From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth by John H. Gray
Wilson Scott Publishing, $80
The title of this book is taken from the moving and inspired inscription on the four New Zealand battlefield monuments on the Western Front. These monuments are at Longueval and Le Quesnoy in France, and Messines and Gravenstafel in Belgium. They remind anyone who sees them that, nearly 100 years ago, New Zealand sent thousands of its young men and a few hundred young women to the other side of the world to take part in the major conflict engulfing Europe and much of the world.
This conflict eventually claimed more New Zealand lives than all the other wars in which this country has participated. What these New Zealanders did on the Western Front from mid-1916 to the end of 1918 is the subject of this book.
From The Uttermost Ends Of The Earth began as a diary in 2002 as the author, John Gray, traced the experiences of three uncles who served on the Western Front. While interspersed with considerable history, the book remains primarily a guide to the key battlefields of the New Zealand Division's dark journey across the Western Front.
Gray is a retired city manager of Christchurch and served in the Territorial Force of the New Zealand Army for more than 20 years, eventually reaching its senior rank of brigadier. He is the author of a monograph on Sergeant Henry Nicholas, the first soldier from Canterbury to win the Victoria Cross. To compile this book he visited the Western Front battlefields several times.
From The Uttermost Ends Of The Earth is much more than a travel guide to New Zealand battlefields of the Western Front, although it admirably serves this purpose.
Its history of the New Zealand Division in France and Belgium is solid, if a bit unoriginal, but its great strength is the wealth of detail and visual material it contains. Readers are informed of places to stay, given the relevant GPS co-ordinates of sites of interest, the makeup of the New Zealand Division is thoroughly explained, informative websites are featured, the glossary of military terms and abbreviations is comprehensive and there is much more.
It is a visual feast, with more than 100 illustrations, many in colour. Special mention needs to be made of the maps. Gray clearly has a passion for good quality, detailed maps and has assembled 32 for the book. In addition, nine original trench maps also feature, which is most unusual. The book is worth buying for the maps alone.
One weakness is that, as Gray readily admits, the history is written from secondary sources. He relies heavily on five published sources for his historical accounts of the New Zealand battles. The primary research is restricted to his "boots on the ground".
This criticism aside, From The Uttermost Ends Of The Earth is a considerable achievement. As Dr Christopher Pugsley notes in his foreword, writing it has clearly "been a labour of love and it shows". It is especially pleasing to see the publishers produce the book in the quality it deserves - in hardback, with an inspiring dust jacket.
This is a fine contribution to our understanding of New Zealand's role in this pivotal world conflict and anyone with an interest in New Zealand's experience on the Western Front should read it.
Glyn Harper is Professor of War Studies at Massey University. His book, Letters from Gallipoli, will be published in March by Auckland University Press.