A Rose for the Anzac Boys

a-rose-for-the-anzac-boys

In A Rose for the Anzac Boys  Jackie French vividly depicts the horror and heartbreak of battle at the Western Front during WWI. While not glorifying the violence, she doesn’t compromise at all with the gruesome truth of it.

The story concentrates on Margery (Midge) MacPherson and her experiences in France, serving tired and wounded troops near the front lines.

When war starts, Midge is away from her New Zealand home and lives at a school for girls in England. She and her English school friends decide to leave school so they can play their part in the war effort by setting up a canteen for the troops in France, not realising how much their lives will be changed.

Partly told in the form of letters, the realities of war are made clear, as Midge corresponds with family and friends at home and at the battle front. I found the letters to be a powerful and convincing part of the book, fitting in naturally with the ongoing narrative of Midge’s story. They had an authenticity comparable to the real letters and diary entries I’ve read before and were some of the more moving portions of the books. Maybe my desk at work during tea and lunchbreaks wasn’t the best time and place to read these sections.

While the book is set behind the lines, some of the letters from soldiers give us a glimpse of life and death at the front, while Midge’s experiences take us into the world of the many volunteers who worked as caterers, ambulance drivers, VADs and nurses. We see that few were left unaffected by the cost of the war and that the effects continue through following generations.

After the story, French includes a 19 page “author’s note” to give some historical  context to Midge’s story, bringing to the reader’s attention the neglected, but significant role women played during World War I.

How many women fought in World War I?

We’ll never know. But there were thousands, or even million – as many, perhaps as the men who fought there too.

Few women in World War I carried weapons. But these days we say a soldier ‘fought’ in World War I or II if they were in transport, or administration, and not just one of the relatively small portion of soldiers who actually faced the enemy. The women of World War I fought in other ways, and often in battles as hard as the men’s. And most their war was unrecorded.

 

VAD

With a degree of poignant synchronicity, I read the last part of the book on the 100th anniversary of the battle of Fromelles, probably the most tragic single day in Australia’s military history, where almost 2,000 Australian troops lost their lives and many thousands more were wounded. There were more Australian casualties on that one day than in all post WWII campaigns combined.

 

(see my other blog for more about Fromelles: https://onesimusfiles.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/battle-of-fromelles-centenary/  )

The author’s web page related to the book:  http://www.jackiefrench.com/#!a-rose-for-the-anzac-boys/o3kat

Publisher’s page :  http://www.harpercollins.com.au/9780732285401/a-rose-for-the-anzac-boys/

 

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Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's ArkThis is my 300th book read, since starting this blog in November 2009.

I wanted to mark my triple century with something of significance and worth, and thought this book met those conditions.

As a Booker prize winner it has literary recognition. As the inspiration for an Oscar winning film it gained a wider appreciation and appeal.

And the book’s topic and themes make it worthwhile representative of many of the books preceding it on my reading list.

Literature, war, Jewish history and the extremes of human nature;  some of the significant characteristics of the other books I’ve read in the past (almost) 7 years.

Schindler's ark 2

I’ve had this book for a long time, firstly in a paperback released as a movie tie-in, with of course the changed title of Schindler’s List. And then I came across the first (Australian) hardcover edition illustrated above. I bought it and gave the other one to my mum.

The book then sat on my bookshelf for a few years unread – until now.

In the beginning Keneally makes it clear that his book is not a history book, but a novel based on historical research and personal interviews with many of the people who appear in it as “characters”. I’m not entirely sure of the distinction he tries to make. It doesn’t seem any different to many of the military histories I’ve read over the past year. Maybe he wanted to distance his book from potential readers’ assumptions about the dryness of history telling.

Now that I’ve committed myself to making this my 300th book – it’s restricting me from starting something else alongside it, just in case I forget myself and finish that “something else” first.

