The true story of the nurse and the tortoise
Shona Riddell’s family history provided much of the inspiration for the story.
Her great-great aunt, Nora Hughes, was stationed as a nurse in Cairo, Egypt, during World War One and received a tortoise from a wounded Anzac soldier who had found the tortoise in the Gallipoli trenches and put him in his pocket for safe-keeping.
In a move that would give Customs a heart attack today, Nora brought the tortoise back to live in New Zealand after the war. She married Cecil Tombleson and died in the 1970s.
The tortoise, named Peter, was a family pet who finally passed away in 1994 after 80 years spent with four generations of the same family. He was a bit of a local celebrity, even featuring occasionally in the papers as an Anzac veteran. (Read the article written for the Christchurch Press by journalist Oliver Riddell in 1965, 'Our Anzac is a Tortoise'.)
Peter was a Greek tortoise, a species commonly found in Turkey, where he was picked up by the soldier. It is a small species, 7-10cm long, and he would have easily fit in a coat pocket. He liked to eat dandelions and would hibernate every winter.
The story behind the book
Matt and Shona are old friends and both grew up in Wellington.
When Matt approached Shona in 2014 about creating a children's book to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli landings in 1915, they decided to include her family story along with two fictional children, Matthew and Marama, who travel back 100 years to witness the tale of the Anzacs and nurses first-hand – and to play a part themselves.
The Tale of the Anzac Tortoise is a captivating children's book for kids age 5-8. It's a tale of soldiers, nurses, war, sacrifice, and kindness – and is based on real people and events.
The book was published in April 2015 to mark the centenary of the Anzac Cove landings, and to coincide with an exhibition of Matt's watercolour paintings and art created by several primary schools (Te Ra School Raumati, Raumati South and Raumati Beach schools, Kapanui School Waikanae, Island Bay School and Silverstream Primary) based on the story, at the NZ Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington (here is the story from the Kapiti Observer). You can also view the children's excellent artwork (downloads as a .zip file).