Tuesday 8 July 2014

1914: Riding into war by Susan Brocker

1914: Riding into war by Susan Brocker (Scholastic, 2014)

ISBN 978-1-77543-206-7

216 pages with some notes and photos at the end

Subjects: World War One, Egypt, Gallipoli, Mounted Rifles, horses, young adult fiction (Year 8-11)

riding into war

The first thing you notice about this book is the striking cover, with the large embossed “1914”, the barbed wire pattern and the dramatic picture, which immediately tells you that horses are going to play a big part in this story. 

Seventeen-year-old Billy Bowman is old enough to be working on a farm, but young enough to be nicknamed “Billy the Kid” by the older farmworkers, who scoff at the idea of him signing up with the rest of them when war is declared in August 1914. But Billy’s mate Jack reckons “the enlistment age is just for city slickers who can’t ride or shoot”, and they are country boys who can do both. Sure enough, Billy is accepted by the recruitment officer – as long as his parents agree – and soon he and Jack are off with their horses to join the Mounted Rifles at the Awapuni Training Camp near Palmerston North.

The story of how the New Zealand troops got to war is sometimes overshadowed by the events that followed, but is fascinating in itself: the farewell dances, the weeks of training and drills, more farewells at the wharves, the long sea voyages (with the added difficultly here of keeping the horses in good shape), the exotic stopovers, the passage through the Suez Canal and the final arrival in Egypt. This section takes up about a third of the book and the details about caring for the horses on board are especially convincing.

Once in Egypt, there are more weeks of training in the desert before they are sent to Gallipoli - without their horses - after the first landings in April, but in time for the battle of Chunuk Bair in August 1915. The author manages to fit a lot of details about the Gallipoli campaign: the May armistice to bury the bodies, the torpedoing of the British battleship Triumph, the jam pot grenades, the periscope rifles, the awful food. These books are aimed at readers from 12+ but the language is mild with no expletives worse than “Jeez”. 

The focus is kept tightly on Billy, his mate Jack and their nemesis Chopper (“a tall, heavy-set man in his late twenties”, who calls him “Billy Boy” and “a little squirt”.) Other soldiers are there in the background but are seldom named. Billy exchanges letters with Alice, the daughter of the farm owner, although as the months go by, he finds there is more and more that he can’t tell her.

There is a map at the front – very important for tracing the troops' journey to Egypt and beyond (school visits have showed me that children might know about the Anzac landings at Gallipoli, but often don’t know where Gallipoli is – their guesses range from Germany to Russia.) The book also includes a timeline, glossary and bibliography at the back. (I looked for, but couldn’t find any details of the cover art on the front and back covers.)

Kiwis at War
This is the first title in Scholastic’s new Kiwis at War series, which will eventually consist of five books based on events for each year of World War One. (The events in this book carry over into 1915, which is understandable, given that the troops didn’t leave New Zealand until October 1914.) The other books in the series – each to be released in their centenary year - will be written by Diana Menefy (1915), David Hair (1916), Brian Falkner (1917) and Des Hunt (1918).

One of the interesting features about this series is that, while individually written (and perfectly readable as standalone texts), the five titles will be linked by characters who appear in more than one book. I love the idea of this collaboration amongst the authors, each working on their own story but also finding ways to create connections between them.

Susan’s book is to be launched on August 4th (exactly 100 years after the declaration of war), and the launch for each of the other books will also be tied in to a significant date. I’m looking forward to reading them, and to seeing if my guess about the “link” character in this book is correct.

Author’s website
On Susan Brocker's website, she says: “My favourite books are stories I’ve written about my favourite things, such as horses, dogs and animals of all sorts. I also love bringing history alive and making it exciting – and sometimes the two come together in novels like The Drover’s Quest and Brave Bess.”

This book is another example of the two things coming together. I can’t think of a better person to have chosen to write this story. Susan’s knowledge of history, her love of horses and her understanding of their needs and and personalities all come through clearly on every page.

Susan also has a Facebook author page, and you can read more about her on the Bookrapt site and the Storylines site. There is also an interview with her on the wonderful Christchurch City Libraries section on Interviews with NZ authors

Other books you might like:
If you like this book, you are sure to enjoy reading others that Susan has written. Brave Bess and the ANZAC horses (Harper Collins, 2010) is subtitled “a true story of courage and loyalty” – the qualities shown by the thousands of horses that were sent overseas with the New Zealand troops to face heat, stress, thirst, hunger, exhaustion, disease and injury in the deserts of the Middle East. Dreams of Warriors (Harper Collins, 2010), set in Featherston in World War Two, features fourteen-year-old Bella, who is trying to help save their family farm while her father is away at war, and also coping with a crazy bad-tempered horse called Gipsy. 

The horses didn’t come home by Pamela Rushby tells the story of Harry and his friend Jack, both aged 16, who set off for war with the Australian Light Horse and end up taking part in the last great cavalry charge in history, at Beersheba in the Sinai Desert in 1917.

Light Horse Boy by Dianne Wolfer follows Jim, a young Australian who works as a farrier (someone who trims and shoes horses’ hooves) and his best mate Charlie, who also sail for Egypt, camp in the desert and visit the pyramids; they are sent to Gallipoli (without their horses) and later, back in Egypt, Jim takes part in the battles of the Desert Campaign.

James Bayne's World War One diary
While looking for photos of the Mounted Rifles, I came across this diary which is held by the Alexander Turnbull Library and part of the WW1 digitisation project. 

Bayne, James, d 1915 : World War One diary
Bayne, James, d 1915 : World War One diary. Ref: MS-Papers-1418. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23160459
Like many other WW1 soldiers, James Bayne kept a diary; his runs from 10 Aug 1914 to 8 May 1915, and describes many of the same events that Billy and Jack experience, although he served with the Wellington Infantry Battalion, not the Mounted Rifles. James enlisted at Dannevirke, was sent to Awapuni Camp for military training and embarked for Egypt in October 1914. He describes life on board ship and the stopover at Colombo (in modern day Sri Lanka), the arrival in Alexandria, more training at Zeitoun Camp and the "Battle of the Wozzer" in April 1915. After taking part in the first landings at Anzac Cove, he was sent to fight at Cape Helles in the south of the peninsula in May 1915, and that is where he died.

If you scroll down to and click on "See original record", then scroll down to and click on "View archived copy online", you can read every page of his diary, which is a strange and sombre experience - a bit like being in Gallipoli itself, where you often feel like you are trying to match up the past with the present

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