A record of a general’s life
CHB’s military man
DURING World War I Major General Sir Andrew (Guy) Russell commanded the New Zealand Division but his leadership and achievements during campaigns in Africa, Gallipoli and the Western Front had for the most part gone unnoticed.
A decade ago author Jock Vennell approached Sir Andrew’s grandson John, who still lives on the family farm at Sherenden, to ask for permission to write the general’s biography.
As a result The Forgotten General was released in July.
“Jock asked me if he could write the book but I was a little reticent because Dr Chris Pugsley, a very well-known New Zealand military historian, had already approached me about writing one.
“But I spoke to Chris about it and he said it was okay for Jock to go ahead.”
Nine years of research went into preparing the book, including trips to London to reference documents regarding Sir Andrew’s military career and family history.
“The difficulty was ﬁnding information and unlike other generals of the time, my grandfather didn’t keep a lot of notes or journals about the battles he was involved in,” John said.
“But he was a very big letter writer and he wrote to his two sisters all the time, sometimes twice a week about his experiences during the war.”
Sir Andrew, who John called “the general” when he was a child, had the wit to keep all of the letters he received from family members and also those from military ﬁgures when he was living overseas during wartime.
“The letters were sent back here and we’ve keep [kept] them at home,” John said. “They were all mixed up and Phillida [his wife] has done a great job sorting them out.
“The letters are fascinating reading because the general and his sisters were very close and it was interesting discovering the intellect they had.
“It wasn’t all about the war, sometimes they discussed things of the time which gives you an idea of the period and what life was like in those days.”
The letters are being documented by a professional archivist and are kept in a temperature-controlled room built by John, for longevity. The family was allowed to read some of the chapters of the book as they were completed and the ﬁnal product was a revelation.
“There were a lot of things in the book that I didn’t know about my grandfather, I found it quite interesting.”
John’s father, John Tinsley Russell, died while on duty with New Zealand armed forced in Egypt during World War II and so “the general” at times assumed the father-ﬁgure role.
“He was always fun to be with, scintillating conversation, he had a great sense of humour as an older man,” he said. “He didn’t talk much about the war, only if it was a story about something funny that happened to him or that he was involved in at the time.”
John remembers Sir Andrew being a staunch supporter of the Social Credit movement in New Zealand and a person who held high hopes for the future of Hawke’s Bay.
“He used to send me down to meetings at Sherenden Hall when the local Social Credit representative was there speaking to people, and make me report back in detail about what was said.”
Sir Andrew was active in the Returned Services Association for 12 years and was a director of the region’s first canning company with his father-in-law, J M [N] Williams.
“It went out of business but later he always used to say that they should have held on to it a bit longer because with World War I beginning at the time, it would have been in demand.”
John said he had often wondered what his grandfather would have thought about the idea of a book written on his life.
“He was a military man and I think he would have been agreeable as long as they told the truth and I think Jock has done that. He didn’t glorify the general, he showed his short-comings as well as his achievements. It was an honest review of the general.”
John said he thought the book stood out from similar biographies on military figures because it explored Sir Andrew’s life in pre and post-war times.
“That’s important because this was to be a book about his military life as well as his life outside of the military. And in fact his involvement in the military was a significant but small part of his life.”
Since the book’s launch in July, John and his family have received letters from people who wanted to share their memories or experiences of the general or just to pay tribute.
“The difficulty was finding information and unlike other generals of the time, my grandfather didn’t keep a lot of notes or journals about the battles he was involved in.” John Russell, grandson
Photo caption – PROUD DESCENDANT: Semi-retired farmer John Russell from Tunanui [Tuna Nui] Station, Sherenden, stands in front of the Tunanui Homestead whlch was once run by his grandfather Major General Sir Andrew Russell, who is the subject of a new book entitled The Forgotten General, a biography by Jock Vennell.
Photo caption – IN CHARGE: A photo from the book about the life and times of Major General Sir Andrew Russell.