Book Review: Bobby, the Littlest War Hero, by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_bobby_the_littlest_war_heroNow, 100 years after the Great War, stories are emerging about people and events previously unspoken of. I know with my own family, the stories were not recounted for over 50 years and it was the Grandchildren who became the listeners.

Bobby, the littlest War Hero is just such a story. For me the best part is that the tale comes as a picture book and so is available to an audience for whom the Great War is  distant history. This book makes it real.

Glyn Harper is a war historian and he uses a real event to tell the tale of a canary and his best friend Jack. The use of canaries in mining is well know, but their work during the war with the tunnelers was a revelation. Jenny Cooper brings the story of Bobby to life with the bleak browns of the battlefield and the yellow canary.

As a teacher I find a resource such as Bobby enables wonderful discussions and research. 30 years ago, such books were a rarity and it was difficult to engage my students. This book has been around many classes and I included my World War 1 entrenchment tool, to add another level to their understanding. This came back with my Grandfather and shows the fragility of life in the trenches.

As Anzac Day approaches, Bobby would be a wonderful way for a family to share ideas on war, peace and the importance of friendships.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Bobby, the Littlest War Hero
by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143771876


Book Review: Acts of Valour: The History of the Victoria Cross and New Zealand, by Glyn Harper & Colin Richardson

Peace, not war, shall be our boast,
But should foes assail our coast,
Make us then a mighty host,
God defend our free land.
Lord of battles in Thy might,
Put our enemies to flight,
Let our cause be just and right,
God defend New Zealand.

cv_acts_of_valourThe seldom-sung third verse of “God Defend New Zealand” is a poignant reminder to all of us what it means to be a New Zealander. These words struck a chord when I read them on the first page of this book.

The original Royal Warrant for the VC, signed by Queen Victoria on 29 January 1856 specified that the award was to be made to ‘to those officers and men who … in the presence of the enemy shall have performed some signal act of valour or devotion to their country’. By a consolidating warrant of 1920, the criteria for receiving a VC was redefined to read ‘ for most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.’

There have been more than 40 service personnel with New Zealand connections that have become recipients of the Victoria Cross for outstanding acts of gallantry; the first one awarded to a New Zealander was to Captain Charles Heaphy in 1867; Charles Upham received two, one in 1941 with his second in 1942, and our most recent one on 26 July 2007 to Willie Apiata.

Heroes come in different guises but all have one thing in common – bravery without any thought to their own safety. The stories of these brave, brave men are ones that should never be forgotten. The sacrifices they all made fighting for freedom make me proud to be a New Zealander.

The process of being recognised with the Victoria Cross is not an easy one. The Victoria Cross requires an act of gallantry to be witnessed, investigated by a commissioned officer, and written up so that it meets the requirements of the prevailing warrants. It then has to be passed through several layers of military command and various committees until it finally reaches the sovereign for his or her approval. Posthumous awards were not originally covered by the Victoria Cross warrant but this has changed over the years and in more recent times awarded posthumously to soldiers during the 1982 Falklands campaign.

The stories highlighted in this book are ones of extraordinary human beings.

This is the 10th anniversary edition of a best-selling book updated with the story of Willie Apiata and the bizarre theft of the VC medals. While I found some of the military history a bit over my head, it’s still a fascinating read and one that I certainly would recommend highly to readers.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Acts of Valour: The history of the Victoria Cross and New Zealand
by Glyn Harper and Colin Richardson
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775540502

Book Review: Gladys goes to War, by Glyn Harper and Jenny Cooper

gladys goes to warAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

This book tells the true story of Gladys Sandford. Author Glyn Harper has cleverly incorporated this biographical story for children, while telling a story about an aspect of war through the eyes of Gladys.

Gladys was not like her sisters. She didn’t like sewing or baking or any other household chores that woman of that era were supposed to find rewarding. Gladys liked nothing better than tinkering with engines.

Gladys met and married William Henning, who loved cars as much as she did. He taught her how to drive. They set up a business in Auckland selling cars. The war came, and William enlisted. The women, on the other hand, were encouraged to stay at home knitting socks and balaclavas. Gladys wanted to be able to go to war like the men, so she enlisted with the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood, sailing to Egypt, where William was stationed as a soldier.

This story follows Gladys’s exploits driving ambulances taking wounded to hospital in Giza, and even working as a cleaner when Williams’ battalion moved to France.  Gladys’s ability to drive ambulances was not initially needed, but one day they were short of drivers, so Gladys stepped in. The wounded were carefully transported by her to the nearest hospital, with the trips seeming at times to be endless.

