When Damien Fenton was a boy growing up in Mt Maunganui, he found his grandfather Bill's old army battledress stored in a wardrobe, and he insisted Bill tell him about his wartime experiences.
Fenton idolised his grandfather, a World War II veteran who'd served with the 24th Auckland Battalion and who fought at El Alamein in Egypt. Bill Fenton was a quiet man who had not talked a lot about what happened to him, but he opened up to his grandson.
He died when Fenton was 15 and had just reached an age - and a level of historical knowledge about World War II - to ask his grandfather intelligent questions about his service. "He was clearly quite chuffed that I was interested and had an idea of what I was talking about," Fenton says.
The senior Fenton sparked a lifetime passion and a career choice. His grandson read voraciously on military subjects and more, and couldn't wait to get to university and specialise in history. Damien Fenton lived in Hamilton for about six years ("lots of good memories", including Ward Lane Tavern and working at student radio Contact 89FM). He completed a master's degree in Defence and Strategic Studies at Waikato University in 1998, lectured for a year in the politics department and did a doctorate in Australia. His Waikato lecturers Ron Smith, Lew Fretz, Dov Bing and Ray Richards are warmly remembered.
Nowadays he is Dr Damien Fenton, 42, a senior historian at the Culture and Heritage Ministry in Wellington, and he's devoted a goodly chunk of the past four years to a handsome new book called New Zealand and the First World War 1914-1919. Released this week, it's published by Penguin, in association with the Culture and Heritage Ministry, and is the flagship title of the official government WW100 programme to commemorate next year's centenary of World War I, the bloody conflict that reached into a vast number of New Zealand homes.
On the phone from Wellington on Tuesday, Fenton talks about his research and the triumphs and tragedies of this war, which claimed 18,000 Kiwi lives and left 41,000 wounded or ill, all from a population of just over a million people.
Fenton mentions that when he holidayed with his family as a boy in Tokomaru Bay, on the East Coast, there was a World War I memorial near the camping ground that seemed to have more names on it than the entire population of the town.
"It really did touch the entire nation in some way. There would hardly be a family who didn't know someone who had been killed or wounded: a cousin, an uncle, a friend. It arguably had the most impact of any war. It still resonates."
It touched his own family. The book is dedicated to the memory of 15082 Private Alvar Francis Fenton, who died from wounds in northern France in 1917. Private Fenton was 21, the author's grandfather's cousin. "We don't know too much about him. There is no photo of him. He had such a short life."
Alvar Fenton had lived in Te Puke; his name is on the war memorial gate in the Tauranga Domain. "He grew up looking at the same Kaimai Range that I did," Fenton says, "dreaming of his future life like I did. He never came back."
Fenton's book ensures that Alvar's name lives on, that the courage and commitment of men like him will be honoured during the centennial year and beyond. And the big thing about this particular publication is that it has been so beautifully planned, covering 50 key episodes in neatly digestible form from New Zealand's wartime years. Fenton was assisted by research assistant Caroline Lord and contributors Gavin McLean and Tim Shoebridge. He says the aim was to create an overview, and to make it as accessible as possible to as many New Zealanders as possible.
It starts with the outbreak of war in August 1914, works through to the peace treaties of 1919 and subsequent issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. In between lie chapters on the well-known battles, such as Gallipoli, the Somme, Messines and Ypres. And many more on lesser-known subjects: war economy, life at home, the Maori and Pacific War effort, duty and temptation (details of the Red Blind Quarter of Cairo, where thousands of prostitutes worked), crime and punishment in the NZEF, New Zealand women at war, and so on.
Fenton also points to chapters near the end of the book that detail the New Zealand Division's involvement in the final months of the war, when the tide was turning against the Germans.
He says because the Kiwis suffered such tragedy at Gallipoli and Passchendaele, the victories are sometimes overshadowed by the losses; while Gallipoli and Passchendaele are powerful, they are not the full story of how it played out.
"We did win the war, and these guys beat the Imperial German Army. We were winning battles in 1918 and our guys were at the forefront, under the same generals who have been criticised ever since for the Somme and Passchendaele."
The book covers the personal and the political, each section is smartly written, lavishly illustrated, and contains hidden treasures. The treasures are in the form of enclosures: pockets containing facsimiles of postcards, letters, posters, telegrams, photos, registration cards, citations, certificates. The ephemera of war.
