Teacup warriors, Les Cleveland

Fernleaf Cairo: New Zealanders at Maadi Camp
Alex Hedley (with Megan Hutching)
HarperCollins, $36.39,
ISBN 9781869507718

Grey Ghosts: New Zealand Vietnam Vets Talk About their War
Deborah Challinor
HarperCollins, $36.99,
ISBN 9781869507718

Things Have Been Pretty Lively: The Great War Diary of Melve King
Neil Frances and Doug King
Wairarapa Archives/Fraser Books, $25.00,
ISBN 9780958261739

Caesar: The True Story of a Canine ANZAC Hero
Patricia Stroud
HarperCollins, $26.99,
ISBN 9781869507275

During my adventures in WWII, I sometimes thought we had been exiled to a kind of Middle East gulag and installed in a gendered facsimile of some of the worst aspects of the homeland popular culture – complete with pies, an icecream factory, rugby, gambling, beer, tobacco, crime, archaic attitudes to women and a nasty detention barracks at El Maza near the caves of Tura and handy to the dreaded civil prison. But perhaps I was wrong because Fernleaf Cairo assures me that our incarceration was “a highly eventful, enlightening and entertaining overseas experience for New Zealand’s young men.”

Using letters, interviews and documentary resources, Hedley depicts a tourist odyssey with happy warriors enjoying tea and sandwiches at the New Zealand Forces Club in Cairo in the care of carefully chosen New Zealand women who had been imported “to lend a touch of home and normality” to the premises. The author touches on the seething low life of the surrounding city, but his appreciation is essentially romantic, tending to present a benign establishment view of army life.

In actuality, there were some 19,801 volunteers in the first three echelons, but the remainder of the New Zealand Division were mostly conscripts, many of them impecunious and therefore the more unable to patronise some of the exclusive and expensive fleshpots Hedley describes. He cites Major General Stevens on the question of women power but omits to tell us that although 20 women were imported to help with administrative tasks, the army had asked for 900! Nor does he advert to Stevens’ discussion of marriage under the intriguing heading of “Crimes, Misfortunes and Follies”.

In spite of Stevens’ xenophobia, there were in fact many beautiful, sophisticated and talented Levantine, Egyptian and European women in wartime Cairo and there were some highly successful marriages between some of these women and the New Zealand soldiers fortunate enough to bring them back to New Zealand as war brides. In his chapter on marriage, Hedley describes a few happy unions involving New Zealand nurses as well as the multinational array of women serving in the various armed services in Cairo.

Hedley ignores Stevens’ description of the infamous, overcrowded, smoke-filled beer bar in the New Zealand Club as a disgraceful monstrosity with hundreds of soldiers drinking beer outside in the gutter and throwing their bottles in the street in a dramatic export version of the homeland’s disgusting six o’clock swill. Nevertheless, some people had a good time in Cairo, especially if they had bludgers’ jobs and extra money remitted from the homeland, but for much of the army’s under-paid, impecunious cannon fodder the city had few attractions, notwithstanding its belly dancers, prostitutes, and nights at the Pam Pam along with dosings of repulsive onion-tasting Stella beer.

Maadi Camp seemed more like a prison than the comfortable “home” described by Hedley. Perhaps more about the realities of military behaviour in Cairo and the suburb of Maadi and less about the Kiwi Concert Party would have improved the narrative and provided a more truthful account of the social life of the mass of soldiery. Not everyone thought men dressed up as women in a smoke concert travesty of 1930s Kiwi male humour was amusing or entertaining.

The text of Fernleaf is sprinkled with a few soldier songs but the first verse of the insulting, racist parody of the Egyptian National Anthem has been discreetly omitted: “Oh we’re all black bastards and we all love our king,/Stanna shwya, kwise kateer, mungarya, bardin, etc”. Nor is there any rendering of “Middle East Swing”, famous in the ranks of 2NZEF and the Eighth Army generally:

Aiwa saida, aiwa anna muskeen,
Aiwa shufti, shufti,
If you’ve been to Cairo,
You know what I mean etc.

 

Some consistent scholarship applied to the attempted anglicisation of Arabic discourse throughout the text of Fernleaf would have been helpful. Such lapses illustrate the difficulties of reliance on sanitised post-bellum oral archives and censored soldiers’ letters in attempts by second-generation writers to compile a belated historiography of WWII. However, the work as a whole contains much descriptive information about the Egyptian State Railways system with its travel opportunities for soldiers on leave, the rigours of desert training, health problems, organised sport, officially sponsored donkey derbies and recreation. Rugby tournaments were an obsessive secular ritual in which the soldiery celebrated their youthful energy and cheerful strength as if the war was but a passing distraction.

