Jamie Wall reviews Invincible by WJ Moloney, which covers Andrew (Son) White’s life and experiences of World War I, rugby and survival.
“He saw it, and all the other memorials, was conceived and created for what was lost, by those who survived. Stark and imposing, thoughtfully designed and inscribed with respectful words, they told only of the cost. But Son found them lacking in life. They told nothing of the excitement of the soldiers’ lives, of their loves, of their fears, their achievements and their failures, of what they had done, of how they had lived. These monuments were built because they had died.
Not because they had lived.”
There’s been a laudable focus by rugby players recently on the issue of mental health. The pressures of performance and how it affects today’s professionals is an interesting topic, but like most sports narratives, it’s nothing new. In fact, one of the most incredible instances of a sportsperson battling his inner demons belongs to an All Black who made his debut over a century ago.
Andrew White (nicknamed Son as he was the only boy in a family of five girls) played for the All Blacks 38 times including three tests on the legendary “Invincibles” tour of the UK, Ireland, France and North America in 1924–25. That’s where White’s story as told by W J Moloney gets its name.
Moloney’s Invincible is a hefty tome, clocking in at over 500 pages. But for those interested in the New Zealand experience of the First World War, it’s well worth the read. It’s also an enriching addition to the bookshelf of any rugby buff, bringing life to a tour that has mostly been confined to publications and flickering newsreel footage of the period. But to get to that, the reader must undergo the same, harrowing journey that White did after he volunteered to serve his country in 1914.
While the book is a work of historical fiction, it is well known among rugby historians that White’s real life war service was a thoroughly horrific experience from start to finish. After joining the Otago Mounted Rifles at age 20, he and his comrades from rural Southland shipped off thinking they’d be barreling down on the enemy in spectacular cavalry charges. Instead, they found themselves in the trenches of Gallipoli, slowly getting massacred by the Ottoman Turks while their beloved horses were worked to death as pack animals.
If you’re looking for the sort of adventurous account of our boys fighting bravely, Invincible isn’t it. This is a grim introduction to White’s war, telling how soldiers were just as likely to perish shitting themselves to death from dysentery than from Turkish bullets. There’s a very disturbing account of the Battle of Chunuk Bair, told in an unbroken narrative that rattles with the tempo of a Maxim machine gun over five pages:
“The smell everywhere. Dead in the trench. Behind us. In front. Bloating. Occasionally you would see one burst. Hit by a shot. Or just the pressure. The gas. Bits of a man would rain down. Same all across no man’s land. Two days of that and we walked down. I couldn’t eat. I could barely drink. The smell seemed to be in me. Lining my nose. My mouth. I wanted to stick a spoon in and scrape it out. Get rid of the lining of my mouth and nose, till it was new, till all I could smell was fresh blood, my fresh blood. But with every breath I smelt that rotting meat up on the hill.”
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for White. That’s because, unsurprisingly, he quickly developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, at the time not very well understood and generally put down to cowardice. Things didn’t get any better when he and the few survivors were sent to the Western Front (the Otago Mounted Rifles suffered such appalling casualties at Gallipoli the remnants were absorbed into infantry brigades).
This is where Invincible really delves into what it’s like to be a prisoner of a condition that was exacerbated daily by the sheer magnitude of industrialised slaughter. White endures crippling alcoholism, harsh punishment by the army and a descent into madness. There has been a theme among Great War media for a while now, particularly the intensely depressing recent Netflix adaptation of All Quiet On The Western Front, to ramp up just how awful the war was with gratuitous depictions of violence and terror. Invincible is no exception, but goes further by making the pure monotony of White’s existence as a soldier part of the psychological torment.
Obviously, it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that White survived the war, returning home to a society ill-equipped to deal with the mental damage inflicted on the men it sent away. It’s here where the story must make its inevitable transition to a sports one, and while it’s done in a logical fashion, from then on it certainly feels very different.
The story of White’s rugby career on its own is remarkable. There’s no evidence to suggest that he’d even played a proper game before he went to war, but after joining a local club in 1919 he managed to be selected for the All Blacks by 1921. It’s not like White was some sort of genetic freak of nature either – he stood 1.8m and weighed around 80kgs. However, while White’s lightning-fast pathway is notable, the legendary Invincibles team included some of the most famous names in All Black history. George Nepia, the Brownlie brothers, Bert Cooke, Mark Nicholls and others are all prominent characters in the back half, essentially relegating White to being a supporting role in his own story.
If there is one criticism of Invincible it is this, because what we know of White as a player from reports of the time is that he was very much a blue collar forward. The Invincibles tour is famous for Nepia redefining the fullback position, Cooke’s strike rate of almost a try a game, and Cyril Brownlie being sensationally sent off at Twickenham. It’s not really remembered for White’s now outdated dribbling skills and occasional goal kicking. It shows in the narrative: while there are call backs to his war experiences and the descriptions of games and rowdy tour life are entertaining, you get the feeling this might have worked better as two volumes (or even just two parts) as the story progresses from one man’s experience to that of many others.
“What this 1924 team knew and wasn’t saying, wasn’t even admitting to themselves, was that being a middle-child was freeing from expectation and obligation. They could simply be, for that was enough when no one thought you would be anything else. They knew ‘expected to lose’ was the same as ‘nothing to lose’.”
For all their glory, the sad part of the Invincibles tour is that there were 10 more All Blacks with presumably traumatic war experiences too, alongside the numerous British, Irish, French and Canadian veterans they played against. For context, Australian rugby was destroyed so thoroughly by the carnage that they couldn’t field a proper test side again until 1929.
Moloney clearly cares deeply about both aspects of White’s life. This is an incredibly well-researched story that gives a fantastic perspective on a generation so far removed from how we live today it’s hard to even comprehend. He also includes strong themes about the Great War’s futility, as well as the dangers of glorifying the dead while ignoring the shattering societal effects of war – something that is getting ominously common during increasingly jingoistic modern interpretations of Anzac Day on both sides of the Tasman.
Invincible is an apt title for the story of Son White, because he survived deep, deep trauma to rehabilitate himself to a point that he was an All Black. But invulnerable he was not. He was a man who went through hell for no good reason along with millions of others and suffered terrible consequences for it. The men and women who carry his legacy today by wearing the same jersey and using it to platform discussions about mental health would do well to know his story.