Book Review: Dark Journey: Passchendaele, The Somme and the New Zealand Experience on the Western Front, by Glyn Harper

cv_dark_journeyAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

The importance of Dark Journey as an anchor for the average kiwi’s understanding of the New Zealand effort on the Western Front in the First World War is possibly greater in this 2015 edition, eight years after the first edition was published.

It has become a truism that New Zealanders’ conscious connection with the First World War has been almost wholly focused on the defeat on Gallipoli. Glyn Harper began to widen this focus with his studies, Massacre at Passchendaele(2000) and Spring Offensive: New Zealand and the Second Battle of the Somme(2003). He used material from these two books in the Dark Journey, while adding intensively research material on the Battle of Bapaume.

When first published in 2007, Dark Journey would have been for many in this country, a revelation that there was a history, a glorious one, beyond Gallipoli. Now of course, there have been many other books written since 2007 on the New Zealanders’ deep and bloody involvement in Flanders. However, Harper’s book remains a pivotal work as we lead up to the 100thanniversaries of the great battles of the Somme and Passchendaele.

The great value of Harper’s work is the deep research of every aspect of these important battles. The military and political backgrounds of the British, French and Germans is well studied and so too is the personal involvement of officers directing the strategies and fighting the battles. Linking the hopes and fears of Field Marshall Haig with those of the New Zealand commanders such as Godley and Russell is very important to understand the strategic and tactical aspects of the battles. But to further combine the hopes and fears of soldiers who actually fought the battles, gleaned largely from letters home, creates a ” battle personality”, which leads to an untarnished understanding of the kind of war fought at that time.

The detail of troop movements, tactical changes resulting from experience and weaponry are all studied in this 544-page book, with Harper not afraid of laying blame for foul-ups and praising when military professionalism resulted in success. And it is not one-sided analysis: Harper has been meticulous in his research of German sources, which add considerable balance to the accounts of battles won and lost.

Harper claims that New Zealanders were among the best troops the British army had during the First World War. They played an important part, not only in the terrible battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, but also in the victories of the second Battle of the Somme . The capture by the New Zealand Division of Bapaume is one event that led to huge praise for the kiwis. Harper describes the battle: “Though the struggle to capture Bapaume is a relatively unknown battle in New Zealand’s military history, it does not deserve this obscurity.” More than 10,000 New Zealanders  took part, there are some 800 buried in military graves around the town and 2,000 were injured. Another huge sacrifice for New Zealand, among the many of the First World War.

With Harper’s book, we have the opportunity to understand more of this sacrifice.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Dark Journey: Passchendaele, The Somme and the New Zealand Experience on the Western Front
by Glyn Harper
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781460750438