Delicate flowers of the wasteland, Les Cleveland

Love in Time of War: Letter Writing in the Second World War
Deborah Montgomerie
Auckland University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 1869403363

Freyberg’s War: The Man, the Legend, the Reality
Matthew Wright
Penguin Books, $35.00,
ISBN 0143019856

Western Front: The New Zealand Division in the First World War 1916-18
Matthew Wright
Reed Books, $29.99,
ISBN 0790009900

Gallipoli: Untold Stories from War Correspondent Charles Bean and Frontline Anzacs
Jonathan King and Michael Bowers
Random House, $49.95,
ISBN 1869417003

Gallipoli: In Search of a Family Story
Pat White
Red Books, $34.95,
ISBN 0476014638

The Desert Road: New Zealanders Remember the North African Campaign
ed Megan Hutching with Ian McGibbon
HarperCollins, $44.99,
ISBN 1869505115

Love in Time of War is a keyhole glimpse of a neglected part of our cultural history. Historians have tended not to take much notice of the delicate flowers of feeling and emotion that bloomed briefly in our military wastelands, but the Platonic subtleties of comradeship, affection and the bonds of collective spirit that once linked the best of us together in wartime are probably the only heritage worth salvaging from the junkyards of the past. Deborah Montgomerie’s discerning study may encourage a different approach to our cultural heritage and might redirect some of the current misguided enthusiasm for warriors and “the spirit of Anzac”.

The author finds that the idea of home is an abiding dimension of the soldier’s personal identity and that letter writing is one of the ways that people caught up in WWII managed to make sense of it. Thus soldiers’ letters are a register of their efforts to communicate their feelings to wives and families in the homeland. In charting this psychological landscape Montgomerie arrives indirectly at a sensitive realisation of the relationships among men and women at war. She questions the facile theory that males of the wartime generation were hostile to family life and sought refuge in a misogynistic fraternity of mateship. Her insight raises further questions about the dynamics of group life and identity in the military which are outside the scope of the present inquiry, but which have radical implications for historical studies, including the social life and gender relationships of ordinary New Zealand men and women.

However, one of the author’s main sources is the correspondence of a woman journalist as well as two male volunteer soldiers in their 30s, an age which makes them old men compared to the bulk of the conscripted youth in the Division’s infantry. Mature veterans in their 30s had different sensibilities from those of 21-year-olds, and their life experiences tended to be more embedded in family responsibilities. The inhibiting effects of censorship, another languishing topic in military studies, may also be underestimated.

As literature, soldiers’ letters make dull reading. Some of the 53 accompanying illustrations to Love in Time of War seem more eloquent than what people wrote. The more carnal complexities and entanglements of love, romance and the comedy of manners that flourished in the Division are excluded. Perhaps aged, letter-writing warriors do not embarrass the folks back home with disturbing revelations of life’s rich pattern. Indeed, it is hard to resist the thought that love in its full, rampaging intricacies and permutations is much too serious a subject to be trifled with and ought best be left to the divinations of poets, fortune tellers, gypsies, philosophers and, above all, golden youth.

The homeland connection is only one aspect of the larger concept of morale which revolves around concerns like combat readiness, a sense of cohesion in a common purpose, and especially leadership, meaning the ability to influence people to do something they would otherwise not attempt. New Zealand leaders tend to be mere technocrats whose skills are mostly applied to humdrum matters of business, politics or sport. Military leaders of any stature are rare and often confused with heroes whose status depends on opportunistic circumstance, the nature of the times and the vagaries of media publicity and popular sentiment.

The most impressive leaders are those who have transformational power. By inspiration, personal example and courage as well as talent, they are able to persuade followers to trust them and to accept hardship, danger and sacrifice in order to attain desired goals. General Freyberg, commander of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in WWII is probably the best, if not the only, example of this rare class of person in our brief history.

Though much has been written about Freyberg’s operational capabilities, Matthew Wright is the only biographer to arrive at an adequate understanding of the man’s unique accomplishments and leadership style. In Freyberg’s War he sees the General as “a complex, capable professional soldier and a devoted family man who was deeply loyal to friends and colleagues.” Possessed of “a dry and rather impenetrable wit”, he had “a feel for battle” and an “indefinable understanding” that was something he shared with Rommel. But Freyberg also had a priceless gift which latter-generation writers seem unable to appreciate. He had a deep understanding of his troops, especially the rank and file. He was able to imbue them with the offensive spirit without resorting to Prussian notions of discipline aimed at turning civilians into robot cannon-fodder. However, Wright accepts the revisionist allegations that morale was in decline in the Italian campaign on the basis of minor irregularities in dress and deportment, which some staff officers claimed was due to a lack of discipline that could lead to demoralisation.

There is no hard data on this question. It is entirely a matter of subjective and distant opinion. However, it is worth pointing out that, in a democratic, citizen army, combat effectiveness is not necessarily related to “smartness” measured by the number of salutes per hour, the performance of parade ground evolutions, the niceties of dress and deportment, or the degree of servility shown by frontline fighters toward staff officers. It is best seen as readiness to attack, to take casualties and to endure harsh conditions. The Division’s infantry demonstrated their unfailing esprit de corps both in the hard fighting of the desert and in the frozen mud of two continental winters, culminating in the final victorious entry into Trieste.

