FREYBERG: A Life's Journey.

AuthorMcGibbon, Ian
PositionBook review

FREYBERG A Life's Journey

Author: Matthew Wright

Published by: Oratia Books, Auckland, 2020, 216pp, $45.

In the pantheon of New Zealand military greatness Bernard Cyril Freyberg ranks in first place. His standing rests securely on his legendary bravery on the battlefield in both world wars and his leadership of New Zealand's premier fighting force in the second. This was followed by a stint as New Zealand's first post-war governor-general and his elevation to a peerage.

Freyberg's storied career has been the subject of two major biographies, by Peter Singleton-Gates (General Lord Freyberg VC, 1963) and Freyberg's son Paul (Bernard Freyberg, V.C.: Soldier of Two Nations, 1991), and a more limited wartime perspective by Major-General Bill Stevens (Freyberg, V.C.: The Man 1939-45, 1965), along with numerous other accounts. As explained by Wright in his Introduction, the purpose of this new biography appears to be to prevent Freyberg from being forgotten by a country now well removed from the time of his exploits, with a focus on Freyberg's character rather than the military operations on which his reputation rested. This rather limited objective is reflected in the book, which is heavily based on the above works, especially for the early, character-forming part of Freyberg's life. Wright summarises them effectively without taking our understanding of Freyberg much further than they did.

Given Wright's limited purpose, and his essentially journalistic approach, it is perhaps unfair to challenge on more scholarly grounds a book ostensibly written for a popular (and relatively undiscerning) audience. But there are troubling aspects about the picture Wright portrays of New Zealand's foremost military figure.

Wright devotes most of an early chapter, 'Adventure', to an exposition on Freyberg's supposed activities in Mexico immediately before the First World War. In this he follows Paul Freyberg in suggesting that Freyberg took part in the Mexican civil war and escaped from Pancho Villa's army to make his way to the United Kingdom via Tampico to join the imperial effort against Germany. As I outlined in my article 'Debunking Freyberg's Mexico myth' in the last issue of this journal (vol 46, no 1), Freyberg in reality spent the three and a half months before the outbreak of war in California, mainly in the oil town of Coalinga, southwest of San Francisco, and left for the war from San Francisco. He was never nearer to Mexico than Southern California, briefly.

The strength of Wright's insistence on Freyberg's presence in Mexico on...

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