So each page is a journey of discovery: you read the script, admire the photographs, unearth the gems from their packets and pockets. Like the card introducing servicemen to Madam Yvonne's establishment in Paris, "a fine and up to date place for Gentlemen visiting Paris".
Madame Yvonne's is endorsed by no lesser person than New Zealand wartime safe-sex campaigner Ettie Rout, who wrote on the back of the card that she had visited Madame Yvonne's on several occasions in the company of medical officers. "We are all convinced that at the present time it makes safe and suitable provision for the sexual needs of troops".
In the same packet, there is a booklet for soldiers compiled by the YMCA, offering Practical Helps to Purity of Life. Among the tips is one suggesting that "local application of cold water to the private parts is a great aid at any time when the problem of self-control is difficult".
While there is plenty to smile about, tragedy and tears are never far away. The rawness of loss, of family sacrifice, stalks many of the chapters. There is the facsimile of an envelope stamped "Deceased: Return to Sender", which came back to the family of 22-year-old Private Fred Waine, of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion who was killed at Passchendaele in 1917. Fred's family had posted it the day after his death, not knowing he had perished. They got their letter back, decorated with the coldness of a bureaucratic stamp.
Tucked into the Trench Warfare chapter are letters from the Black brothers, George and Dick, of Poverty Bay, written to their parents. George wrote his note on the night before he was killed during the 1st Otago Battalion's disastrous trench raid of July 13, 1916. Dick wrote later to tell his parents the news.
Dick addresses his parents as My Dear Old Souls, and says "I would give the world to be with you now, for I am the only one left, and I know I could do much." He ends: "My dear old souls be brave always for well do I know that yours is the hardest part to play in these times."
You could keep looking at this book and continue to find new gems. It is publisher Penguin's first with such extensive enclosures, also understood to be the first of its type in New Zealand. Fenton says the format idea came from the Imperial War Museum in London, which had done something similar.
He says the team was committed to finding photographs and memorabilia that hadn't been seen before. They put out feelers to the familiar round of museums, libraries, galleries and similar, but other people started to come forward with items to share.
Fenton heard some worrying stuff about the treatment of precious items. One story was from a woman who'd rescued a soldier's World War I photo album from her local dump; another from a family who'd kept their grandfather's war medals, but his wartime letters had been discarded as "junk" after his death.
Fenton says gently that there are plenty of examples of medals in existence, "but letters are unique".
In a lucky break, they found a "crazy little crew" of Christchurch collectors who opened up a rich seam of information and artefacts. "They had everything. They were a godsend."
This crew included Barry O'Sullivan, who had an excellent collection of uniforms and equipment, and Matt Pomeroy, who collects documents and ephemera.
Pomeroy, Fenton says, had postcards, photos, military forms, leave passes and more. "All the stuff you don't think about. It is an incredible collection. These things are usually seen as disposable. It was an insight into how things worked. The war was incredibly paper-driven - lives were governed by forms."
Fenton is delighted to have so many fresh photographs in the book. One of his favourites (from the Auckland War Memorial Museum) is of a mother saying goodbye to her son, who was with the NZEF Main Body, which left Wellington on 10 troopships on October 16, 1914, at the start of the war. Fenton says the photograph gives the lie to the jingoistic legend that this was considered a time of great adventure. "You see the concern and fear on her face, what is going to happen to her boy. It is a very powerful photo."
Assembling and documenting the material was a painstaking business. Fenton mistakenly thought once the manuscript was finished, the hard part was out of the way. But the follow-up on illustrations was enormous; he's worked on the project constantly for the past 18 months.
He's not done yet. This book is part of a five-year publication programme to honour the World War I centenary. It will roll through to the anniversary of the peace treaties in 2019. It is a loose association between the Culture and Heritage Ministry, the Defence Ministry, and Massey University and about eight or 10 titles are envisaged. Fenton's book is the only general overview; the rest are specialist works.
Fenton's contract at the Culture and Heritage Ministry is almost up, so his next mission - New Zealand's War Against the Ottoman Turks - will be done under the auspices of Massey. He's got his fingers crossed that this goes ahead.
In the meantime, he's got plenty to be proud of. And you can't help thinking that his grandfather Bill Fenton, who opened up to him when he was a boy about what it was really like in combat, would be very proud as well.
For more information on the WWI centenary, see WW100.govt.nz, and firstworldwar.govt.nz
- © Fairfax NZ News