As for Freyberg’s sense of humour and his “supposed vagueness”, Wright sees this as part of his complicated personality, but fails to recognise its usefulness as a leadership trait. As well as social distance, leaders have to have some element of mystery that sets them apart from their followers. Freyberg’s displays of disconnected thought and his occasional ventures into inconsequential humour (to say nothing of his astonishing record of woundings and close encounters with death) distinguished him from ordinary mortal concerns and endowed him with the simplicity and specialty of greatness. Psychologically, his so-called inconsequential whimsies may also have been a necessary relief from anxiety and the isolation and loneliness of command.

In his Western Front Wright discusses “the culture of the trenches”, which he identifies as a network of personal and family relationships, a lack of smartness and saluting, a New Zealand ethos of “equalitarianism”, problems of deviancy by “incorrigibles”, the conditions of trench life, camaraderie, a corporate existence of sharing and acceptance and even a resort to gallows humour exemplified in “The Cannibals’ Paradise”, a front-cover illustration of a dugout, serving as a “supply den” and accompanied by the ironic fantasy that “if you keep to the trench you will get to NZ.”

Another personal strategy for dealing with demoralisation, or becoming a battlefield statistic, was simply to run away, though if caught you could be sentenced to death. It appears that Private W P Nimot, who crawled into the German lines to surrender and obtain sanctuary in a POW camp, was (except for a few conscientious objectors who were forcibly dragged up to the frontline) the only sane person in the entire expeditionary force. Perhaps he should receive a posthumous award in recognition of the heroic intelligence and individual enterprise he displayed as a pioneer of the self-regarding, entrepreneurial era in which we now subsist.

In a concluding overview of WWI as history, Wright observes that it was fuelled by industrial-age technology and that the Western Front was a shattering experience, but he does not perceive that it had much larger, continuing consequences. In broader hindsight it is evident that the prolonged, murderous sufferings of the war conditioned the Western masses to accept and engage in systematic outbursts of lethal violence on a catastrophic, repetitive and monstrous scale that has characterised much of our subsequent history of war, genocide and terrorism. In a historical sense, we can all consider ourselves apprehensive inheritors and consumers of the Western Front experience and its serial nightmares now that the civilians of all Western countries have become potential targets of opportunity for terrorism in a global battlefield.

By comparison, Gallipoli seems a sinister, though much less complicated, curtain-raiser. An impressive and detailed report on that fatal enterprise has been assembled by Jonathan King and Michael Bowers as a 90th anniversary tribute. Its 324 pages, handsomely illustrated, contain much new material from the diaries of the Australian war correspondent Charles Bean as well as some brilliant images by Phillip Schuler, an official Australian war photographer. There are the usual scenes of trench life and the jumbled confusion of the beachhead, but his panorama of a long, toiling column of Australian and Maori soldiers hauling a huge water tank up a steep slope is a living tableau of the Anzac relationship at its best.

All the Anzac survivors are now dead, but a bottomless pit of narrative remains in the form of letters, diaries and other memorabilia. Gallipoli: In Search of a Family Story relates the adventures of Jack Dunn, a Masterton man who fell asleep at his post one night, was condemned to death, then reprieved, only to be killed subsequently on Chunuk Bair! Pat White’s account of his brief career is augmented by reproductions of White’s landscape paintings and poems. The Wairarapa is a particularly fitting location for such a memoir because most of the WWI reinforcements were trained in camps around Featherston, and each draft had to endure a dismal two-day rite de passage on foot over the hills to Wellington and the waiting troop transports. White’s most impressive painting, entitled “Each Paddock its Own History”, depicts the faint outlines of ghostly revenants negotiating a grassy field, an image that remains hauntingly potent for much of rural New Zealand.

To an extent, everyone fleshes out their own history. Some of the travellers in The Desert Road see themselves as enthusiastic tourists (“wouldn’t have missed it”, “enjoyed the adventure”, “exciting, rewarding, and terribly sad at times”) though one man with a social conscience feels modestly that “he had earned his place in society”. Several are impressed by the solidarity of army life where “everyone had to stick together”, while others think war is stupid and the damage “frightening”. An infantry veteran, still beset by nightmares and depression, notes with the stoic understatement typical of a whole generation of victims and survivors, that “the war changed my life altogether”.

Desert Road is a kaleidoscope of impressions and recollections, some trivial, others deeply penetrative. Sex raises a furtive head when a nurse reveals that VD was rife, yet we are reassured that large numbers of soldiers did not use brothels, though some admit to watching from an upstairs balcony in the Burqa. Presumably the humiliating “short-arm” inspections and the lectures about prophylactic measures to which we were all subjected by the medical staff fusspots were not just anxious overkill. For some, the desert road traversed many an arduous, perilous and crooked mile.

 

Les Cleveland is a former WWII soldier who fought in a rifle company.

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and War
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