 

 

 

schindler

 

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

golden ageI read this over two days during my Christmas break and I’d love to write something that could express how much I enjoyed it. But I wouldn’t want my own expressive shortcomings to diminish anyone’s impression of the book through any “review” I wrote.

The story is set in the early 1970s during the civil war that led to Bangladesh winning independence from Pakistan. A brief glimpse of that time and its human cost is given through the experiences of the Haque family (mother, daughter and son) and their neighbours.
It’s a period of history that I knew nothing about before reading this book, apart from remembering that George Harrison had arranged a benefit concert and album on behalf of Bangladesh when I was a young teen.

I found the book had a slight similarity to the work of Nadeem Aslam, one of my favourite writers, exploring political ambiguities and occasional brutality in a vividly poetic way through an intimate human story.

My disappointment at coming to the end of the book and leaving the lives of the Haques has been tempered by the knowledge that the family story continues in another book The Good Moslem.

The final part of what I’ve heard is intended to be a trilogy has yet to be released.

Tobruk by Peter Fitzsimons

tobruk Recently I’ve been reading Peter Fitzsimons’ Tobruk. It’s the second of his books that I’ve read and it’s been a helpful way of learning about a significant part of Australian military history that has been overshadowed by the more well-known Gallipoli campaign.

Fitzsimons makes history readable, using colloquial language and style and incorporating personal anecdotes picked up from the men involved.

In Tobruk he follows the progression of events via the personal experiences of combatants from both sides of the conflict and, where possible, their loved ones at home. Like in his Gallipoli he provides a lengthy section of notes to provide references pointing to diaries, letters and documents as sources for the personal experiences he describes. His books aren’t about war and battles, they are about the men and women affected by war and battles.

History Mine: a personal history of history (3)

This year I renewed research into my family tree after stumbling across a website giving free access to basic genealogical records. Through that site I was able to track my ancestry back to the mid-1700s to a time before white settlement in Australia, making my PERSONAL history older than the official history of my adopted country.

Tamworth CastleFinding those more distant ancestors helped me make sense of something I recall from my childhood.
Tamworth in Staffordshire is about 25 kilometres from where I lived, but I only recall going there once. My only memory of the place is an outdoor public swimming pool where I braved a high diving board. Around the time of that visit I’m sure I heard something about a bible associated with my family being held in the Castle museum, but I was told no details.

Over time I began to think I must have dreamed up that story or misunderstood. Why would a bible associated with my family be in a museum in that town?

I was surprised when I discovered that part of my family on my paternal grandmother’s side had strong links to Tamworth in the mid-late 18th century. That finding gave some support to the bible in the museum memory, and the possibility of the claim being true. I’m now waiting on a reply from the museum, to see if they can give any confirmation of the story. I’ve supplied my ancestor’s names to see whether there is any match with the several family bibles they have in their collection.

One family story I was able to confirm was that one of my forebears was the bailiff at a large country house. I made that discovery through Census records where the house was listed as his residence. It was only after seeing that record that I remembered that my grandmother had mentioned it in a letter more than 30 years ago, in which she’d told me the little she could about our family history.

That house, owned by the same family for the last 600 years, is now a venue for conferences, concerts and a variety of other activities. I contacted them about my ancestor who worked for their family, but received no reply.

Calke AbbeyHe wasn’t the only family member to work for a large estate. My great, great grandmother was apparently a seamstress at Calke Abbey in South Derbyshire.

Again I’ve tried to find more information. At first things seemed hopeful, but after an initial promising, prompt reply I’ve heard no more. A lot of the work at the property is done by volunteers, so it’s not as if they have someone designated to help with enquirers like myself.

I’m sure it would be much easier if I could visit these places in person, but that brings me back to the point I made in an earlier post: the problem of becoming interested in the history of a place and people after moving to the other side of the world.

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photos from Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamworth_Castle
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catton_Hall
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calke_Abbey

History Mine: a personal history of history (2)

I’ve now been in Australia for almost 45 years after my parents brought the family half way around the world. They saw a potentially better future for my sister and me outside of Britain, so they made the decision to leave their own parents (my grandparents) and everything they’d known, to follow that hope of better opportunities.

