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'One of the greatest' remembered

The Forgotten General: New Zealand World War I Commander Major-General Sir Andrew Russell, by Jock Vennell.

Published by Allen & Unwin. 338pp. RRP: $39.99.

On the slopes of Gallipoli is Russell’s Top which, each year, thousands of New Zealanders pass not knowing it is named for the brigade headquarters of one of the few commanders that came out of the campaign with their reputation enhanced. A citizen soldier, Maj Gen Sir Andrew Russell would go on to command the New Zealand Division on the Western Front. Like the landmark that bears his name, Russell is forgotten today.

Andrew Hamilton (Guy) Russell was born in 1868 into a pioneering Hawke’s Bay farming family; he was schooled at Harrow and graduated from Sandhurst with the sword of honour for best cadet – the first New Zealand-born cadet to do so. After an uneventful military career in Burma and India, he resigned his commission and came home to work and then manage the farm, marriage and family.

Nonetheless, Russell did not completely retire his sword for the plough as, following the outbreak of the South African War, he formed and commanded the Wellington (East Coast) Mounted Rifles and, by 1911, was in command of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Brigade. On the outbreak of World War 1, he was provided command of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade. 

Readers will naturally drift to the chapters on his command at Gallipoli and as New Zealand divisional commander, which covers a dozen of the book’s 25 chapters. They reveal that Russell was thorough in his preparations whether training or campaigning, a tough disciplinarian (after the execution of a soldier, he said “He has lost his life as an example to the rest”), a talented tactical commander who led fearlessly from the front (to the point that subordinate officers had to warn him to refrain from being so reckless on his regular visits to frontline trenches).

There were many successes, such as Chunuk Bair and the successful evacuation of Gallipoli, as well as Messines. In fact, he was knighted for Gallipoli and promoted to major-general, the first
New Zealand-born officer to make this rank. Russell did not go in for honours for himself (“I have not much use for these kinds of things”) nor for his men (he did not recommend any for gallantry awards on Gallipoli); instead he believed membership of the brigade was sufficient honour. There were also the inevitable mistakes, such as Hill 60, Somme and Passchendaele (“a mistake”). But he was one of the few commanders to front his mistakes. Most of all, Russell should be remembered for the 20,000-strong division that, under his command, became one of the best divisions on the Western Front.

But the story does not end with the end of the war. On his return to New Zealand a totally exhausted Russell took two years to recuperate; he then devoted his time to serving the needs of the men he had commanded. His 12 years as dominion president of the RSA between 1922 and 1935 remains one of the longest in the history of the association during a period of great need in the veteran community. He was simultaneously dominion president of the National Defence League, which he had revived because he was so concerned with the future defence of New Zealand.

On the outbreak of World War 2, at age 72, he again served his nation as a member of the War Council and later as inspector-general of military forces. He retired from work and public life in the late 1940s and died in 1960. This full biography also reveals the farmer and the devoted family man, the man of faith, with a considerable intellect and varied interests, as well as considerable physical prowess. In short, Russell was an extraordinary New Zealander.

Jock Vennell, historian and journalist and former editor of New Zealand Defence Quarterly, has worked on this biography for several years. This is evident in the extent of the research and confident assessments, particularly the concluding chapter. The risk of biography is that the author gets too close to the subject. It is clear that Vennell greatly respects “the General” as he is still referred to by family members, including John Russell who lives on the family estate of Tunanui and is custodian of the family archive. But Vennell does not shy away from criticism and “warts and all” information, which serves the reader well by providing a rounded and engaging depiction. It is difficult not to respect and admire a man of such courage, leadership but also great compassion for his family and the men he commanded.

This book succeeds in resurrecting the memory of one of this nation’s greatest military commanders who, with Freyberg and Kippenberger, deserves to be remembered.



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