Book Review: Man of Iron, by Jock Vennell

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_man_of_ironI wasn’t expecting this to be such an engaging read, to be honest. My history reading more often takes the fictional or factional route but the Gallipoli tragedy has always caught my imagination, and more so since I recently found out that some (reasonably close ) family members fought and died there, and at least one of those was part of the Wellington regiment.

However my actual knowledge of the battles fought, and generally lost, on that peninsula was remarkably sketchy.

Jock Vennell has produced a comprehensive, compassionate and fascinating biography of the man who became Colonel Malone.

William Malone was born in Kent, and educated in England and France. He was keen to go into the army, but family circumstances meant that was unaffordable, and instead he did clerical work in London, but joined volunteer groups and eventually decided to join his brother Austin in New Zealand. He arrived in Taranaki and soon joined the Armed Constabulary. I was interested to note that he was part of the force which dealt so ignominiously with Parihaka, but I tried not to let this colour my judgment and continued reading!

He was of course young, enthusiastic and a settler in a “new” country, and also doubtless following orders as he does seem to have been a man who did things by the book, at least early in his career. A different person emerges during the nightmare times on Gallipoli.

He bought land and built a home for himself and his wife and children, and studied to become a lawyer – work at which he was competent and successful but which he did not enjoy. He stood – unsuccessfully – for government as a liberal, but it may be that his Catholicism was not in his favour.

As well as being a successful dairy farmer and lawyer, he seems to have had a penchant for study, and immersed himself in military strategy and tactics. At the time of the Boer war (he chose not to go) he was approached to lead the Stratford branch of the Volunteer force (which was effectively to become the New Zealand Expeditionary Force). Initially he was reluctant, but agreed and launched himself into training his company to become the best in the battalion. By the time war was declared in 1914, he had effectively achieved that, and it was a logical step for him to volunteer and to be given command of a battalion.

He was clearly a man who enjoyed war – in his diary he notes, ‘I leave a lucrative practice, a happy home, a brave wife and children without any hestitation. I feel I am just beginning to live.’

This kind of sentiment is harder to take these days, when the dangers of fervent nationalism are apparent all around us. However it was common then, and although I absolutely don’t agree with much of his opinion and motivation, it’s hard to fault his integrity, wisdom and commitment – particularly to his troops. He contradicted and disobeyed orders when he believed that they were wrong (quite often!) and earned the respect and love of his men.

Vennell deals thoroughly with the Gallipoli battles, and of course in particular with the travesty of Chunuk Bair. This is a book which – no matter your opinion of war – brings William Malone to life, and gives us some understanding of what drove our men to fight, and so often ultimately to die.

Pro patria mori (roughly, It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland) is a sentiment I struggle with always, and when the country in question was not New Zealand but England, I struggle even more. However I do recommend this book. It’s fascinating and insightful.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Man of Iron: The extraordinary story of New Zealand WW1 hero Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone
by Jock Vennell
Published by Allen and Unwin
ISBN 9781877505713


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