This is a wonderful story about a courageous woman and a wonderful story to read to children. I read this book to Abby who has just started school. She listened with great interest, asking questions in the appropriate places. In today’s world, women staying home to look after children, sewing and cooking seems a very foreign concept. Gladys is an inspiration to all women and children alike as she defied the odds. When told she couldn’t do something, she did it anyway, proving that women can indeed do anything.

The illustrations by Jenny Cooper are superb and complement the story wonderfully.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Gladys goes to War
by Glyn Harper and Jenny Cooper
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143507208

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

Book Review: Jim’s Letters, by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper

Available in bookstores nationwide, Picture Book finalist in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Jim’s Letters
is a deserving finalist in the New Zealand cv_jims_lettersBook Awards for Children and Young Adults. A sophisticated picture book, it gently details the journey of a young man heading off the big adventure of World War I, from the excitement of being overseas and the anticipation of seeing action, to the boredom of camp life and then the dawning horror of the reality of life on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Letters are exchanged between Jim, the soldier, and Tom his younger brother, who is still at home. It’s a nice insight into what the War might have been like for those at home, especially those young men who wished they were old enough to enlist. Tom also conveys the feelings of his parents – worry for their son – and the reality for those left at home who had to muck in and make up for all the missing people from the workforce.

Along with the increasingly poignant letters are wonderful, evocative illustrations by Jenny Cooper. Even without the words you could follow the story of Jim from youthful enthusiasm to the grinding misery of the trenches, just from the pictures.

It is clever of the designers to incorporate something of a 3D effect with the book, using envelopes, removable letters and lift-the-flaps to further bring the book to life. This also makes the story more real, particularly for modern children in a digital age, where letters delivered by post are becoming a rarity.

I asked three boys that I teach at my school to read the story and tell me what they thought of it. Nik, 9, liked that you can open out the letters. He said that it was both a sad and funny story – he liked that no-one wanted to play the ‘bad guys’ back home in New Zealand. Jack, 10, enjoyed the “good describing words” of Glyn Harper’s letters, and felt the story was sad and emotional. Anaiwan, also 10, agreed that the story was very emotional, and would recommend the story to children aged 8 or older.

Sadly, like so many war stories, this one doesn’t have a happy ending. A younger reader may well need adult support to understand what has happened in the story, and to discuss the reality of war a little further. There is a helpful two-page non-fiction spread at the end of the book which adds perspective and context for readers.

This is not a book to read to 5-year-olds, but for children who are in middle primary or older, it is a beautifully-told heart breaker, and timely as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings and then the battles in Europe and beyond.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore, teacher at Newtown Primary School

Jim’s Letters
by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9780143505907

Book Review: Roly the Anzac Donkey, written by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_roly_the_anzac_donkeyRoly (Roland) is a donkey who was born on a farm in a village in Greece. When he was one year old a soldier from the British Army came and took a group of donkeys to use during the First World War. They were taken by ship to Gallipoli, in Turkey, where the British Army and other allied forces were fighting the Turkish army. These donkeys were used to carry water to the soldiers who were fighting in the hills, and the drivers worked their donkeys hard, while bullets and artillery shells were flying around them.

One day Roly stumbled and spilled some of the water he was carrying. His driver beat him for it and other transgressions, so Roly decided he would try to escape. When the right opportunity came, he ran for his life. Roly wandered around for the rest of the day. He became cold, tired and hungry, with only a bit of grass to eat; and he missed his friends.

The next day he started to walk back to where he had last left his driver the previous day, knowing full well that he would probably beat him for running away. Coming towards him was a tall soldier with a biscuit with jam on it, in his hand. He stroked Roly’s back and said “you’re just what I need, but I’ll need to fatten you up first”. This was the start of a friendship between the donkey, Roly and the New Zealand soldier Richard Alexander Henderson, a solider with the New Zealand Field Ambulance. The Field Ambulance service moved sick and wounded soldiers from the trenches to the beach at Anzac Cove. From there the soldiers could be taken to a hospital ship.

This story is an amazing story of a real New Zealand soldier and the donkey he discovers wandering, hungry, on a Gallipoli road. They save many lives, but when the time comes for the soldiers to leave, a heartbreaking decision has to be made over the future of the donkey. Where does Richard go to find Roly a good home, with kind people?

I read this story to my 4-year-old granddaughter Abby. At this age, they have no concept of war, or what a soldier is. I found it quite challenging to try and explain to her in simple terms, but I think I managed to convey to her the basic concept.

I loved the fact that this story was based on a true story of a friendship between a soldier and a donkey. The illustrations by Jenny Cooper are beautiful. Abby loved Roly’s beautiful big brown eyes with the long eye lashes and his long ears.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Roly the Anzac Donkey
Written by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN  9780143506638

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