Anyone interested in the political and military realities of warfare, rather than just smoke and mirrors, will find Grey Ghosts an engrossing study. It is a well-documented and penetrative piece of careful research by an accomplished writer that is concerned not only with our shameful treatment of Vietnam veterans, but also with their behaviour in the field as New Zealand soldiers. This is not without importance because in Vietnam many Americans made personal contacts with New Zealanders and, on the whole, thought well of them. Soldiers sent overseas become visible representatives of their country. Symbolically, our participation in the Vietnam conflict did us no harm and could yet become more productive in our national interest than all the rhetoric of the toothless United Nations.

From the interviews carried out by Challinor, one gets a good idea of what the troops think of the New Zealand government, their own army, themselves, the New Zealand-Australian relationship and the mass, continental, conscript, American forces in Vietnam. We read about laughter and jokes to relieve stress and danger, the art of scrounging, religion, good luck tokens, death, fear, liquor and drugs, prostitutes and sex, jungle fighting, discipline, relationships between officers and other ranks and war memorials. Maybe our hostility toward the Vietnam veterans and our neglect of them is a facet of our latent anti-Americanism that suggests that we can only contemplate the intolerable after convenient passages of time. Does the transformation of the New Zealand army into a lightly armed police force by the previous government now mean that New Zealand has a de facto defence policy of unarmed neutrality so that for most of the population, warfare is a facile TV entertainment that happens only in somebody else’s backyard? Is that why WWI is now such an enjoyably distant and well-trodden subject?

For instance, the Great War diary of Melvin King is a dour plod from Featherston Camp in 1916 to the battlefields of France in 1918. As a master of trivial understatement, and one of the disposable victims in a rifle company at Passchendaele, King solemnly records what he had for dinner and how he found a dead German soldier under some straw he slept on. While the British generals were arranging their costly attacks, King describes how useless his gumboots were in the impossible mud. On the other hand, he does tell us in close detail what time he got up in the morning, what he had for breakfast and how the weather was – all solid details for those who want to read a social history of life at the front based on precise observation rather than misleading second-hand impressions.

Things Have Been Pretty Lively is augmented by photographs that are sometimes more compelling than the accompanying narrative. The famous image of a bunch of soldiers up to their knees in mud as they drag a body on a stretcher to the rear is still so heart-wrenching that it is impossible to view it without feelings of despair and wonder at the stoic endurance of those hopelessly entrapped victims.

Caesar is another indicator of the popularisation of WWI. This young reader’s tale features the exploits of a canine Anzac hero who was trained to carry bandages and supplies of pencil and paper to wounded soldiers on the battlefield, thus upstaging Simpson and his celebrated donkey. No literary masterpieces or heroic last words seem to have emerged. Caesar was eventually shot in the chest by a sniper. One wonders if this juvenile epic will inspire kiddies who wave flags for the television cameras at Anzac Day parades to star in their own little animals’ division and pets’ parade. Yet Caesar’s death is symbolic of the sad fate of many unfortunate animals in wartime.

Horses certainly fared badly in both world wars. In WWI, all the armies relied on them for hauling artillery and supplying troops with ammunition, food and equipment. When hostilities ceased some surviving animals were hacked to death and eaten by starving populations. Others were shot because bean-counting governments would not pay for their repatriation. WWII was highly mechanised, but horses were still important to the Russian and Polish armies and also to the Germans who used them as lines-of-communication transport in order to save petrol.

Economy in animal welfare was a characteristic of the New Zealand government’s long- standing policy of making war on the cheap. In WWII an ordinary soldier in the homeland got seven shillings a day, plus free accommodation of a sort, badly cooked food and ill-fitting, mass-produced clothing. Overseas, he got an extra one shilling and sixpence per day as danger money and compensation for any decline in his already miserable standard of living. But the New Zealand government deducted four shillings and sixpence per day from his pay as an allotment to his next of kin. This parsimony left the rank and file soldier with the princely amount of four shillings per day out of which he had to purchase his own toilet necessities and anything extra he might need in the way of tobacco, chocolate, liquor, diversion and entertainment. Better-paid troops might have been less inclined to steal, loot and trade on the black market.

Life for most of Hedley’s Middle East tourists was a fiscal ordeal, not unlike the privations of survivors who now find themselves enduring a depression accompanied by inflation. Perhaps the less-affluent remnant of those who had “an enlightening and entertaining experience” should appreciate their wartime poverty as useful training for the rigours and deprivations of old age now upon them in the land of appropriately managed memories.

 

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

 

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Posted in Autobiography, Biography, History, Non-fiction, Review and War
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