Book Review: Godley: the Man Behind the Myth, by Terry Kinloch

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_godley_pg.jpgAuthor Terry Kinloch ends his biography Godley: The Man Behind the Myth withIf this book gives readers a more rounded and balanced understanding of Godley -the man and the general – it has achieved its purpose.’  This book does exactly that.

Major General Bernard Freyberg of the Second World War might be uppermost in New Zealanders’ minds if asked to name a prominent influencer on New Zealand’s military tradition. However, Freyberg was a leader of a Division which formed part of an army and a military structure, which had been conceived in 1910, built and trained through to 1914 and then,  with the NZ Expeditionary Force  component,  led to war in Gallipoli, Palestine and Europe  by  the British general Sir Alexander Godley.

Godley was hired by the New Zealand Government from the British army with the aim of transforming New Zealand’s military structure into a modern, sustainable force that could help defend not only its own country but be inserted with ease into the armies of the British Empire.

This contribution from New Zealand to the Empire’s armies was sustainable because the transformation from the rather irregular nature of the country’s involvement in the Boer War, to  the establishment of regional,  part-time territorial units and even school cadet forces. It could be said the “Godley Structure” lasted through to the 1960s.

But Godley’s reputation is often blackened severely by his supposed responsibility for the heavy casualties and eventual failure of the Gallipoli campaign and then again at Passchendaele. One New Zealand military historian titled a whole chapter of his book as “Godley’s abattoir”referring to the Passchendaele tragedy. The label was first coined in relation to the Gallipoli battle at The Nek, where Australian troops were sent mindlessly  “over the top” and into a hail of machine gun bullets.

Author Kinloch lists the above two disasters, and other ‘recently published accounts’ including the view that ‘every ANZAC solider who had the misfortune to service under Godley’s command loathed him. In return, he detested the Australians and tolerated the New Zealanders. It has also been stated that Godley was trained by his father, that he had never seen a machine gun before 1914 and that he was a cavalry officer.’

‘None of these statements are true,’ writes Kinloch, ‘some are simply wrong, while others are misinterpretations or exaggerations.’

That statement is on page seven of the 319-page book. Much of the rest of the book is taken up with a deeply researched study of the man and his deeds from early childhood until his death. The quality of Kinloch’s research can be attributed to the access he had to Godley’s letters, a great many to his wife, Louisa but also to many contemporary soldiers politicians and others – even the King. Much of this material was written contemporaneously with the events and thus presents a valuable record within the context of the time.

There are many photographs and maps which add to the understanding of this man. None of the photos show him smiling. Clearly Godley was an “Empire Man” with great self discipline, ramrod appearance  and a rather aloof manner which  made him appear  uncaring. His first battles were in the Boer War where he established a good reputation as a  an organiser, leader and fighter.  Much praise came from Baden Powell, whom he served under at the historically famous siege of Mafeking.

Despite the difficulties of the Boer War, Godley, accordingly to Kinloch, decided that the years between 1910 and 1914 (in New Zealand) were the ‘most challenging of his career to date.’ There were grumbles among the kiwis at Godley bringing in other British officers but he was determined to set up a balanced structure resulting in a highly efficient and sustainable force. The need for it can be best understood by a quote of a New Zealand territorial offer, Andrew Russell , ‘The inefficiency of the officers, and the utter absence of any standard on which to model ourselves, is the root of our inefficiency.’ (Russell later became once of New Zealand’s most distinguish Generals).

Kinloch provides a comprehensive account  of Godley’s role in the  establishment of the what might be called the first professional New Zealand army, not large  but well  resourced  and trained across all the necessary  ingredients  of a modern fighting force from infantry, through mounted rifles, artillery, specialist machine gun  units, transport, pioneer and medical corps.  There was even a Cyclist Corps.

Having conceive it, organised it and trained it, Godley took a division to war in 1914 as the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Kinloch then traces the story of Godley’s war, almost battle by battle examining the myths and legends, criticism and praise attributed to the General , often  clarifying and even correcting long held  ‘understandings’ of  battles and also of the character of the man. A battle for which Godley received praise, rightly, was the Battle of Messines, where the planning, resourcing,  training  led to a famous victory for the New Zealanders and Australians under Godley’s command.

This is a very important book, well illustrated with photographs and maps, which will reshape our view of a man who played such a huge role in New Zealand’s engagement with the First World War. As military historian Chris Pugsley has written in a cover endorsement, this book ‘has brought this controversial commander….out from the shadows.’

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould
CEO, Booksellers NZ and owner of Messines Bookshop : Military History

Godley: the Man Behind the Myth
by Terry Kinloch
Published by: Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781775593638




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