Obscure no longer: a Kiwi by-the-book soldier

By Iain Duffy


This is the best biography I have read about the life and action of a soldier. How Major-General Sir Andrew Russell KCB, KCMG, DSO, became forgotten is beyond me. From a New Zealand World War I commander to 21st-century obscurity.

Russell is described as "the one military commander of genius that NZ produced in the 20th century". High praise, indeed.

Under his command, the NZ brigade served with distinction at Gallipoli and he commanded the elite division, spearheading the British counter-offensive that finally ended the war on the Western Front.

Russell was born in Hawke's Bay in 1868 to a wealthy farming family that had a long history with the British Army. He was educated at Harrow and at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and, upon graduation, joined the British Army, serving in India and Burma.

Perhaps as a sign of things to come, while at Sandhurst he won the sword of honour in 1887 for being the best cadet.

When appointed to command the NZ brigade, Russell, unlike many of his contemporaries who fought in the Boer War, was untried in battle.

This soon changed and he served with distinction.

Vennell's story is compulsive reading. Russell never seemed to put a foot wrong, respected by NZ politicians and loved by NZ soldiers, he was the epitome of the soldier's soldier.

After Russell returned to NZ he continued to look after his soldiers' rights and in the 30s argued against defence cuts at a time of international instability. One matter I find hard to forgive General Russell for was when at Gallipoli he mentioned that he could not recommend any NZ soldier for gallantry awards because every man under his command was worth a VC and it was sufficient honour to belong to the brigade. There were 40 VCs' awarded, nine to Australia, one to NZ and the rest between Canada, Britain and other Commonwealth countries. Only one to NZ when, according to the New Zealander who "got one", hundreds should have been honoured, and that would not have been a bad thing.

Vennell's final comment is one that there should be no argument over, once the book has been read.

"He may yet be recognised as its greatest soldier of the twentieth century."

The Forgotten General

by Jock Vennell

Allen & Unwin, $35

- Hamilton News

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