Thursday, 8 May 2008

March to the Sound of the Guns by Ray Grover

MARCH TO THE SOUND OF THE GUNS Ray Grover, Longacre Press, Dunedin NZ, 2008, 464 pages, maps, glossary, bibliography, paperback NZ $34.99.
ISBN 978-1-8774600-01-2

Those who have read Ray Grover’s award-winning Cork of War (1982) will know just what to expect from his latest historical novel and they will not be disappointed. New readers have a rich pleasure in store. March to the Sound of the Guns follows the experiences of five New Zealanders through the Great War, with each taking it in turn to tell their own story.

One character, William Malone of Chunuk Bair fame, really existed while the other four Nelle, Jim, Frank and Harry, are supposedly fictional. Yet, as military historian Christopher Pugsley notes in his admiring introduction, “you know the people because you have met them before.” These four are real people too.

Jim, a miner’s son from the West Coast, regards war as ‘a ruse of the capitalist class’ and is held on Ripapa Island for opposing Compulsory Military Training. Frank, a trainee teacher, is a reluctant special constable as the 1913 strike rocks the capital. Harry, who works in the Defence Department, gives us insights into its functioning as he operates the lantern slides for General Godley’s lectures. When war begins, the three – all aged nineteen – find themselves on their way to Gallipoli.

Meanwhile Nelle, a surgeon’s daughter, alarms her genteel mother by becoming a volunteer nurse, which proves to be physically and emotionally draining work. “Senses were dulled, mind stultified, ankles swollen, face puffed and hands formed sores.”

Malone is a fascinating character in his own right. He is particularly valuable here because he provides a clear over-view of both New Zealand’s preparations as war approaches as well as the situation at Gallipoli. We all know what Colonel Malone’s fate will be but for the other four there is much less certainty. What happens to them in the next five tumultuous years is often completely unexpected. Grover’s awareness of the social and military intricacies of the period makes it possible for him to move his characters in a way that is completely plausible.

Some readers (perhaps having seen Saving Private Ryan) have been surprised by the so-called “Christian sniper” element of this story. In fact the author is well aware of how the Christian religion was an important part of the fabric of daily life in that period. Thus we are able to see exactly how it helped mould that generation, and also how the experience of war led many to re-examine their ideas. It is chilling to realise that when Harry, the most dedicated of the Christians in the novel, speaks of “putting the upper reaches of Monash Gully to rights,” he means to wipe out the enemy snipers. Frank, one of the last men out of Gallipoli, notes that during a padre’s sermon he became “at best an agnostic.”

There is a rich texture of minute detail which makes every scene instantly convincing. When Harry the farmer’s son looks around Gallipoli, he reflects, “It was depressing to see that we held not even the acreage of a decent farm.” Jim, wounded at Messines, finds himself in conversation with the German prisoner taking him to a dressing station. “When I said I was a socialist, he understood and shook my hand.” The horror of the war is ever present. “A young Tommy had a tongue but no jaw, and when the doctor came up, he tried to salute.” Yet, those involved manage to carry on, sometimes helped by the mate-ship created in combat. Each of the characters whose intersecting fortunes we follow manages to make a visit to their parents’ families in the Old Country, which adds another dimension to their consciousness of being New Zealanders. Nelle’s marriage to an RFC pilot brings added joy and fear to her life.

Like the characters, the reader becomes immersed in the daily routines and ordinariness of extraordinary wartime life and it is only later that the long term effects can be seen. When one of the soldiers returns to Wellington knowing that he has been changed for ever, he sees no alteration in his family. “After all that had happened in the last four years, here, nothing had changed.” A proposed sequel will carry events into the 1920s and 1930s.

As a former history teacher I may regret that Ray Grover – New Zealand’s best archivist - hasn’t written a history book but on reflection it is far better that he has used his massive historical awareness to write a novel which is going to be as popular as this one. (Already matched with Pat Barker’s Regeneration saga, it also compares favourably with E.L. Doctorow’s The March.) People who might never open a history book will find themselves drawn deep into this saga, pondering the issues, even as the characters encounter them.

Of this novel I can truly say I was sorry when I reached the end. To read it was pure pleasure.

Trevor Agnew

This review was first published in The Press, Christchurch New Zealand on the 26th April 2008.

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