At the time we were labelled migrants, or “ten pound Poms” – a reference to the token 10 Pound payment each adult had to pay to be included in the Australian immigration scheme of the time. Today, if we were from a different racial background, our reason for making the move would have us considered as “economic refugees”, and we’d be spirited away to a detention centre.

The move excited me. It was a big adventure. But I didn’t really appreciate the finality of it all. How I’d suffer for years from homesickness, wishing I could again see the people and places associated with the first 13 years of my life; and how my desire to learn more about where I came from would grow.

here to there

I was born in Burton-on-Trent and until our move to Australia lived on the Derbyshire side of the river Trent.
I knew nothing about the history of the area until I was in my 20s, when I was able to learn a little from a few books I was able to track down. Finding those books wasn’t easy in pre-internet years. It took a lot of letter writing to British libraries, museums, and local government offices trying to find someone to point me in the right direction. I then had to find a bookseller able to mail out the books I’d discovered, IF they were still in print.

It was many years ago, so I don’t remember who gave me the most help, but someone sent out copies of documents relating to the village where I grew up: documents that included a reference to my great grandfather who had been a men’s barber within that town as well as the local truancy officer. There wasn’t much detail about him, but seeing his name on a document dated in the 1800s gave me a small sense of connection to the town’s history.

Three of my Grandparents were still alive, so I asked them to tell me what they knew about our family background. I still have the few letters in which my Grandmothers told me what they knew; mostly names, but occasionally a cryptic piece of information that at the time didn’t mean much.

Using all of the names and dates, I drew up a family tree dating back to the 1870s, the point where my Grandmas’ memories (and a family bible) ended. The only addition after that point came when my sister went back to England for a few weeks. I asked her if she could get copies of the birth certificates of the two most distant ancestors I knew about.
She came back with two documents. I found one of them wasn’t for the right person, but the other one was – and I was able to extend the family tree back another generation thanks to its information about the parents of the baby being reigstered.

And then my research came to a stop again. For the next 30 years.

History Mine: a personal history of history (1)

My interest in history developed too late: after my parents moved our family from England to Australia. It was only then that I started to regret not taking a greater interest in the historical landscape of the place I’d left. Wishing that I could again visit castles, churches, cemeteries and grand houses that I’d taken for granted as a child.
They were only old buildings to my pre-and early teen self. I’d had no awareness of (or interest in) the people and events associated with them. That only came when they were no longer accessible.

It was hard to get excited about the “history” of my new country. In England I’d been to houses older than Australia’s recorded history*.
Maybe it was partially “home-sickness” that started to draw my mind back, reminding me of what I’d lost and giving it a significance I’d not previously considered.

If only I could see Tutbury Castle again, now knowing of its connection with Mary Queen of Scots. And the nearby St Mary’s church, parts of which date back to the 1100s, where my friends and I raced around the graveyard to see who could find the oldest grave.

Then there was Kenilworth Castle and Stonehenge, visited on different school trips – and the Tower of London where my family seemed to queue for hours to catch a glimpse of the crown Jewels, and where I was very unimpressed when I saw the Bloody Tower, which wasn’t really tower, and didn’t have people sitting around swearing at each other as I’d imagined as a young child.

I could probably list more of those places I visited without appreciating. And I could look back at things closer to home – such as the WWII air raid shelters alongside my school, the entrances of which were all sealed, apart from one, which no-one dared to enter beyond the first few steps, for fear of what may still be down there.

So, separated from those physical reminders of centuries of history, I’ve had to make do with books about that history.

Unfortunately those books can only provide a distant view that lacks some of the thrill of seeing and touching where history was acted out. And that distance is greater when it rarely touches upon the local links I recall, when local histories of places I lived aren’t easily accessible.