Wednesday 26 June 2013

War game by Michael Foreman

War game by Michael Foreman (Arcade Publishing, c1993)

ISBN -1-55970-242-7

68 pgs (unnumbered); no contents page, but 3 short chapters (The kickoff, The adventure, To the front) and one long chapter (No-man’s-land.)

Subjects: World War One, football, Christmas, armistice, truce, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

Four boys from the same village in Suffolk - Will, Lacey, Billy and Freddie – dream of playing soccer for England, but instead they sign up in August 1914 to go to war. Life in the trenches is miserable and the war shows no sign of ending. Then on Christmas Day, a miracle happens. British and German soldiers start to sing carols, the Germans put up lighted Christmas trees and both sides meet in the middle to exchange Christmas wishes. A game of football starts and for a while, the young men make up two opposing sports teams, not two sides at war.

The book contains lots of full page illustrations, with some small fact boxes and a few reproductions of newspaper articles and advertisements. The endpapers contain examples of recruiting posters.

Make sure you look at the dedication to the author’s four uncles who died in the Great War.

There is a fascinating website about the Christmas truce hereIt has been put together by two English journalists who are encouraging volunteers to search through old newspapers and local archives for details of the 1914 Christmas truce (which took place all along the lines, and was larger than just this one football match.)

There is a short review of the book on the Booktrust website. 

What made boys like Will, Lacey, Billy and Freddie decide to join up?
What did they expect the war to be like? When did they realise they might be wrong? What was it like?
The last four pages contain only pictures, no words. What do you think happens at the end? Why did Michael Foreman choose to finish the book like this? If you wanted to write some final words to go with the pictures, what would they be?

Information about the author:
Michael Foreman is primarily an illustrator, but his book War boy : a wartime childhood tells of growing up (he was born in 1938) in an English fishing village during World War Two. It is followed by After the war was over. He has also illustrated two other war stories, Billy the kid and Farm boy (both by Michael Morpurgo.) His very first book, The General, is an anti-war story (written in 1961 during the Cold War) about General Jodhpur who suddenly notices the beauty of grass, flowers and nature when he falls off his horse, and decides to concentrate on peace, not war, from then on. 

Michael Foreman: Michael Foreman
Illustration from The General (1961) 

Other books you might like:
The duck in the gun by Joy Cowley has a similar anti-war message to The General.
Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo also shows the pressure put on young men to join up.
One of the letters in Harry and the Anzac poppy by John Lockyer describes the misery of being in the trenches on Christmas Day, longing for home, with nothing for dinner except bully beef stew.
Near the end of War game, Will finds himself in a shell hole with a German soldier. Read The red poppy by David Hill for another similar encounter.

Football in war:
"Football has a long history, and some of it is tied up with war. In 1914, when the First World War broke out, football was the most popular national sport, especially with young men just the right age to fight for their country. Entire football teams joined up to fight together, and some died together too.
Many footballers joined up in the Second World War too, and many lost their lives.
This site tells some of their stories and looks at how the Commonwealth War Graves Commission remembers them by recording their details and looking after their graves and memorials."

  • There are plans to re-create the Christmas truce football game on Boxing Day 2014 at Messines. It has recently been announced that David Beckham may be called out of retirement to lead the English side against a German team. 
New Zealand connections:
When war was declared in August 1914, many people thought it would be over by Christmas. Men from New Zealand and Australia hurried to enlist so they didn’t miss out. They knew it would take weeks to get there by ship and worried that the fighting would be finished by the time they arrived, but in fact it dragged on for four more years.

Postcard. Christmas greetings from New Zealand. Ake ake. In my loneliness I ponder, Think of you by night and day, Of you bravely fighting yonder; May God keep you safe I pray / Roslyn. Published by Frank Duncan & Co., High St., Auckland [1914-1918]
Frank Duncan and Company. Postcard. Christmas greetings from New Zealand. [Album of postcards donated by the Hurley family. 1905-1920].. Ref: Eph-B-POSTCARD-Vol-17-010-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

For the first Christmas of the war, 17-year-old Princess Mary (daughter of King George V) sent all the troops a Christmas gift: a brass tin containing tobacco, sweets, pencils, a card and a picture of her. You can read more about the Christmas tins on the Museum Victoria site. 

