of trench map of one of the Flanders battlefields featuring the village of Messines where the New Zealanders fought and won an historic battle.

There are other maps set on to pages as small fold-outs which provide clear and precise information on various battles.  And of course there are envelopes containing facsimiles of heart-wrenching letters home to parents from sons about to go into battle and not to return.

It is understood from Penguin, publishers of this book in Association with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, that the collection of the images paraphernalia and ephemera for this book began in 2009.  Once author Damien Fenton with Gavin McLean and Tim Shoebridge had written and prepared all the material, all the bits and pieces were assembled in a production line at Leo Paper Products in China with each of the envelopes and fold out maps and cards inserted by hand – each book taking 40 minutes to finish.

There will be many more books to come recounting the New Zealand experience of the First World War but for any family with a connection back to forebears who served either or both of these books will help to understand, maybe not why, but certainly how a young New Zealand stood up to the greatest challenge it had ever faced.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould, CEO, Booksellers NZ

New Zealand and the First World War 1914 – 1919
by Damien Fenton
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143569756

Images of War: New Zealand and the First World War in Photographs
by Glyn Harper and the National Army Museum
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781775540342

3 thoughts on “Book Review: A photo album, a scrapbook and World War 1

  1. Pingback: Summer Reading Catalogue – New Zealand Non-fiction |

  2. Pingback: Great War centennial titles: first salvos fired |

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