The White Ships has been an unlikely bestseller for Capital Books’ Tim Skinner. “You would have thought an account of New Zealand’s WW1 hospital ships would be a specialist title with a limited audience, but we have sold a surprising number.”
Maritime historian Gavin McLean’s spirited account of the two USS Co vessels the Maheno and Marama converted into hospital ships in 1915 was helped by a wealth of archive documentation and a very human drama that occurred on the Maheno: were nurses entitled to officer status and the privileges of rank?
“How many people know that there were civilians at Gallipoli?” McLean also says. “In between handling their ship, the Maheno’s merchant seamen helped the army medics, moving patients and helping in surgery.” And while the government paid the ships’ charter fees, New Zealanders dug deep to fit out the ships’ surgical theatres and to provide comforts for their patients.
Sidelight though it may be, The White Ships is just one of a barrage of international and local book titles that will ensure ‘the war to end all wars’ will be recognised, remembered and re-assessed from the perspective of a century.
QR codes part of overview of our WW1 involvement
Booksellers CEO Lincoln Gould (left), a knowledgeable fan of military history, was impressed by Damien Fenton’s New Zealand and the First World War 1914 – 1919. “It covers the history of New Zealand at war, but with many intriguing differences: unexpectedly it is very, very colourful.
“Of course most of the photographs are black and white but often with sepia finish 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 Ion G Brown’s 1915 image of the last moments of New Zealand heroism at Chunuk Bair (below).
“The ephemera of the war also provides colour: tickets to fundraising carnivals in Kiwi towns and cities, occupation currency to be used by New Zealand occupation forces in Germany in 1919, programmes for victory marches and victory balls. 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.’
The featured pull-out ‘paper engineering’ memorabilia meant each book took 45 minutes to hand assemble at the printing company! New Zealand and the First World War 1914 – 1919 also has a QR code on the slipcase which links readers with smartphones/tablets to online resources. “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, this book will help to understand, maybe not why, but certainly how a young New Zealand stood up to the greatest challenge it had ever faced,” Lincoln comments.
Technical additions such as QR codes can be used fruitfully in history books especially, where it is useful to the reader to see some of the key information used by the historian in informing their works. We expect there to be several larger books like this to come out with their own websites or blogs, for this same purpose.
WW1 shadows current happenings in Ukraine?
Writer’s Week NZ Festival guest Margaret MacMillan is the author of The War that Ended Peace, ‘a catastrophic conflict which killed millions of its men, bled economies dry, shook societies to pieces, and fatally undermined Europe’s dominance of the world… a war which could have been avoided up to the last moment.’
Blogging for the NZ Listener following MacMillan’s discussion, David Larsen noted she drew parallels to what is happening between Russia and Ukraine now: An alarming question that MacMillan did not answer it in terms likely to soothe fears. History is sometimes genuinely leader-driven, she said – “It really matters who’s sitting in the office” – and the desire to project power in order to be seen to have it is as real and dangerous now as it was in 1914.
“We tend to patronise the past, because we know how it turned out,” she says – it’s easy to look back and wonder how people could fail to see disasters coming. A great deal of MacMillan’s discussion could be summarised as: “History is crazy-complicated, and trying to figure out what really happened in something like 1914’s spiral down to war is difficult where it isn’t impossible.” In this connection, Ukraine right now provides a salutary reminder, Larsen noted.
Max Hastings’ Catastophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 is a flowing narrative history of the months leading up to the start of World War 1 and the first months of war, finishing in December 1914. Lincoln Gould calls it ‘a triumph of research’ revealing the complexity of study that Hastings has brought to detailing the political and military build-up to the war.
“Hastings manages to expertly weave the political and military detail with personal and human accounts. British PM Asquith is more interested in wooing socialite Venetia Stanley than keeping watch on events in Europe that were cascading into disaster though some of his letters to her, written during cabinet office meetings, are the only evidence of important discussions in that most famous of back-rooms.”
Hastings has not just given us just another account of what we already know, says Gould. “There is much in his research that is new to the non-academic military historian. And the way he has inter-connected events right across the whole landscape of the beginning of the Great War is enlightening to the reader. He also brings honesty to the accounts of the major players which is refreshing, even if he seems somewhat harsh on the British army, particularly their officers.”
Flanders a ‘muddy stalemate and thoughtless waste of life’
That is Lincoln Gould’s summing up of those battles, described with chilling detail in Andrew Macdonald’s Passchendaele: The Anatomy of a Tragedy. “Most of us with interest in the history of New Zealand’s involvement in the Flanders battles of WW1 probably never focus on victory or defeat but rather on muddy stalemate and thoughtless waste of life.
“There were victories, particularly for New Zealanders, at Messines and Les Quesnoy. But there were also tragedies with little to gain, especially at Passchendaele. There, the battle of Third Ypres or First Passchendaele, saw 845 New Zealanders killed on October 12, 1917 along with 1,952 wounded. Over the period from 13-18 October 1917, 570 New Zealanders were killed with 620 reported missing and 2,016 injured.
“With Andrew Macdonald’s Passchendaele we now have a forensic study, providing a deeper understanding of why our young country paid such a price. And a reader can only conclude that the tragedy was avoidable.” For more information on this book, see Lincoln’s review on the Booksellers NZ blog.
Andrew Macdonald is an experienced journalist, turned war historian and author. He has brought to this book a reporter’s skill to sort the facts from the myths. Professional historian Dr Christopher Pugsley has called Passchaendale a ‘benchmark for future battle studies’.
How to sort the wheat from the chaff for your customers
For booksellers, the barrage of First World War books will take some winnowing to match the level of customers’ interests; to date many have been surprised by the amount of interest in stories of the Great War.
Nor will 2014 be the end of military histories… Tim Skinner from Capital Books in Wellington (and our publishers lists) indicate that there will be many more to come over the next four years. As well as the books mentioned in the feature, Tim Skinner is happy to share others in his store’s top 10:
The Echoes That Remain: A History of the New Zealand Field Engineers During the Great War, by Clement Wareham (Natula Publishing) ISBN 9781897887967
Voyage to Gallipoli: troopships from Australia and New Zealand, by Peter Plowman (transpress) ISBN 9781877418150
1913: The World before the Great War, by Charles Emmerson (The Bodley Head) ISBN 9781847922267
1914 Fight the Good Fight: Britain the Army and the Coming of the First World War, by Allan Mallinson (Bantam Press) ISBN 9780593067611
Written by Jillian Ewart, writer of The Read feature articles