This one belonged to Hami Grace, whose story is told on pg 22 of Anzac Day: the New Zealand story in the section called “Maori in the Great War”.

If you go to the National Library website and search on ”Christmas” and “war”, then filter the results by type (Images) and date (1910s), you will find some photographs of wartime Christmas celebrations.

New Zealand Commander curves the turkey on Christmas Day, Chateau Segard, 1917
New Zealand Commander curves the turkey on Christmas Day, Chateau Segard, 1917. RNZRSA :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013034-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The Christmas football game is not the only occasion when soldiers from opposing sides met in a temporary truce. In May 1915, a ceasefire was arranged at Gallipoli so both sides could bury their dead (see pg 15 of Anzac Day: the New Zealand story in the section called “A long, tough campaign”.) One story goes that only Australian soldiers who were over six foot (1.8m) tall were chosen for this job, so the Turks would think that all the Australians were that big.

The bodies were lying out in the open on no-man’s-land and it was hard to dig graves in the rocky ground, but the work was lightened by the fact that the men could walk around freely in the open for once without having to worry about being hit by snipers or shells. Soldiers from each side talked together (in sign language if they didn’t have a common language) and swapped cigarettes and food. At the end of the day, they went back to their own trenches and the war started up again.

Armistice day, Gallipoli, Turkey
Armistice day, Gallipoli, Turkey. Powles family :Photographs. Ref: PA1-o-811-23-3. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

  • Michael Foreman tells an intriguing story about why British soldiers are known as “Tommies” – after a soldier named Thomas Atkins - although a bit of Internet research reveals that there are conflicting theories as to where the name originated. The soldiers’ nicknames for each other are also shown in Ataturk’s famous speech on the Johnnies and the Mehmets (see pg 35 of Anzac Day: the New Zealand story in the section with that title.) 

Friday 7 June 2013

The silver donkey by Sonya Hartnett

The silver donkey by Sonya Hartnett (Viking, 2004)

ISBN 0 670 04240 4

18 chapters; 192 pages with about 10 full page black and white illustrations

Subjects: World War One, France, deserters, animals, fable, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

This story is set in northern France, near the coast, sometime during the battles fought along the Western Front during World War One. 

Two sisters, Coco and Marcelle, find a soldier hiding in the woods, desperate to get back to his sick brother in England. The trauma of war has left him temporarily blind. Together with their older brother Pascal and a friend, Fabrice, the girls concoct a plan to help him. The two of them are delightful, especially Coco who is entranced by the soldier’s tiny silver donkey (there is a lovely passage where she imagines riding away on it.) Pascal, on the other hand, would prefer to hear gruesome first-hand accounts of the war, “a tale about machine-guns and bayonets.”

Interspersed with the main narrative are four stand-alone stories, told by the soldier, three of them with a donkey theme: Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem, a legend about why storm clouds are grey and the tale of the “donkey man” at Gallipoli (although again the place is not mentioned.)  

The story is beautifully told in almost poetic language. One plot detail that bothered me was that the soldier would still be treated as a deserter when he reached England, so he was not really escaping to safety.  But this is partly because details are often left vague, and the story has an almost dreamlike quality of “fable”. The book is asking questions about the nature of bravery and courage and the sort of qualities that really matter, like the donkey’s qualities of loyalty, humility, gentleness, trustworthiness and steadfastness.

The silver donkey was made into a musical by the Australian team of Dean Bryant and Matthew Frank, and the production toured Australia and  the USA in 2006. You can see a clip from it here on Youtube. 


Charm under fireSonya Hartnett's The Silver Donkey shows that life in wartime offers surprising opportunities. Another review is here: The silver donkey by Sonya Hartnett

You can also find teacher's notes for the book here

  • What do you think is the answer to Fabrice’s question (in the chapter called Heroes): “Do you really have a brother… Or is he a ghost made of wishes and fear, someone you invented to disguise your shame in fleeing a war which other men… have stayed behind to fight?"
  • Do you think the Lieutenant did the right thing when he lay beside the dying Ernie Whittaker? What else could he have done? How do you think he felt afterwards?
  • What does the silver donkey represent?
  • Why don’t we ever learn the Lieutenant’s real name?
  • Who is a “hero” in this book? What is heroism?

