Even if you aren’t familiar with Bernard Freyberg’s story, most New Zealanders will recongise the name. Streets, swimming pools, sports awards, buildings are all named after him – if I recall correctly a house at a primary school I attended was named after him too, a popular choice. Much has been written about Freyberg the soldier, the military commander and the Governor General but Matthew Wright’s book ‘Freyberg – A Life’s Journey’ is a much more personal look at the man behind the myth.
During the Second World War he led the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Mediterranean, serving in Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy. Many of my readers will have parents or grandparents who fought in his army and some of his soldiers are still alive today and fondly remember him by his nickname, ‘Tiny’. But what I enjoyed the most about ‘Freyberg – A Life’s Journey’ were the stories from his earlier years and how they shaped him. How did a young competitive swimmer and dental student, (who coincidentally first worked for the same rural dentist that hired James Campbell, the photographer I’ve previously written about ) end up on the other side of the world schmoozing with illustrious company including the Churchill and Asquith families and the author of Peter Pan?
Freyberg’s First World War escapades are brilliantly brought to life by Wright; his daring swim the night of the Gallipoli landings, the capture of Beaucourt village for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross, and how he led a cavalry squadron in a desperate dash to claim strategic ground literally one minute before the armistice came into effect. Wright describes him as a ‘Boys Own’ action hero and you can see why. I knew of some of Freyberg’s First World War antics, but always wanted to learn more and this book definitely scratched that itch! Wright also goes in search of the motives that drove Freyberg to perform such extraordinary acts and shaped him as such a successful leader.
The most curious chapter in Freyberg’s life remains one of the most enigmatic. This First World War hijacked the lives of many, with over one hundred thousand New Zealanders serving overseas – and many like Freyberg did so by joining the armed forces of other nations, mostly due to being overseas when the war broke out, but what makes Freyberg unusual is that he may have been fighting overseas before the First World War even began. In March 1914, Freyberg left New Zealand for the United States to continue his dental training, but every indication suggests he sought an adventure during the Mexican Revolution instead – some stories suggest as a bodyguard for a film cameraman, and others claim that he served as an officer in Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa’s forces. Wright reveals how the truth of Freyberg’s involvement has been obfuscated – in part by Freyberg himself:
“It is revealing that in 1914-15 Freyberg could tell Robert Brooke and Alfred Rhine, among others, that he had deserted from the Mexican revolution when he heard the European war had broken out. But by the time he was Governor-General of New Zealand he felt he had to deny ever being there.”Excerpt from ‘Freyberg: A Life’s Journey’, by Matthew Wright
Some mysteries remain unsolved, and regrettably the complete story of what Freyberg really got up to in Mexico might be one of them. Two things seem sure, he was definitely there, and it wasn’t to learn about dentures.
One of the biggest delights in this book are the insights into how Freyberg managed to navigate British high society and his friendships with the likes of Winston Churchill, who referred to him as “my salamander” due to his ability to survive, and James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, who thought of Freyberg as “Peter Pan grown up.” This chapter of Freyberg’s life isn’t usually given much attention, with the spotlight usually on his wartime leadership, and later career. It’s changed the way I think of Freyberg, now including him among the ranks of those early pioneers of the great Kiwi tradition, the Overseas Experience – and what an incredible OE he had!
Wright’s exploration of Freyberg’s personal life and how it shaped him has been well overdue. I highly recommend it – there’s also a new book about New Zealand’s other most famous soldier, Charles Upham. I haven’t managed to get myself a copy of Tom Scott’s ‘Searching for Charlie’ but look forward to reading that too.
‘Freyberg: A Life’s Journey’ is available for purchase online, or from your favourite brick and mortar bookstore if your community is fortunate enough to still have one.
© Lemuel Lyes