May 17, 2013

Jane Tolerton and the "Boys at War" at AWRF 2013

Fiona Martin, Libraries Advisor, Service Development, went to hear journalist Jane Tolerton, author of a new book which draws on her first-hand interviews with veterans of the Great War.

A collection of oral histories recorded 33 years ago by Jane Tolerton for the Stout Collection at Victoria University and the Turnbull Archive was aching to be made into a book, particularly with the World War I centenary falling next year.  She has revisited those recordings and the photographs of the contributors, the result being the wonderful ‘An awfully big adventure:  New Zealand World War One veterans tell their stories.’

With an average age of 90 at the time of being interviewed, the veterans were at a point in their lives when they wanted to tell their stories, not to just anyone who would listen, only to anyone who was really interested.  For many of them, this was the first time they had explained what their war experience was actually like, having maintained a stoic silence to family and friends since their return.  The stories, illustrated by photographs of them as soldiers, and again as old men, ranged from the horrific, a man who was injured and left to die among a pile of corpses at Gallipoli until a family friend saw his foot twitch and rescued him, to the bittersweet, “All I thought was, I’m going to die, and I’ve never slept with a woman.”  

All the interviewees had volunteered to fight -- conscription only began in 1916 -- as at the time New Zealand saw itself as a vital part of the Empire, determined to punch above its weight.  This was evidenced by the huge numbers of ‘our boys’ who died either on the field, or of their injuries once the war was over.  The friendly banter between Australian and New Zealand soldiers was reinforced by mutual respect, camaraderie and an independent streak, particularly towards authority, each considering the other as ‘tough’, both mentally and physically, as opposed to the English soldiers who were young, weaker and unquestioningly obedient to their superiors. 

The author takes us to the Sinai-Palestine campaign, Chunuk Bair, Armentières and of course Gallipoli and Passchendaele.  The duplicity of the New Zealand media is exposed – newspapers reported only positive news, implying that the boys were having a jolly good time ‘over there’.  New Zealand and Australia remained in blissful ignorance of the trauma and deprivation experienced by everyone in Europe, so when they returned home, the men could not share their experiences with family and friends as they would not understand, and quite possibly, would prefer not to know.   

Jane Tolerton allowed the men to talk for themselves during the session, and it felt as though we were with each of them in their sitting room, hearing first-hand about the pranks, the lice, the trenches, the laughter and the tears.   

-- Fiona Martin

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 15:00
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