Author’s website:
Sonya Hartnett is an Australian writer. 

Her other war-related children’s books include Children of the King (2012),  a time-overlap adventure about three children sent to the countryside to escape the war in London, and The midnight zoo (2010) (“Under cover of darkness, two brothers cross a war-ravaged countryside carrying a secret bundle. One night they stumble across a deserted town reduced to smouldering ruins. But at the end of a blackened street they find a small green miracle: a zoo filled with animals in need of hope.”)

Other books you might like:
Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo also deals with the topic of army deserters and how they were treated.

New Zealand connections:
Desertion was treated as a crime by the army and could be punished by  court-martial and execution.  On pg 47 of Anzac Day: the New Zealand story is a section called “Pardoned at last”. This tells the story of the men who were court-martialled for mutiny or desertion, often because they were suffering from undiagnosed shell shock. Many of these men had fought bravely in other parts of the war but had just reached the limit of what they could endure. Their deaths were seen as terribly shameful for their families and often they were not talked about for years.

In England, there is a memorial  to some of these young men from Britain and the Commonwealth at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

File:Shot at Dawn memorial.JPG
Called the Shot At Dawn Memorial, it contains a statue of a young man ­blindfolded and strapped to a post, surrounded by 306 other posts, each with the name, age and ­regiment of a man who was executed.

In 2000, the Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act was passed to pardon the five NZ soldiers who were subsequently shot. You can read more about the Act here and hereThe medals and certificate of pardon for one of the soldiers, Victor Spencer, were later gifted to the Bluff Maritime Museum

Of the five soldiers listed, two were born in Australia and their story is told further here:
ANZAC tragedies revealed after 80 years: the stories of Private John Sweeney and Frank Needs / John King , both Australians who signed up in NZ, and served bravely in Gallipoli but were charged with desertion in France and shot. (It’s interesting to note that Australian never allowed its own soldiers to be shot, perhaps because the AIF was made up of volunteers  - conscription was voted against twice by the Australian public during World War One - and the public outcry would have been huge. But these two men had signed up for the NZ army.) 

War books for children

I am a New Zealand writer of fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. My most recent book, published in April 2013, is called Anzac Day: the New Zealand story.

Anzac Day

Anzac Day, celebrated every year on April 25th, is a very special day for New Zealanders and Australians, although it is marked in other countries around the world too. What does Anzac stand for? Why do we mark Anzac Day on that particular day? When did the tradition of the dawn service start? Why do we wear the red poppy and play the Last Post? This book will tell you all these things and more, and it's crammed full of fascinating pictures and illustrations as well. You can read more about it here.

While I was researching for the Anzac Day book, and also for my next book which is a children's novel set in World War Two, I became interested in the whole subject of books on war written for children. Many of these are classics:

But there were others that I had never even heard of:

War is a subject of enduring fascination, horror and mystery. We are lucky that our children haven't had to live through a war, although many children around the world are not so fortunate. But the best of these books can help children (and grown-ups!) understand the nature of war: how things are not always black and white, how there can be different definitions of heroism and cowardice. Books about war can highlight acts of bravery, courage and loyalty, amongst those who served and fought in wars, as well as those who were caught up in them through no choice of their own.

I decided that I'd like to read more children's war books and post reviews of them online. Each review will contain a summary of the plot, relating it where possible to the New Zealand experience of war. I will also include information about the author, questions to think about, photographs or illustrations, and links to relevant websites and to other books that deal with similar aspects of war.

I hope you find these reviews interesting and helpful. If you're a teacher, you might find an idea for a book to read to your class. If you're a reader - child or adult - I hope they inspire you to hunt down a copy from a library or bookshop.

As George Santayana famously said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." These books contain stories that we need to remember, and should never forget.