Dark Laughter: War in Song and Popular Culture
Silent Casualties: New Zealand’s Unspoken Legacy of the Second World War
Tandem Press, $29.95
Whistle As You Go: The Story of the Kiwi Concert Party
Random House, $34.95
“Who ate my pie?
Who ate my pie?
You fat old bastard! You ate my pie!”
This was sung over and over by a group of young men and women coming back to Wellington on a full train after a very pleasant day at the Teheranikau Races on 2 January of this year. Two or three stalwarts kept it going, but gradually, even though there was a chorus of “not that again!”, everyone in the group got into the song. So did the rest of us in the carriage, not singing it aloud, but enjoying the moment which still carries with it memories of a great day at the races. It captured the moment, as many songs do.
War in song and popular culture is the subject of Les Cleveland’s Dark Laughter. I first heard Les Cleveland singing with his group the D Day Dodgers on the Sunday request programme on National Radio in the 1950s. Many of those songs feature in this book. Cleveland examines how society has used song to mobilise popular emotion and sentiment to support whatever war it is fighting. He shows that hymns, anthems and song are an important medium for encouraging young men to join up and for maintaining their morale once enlisted. But, once in the military bureaucracy, the soldiers turned parodies of these same songs to different purposes, ranging from “cohesive enthusiasm for official goals and eager compliance with the military system by the happy warrior, to the comic philosophy of grudging endurance and joking about military life expressed by the reluctant warrior, along with the indulgent fantasies of the bawdy warrior”. There are chapters on food, death and Vietnam, with mention of the Gulf war. The Vietnam chapter confirms the universality of the experience and also shows how popular anti‑war protest songs influenced soldiers in Vietnam. Dark Laughter has as its core Cleveland’s own experiences as a soldier in the second world war and expands on this to examine the United States and British Commonwealth experience.
This soldier culture is the heart of the book. Reading Cleveland and unconsciously humming “Who ate my pie?” made me put his themes into a personal context. I was an infantryman in the New Zealand Army from 1966 to 1988. I have never been to war. But I always seemed to be in the wrong place at the right time and missed out.
Song played a large part in those years ‑ the ribald songs of the company barbecues and the truck rides to the range and field exercises during four years as a staff cadet at the Royal Military College (RMC) in Australia. I once knew the fate, in songs at least, of most of the “four and twenty virgins who came down from Inverness” and there were many others, snatches of which are still familiar.
These were sung when beer flowed or to break the monotony of a hot dusty trip sitting on a pile of army packs in the back of a truck. But more often than not we sang the ballads of the day. Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Ponies’ “Different Drum” is one I remember from RMC in 1967. “You and I travel to the beat of a different drum/ Oh can’t you tell by the way I run / every time you make eyes at me…” It is still there, tucked back in the layers of memory. It marks a time, a place and some people that I knew better than any other people in my life because of what we shared in those four years at RMC. Song brings it back.
Good times and good company; a consciousness of homesickness on hearing “Po Kari”. Faces and an enduring memory of the entire First Battalion in Singapore, 500 strong, doing a haka on the sideline in support of their First XV. A song and suddenly the mind goes back to 1970 and a machinegun shoot at Leithfield beach and soldiers with a guitar round a driftwood fire on which pipis bubble in a kerosene drum. If it was true for my peaceful years in the army, song and memories are seared on those who have been to war. It was an escape to dreams of home and loved ones, a statement of personal freedom and a bonding with people they knew more intimately than their wife or husband.
Cleveland’s themes are both universal and particular to New Zealand. Like the patriotism expressed by those like the middle‑aged Onehunga housewife, Laura Hardy, who attended countless patriotic concerts during the first world war where, “somewhat elderly women sang:
‘We don’t want to lose you,
But we think you ought to go
For your King and your country
Both need you so.’
This call to patriotism is supported by the songs submitted for copyright and deposited in National Archives with titles like the ‘Boys of the Dardanelles’ or ‘Where are the Boys of New Zealand tonight?’ and many others. This was the public face and public perception of why this war was being fought and why every young man’s participation was necessary. But as Alison Parr points out in Silent Casualties, each person who joined did so for intensely personal reasons, with King and country usually being the least important. Youth in every age sees itself as immortal and for many New Zealanders of 1914‑18 or 1939‑45 it was a chance to get away and see the world, an opportunity for adventure.
The reality of war followed and song and soldier morale is the theme of Terry Vaughan’s Whistle As You Go. This is the story of the Kiwi Concert Party as told by one of its founders. Vaughan ran the Kiwis for much of its wartime existence as it followed the Second New Zealand Division in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Italy with tours to Malta and New Zealand. The Kiwis under Vaughan’s leadership successfully lived on for another eight years as a commercial success in Australia and New Zealand. This is a chatty, idiosyncratic, movingly personal story of a life with music, full of rich anecdote.
I expected to find more of that in Dark Laughter. But, while it is there when Cleveland draws on his own experience, too often it becomes academic and formal. That is a pity because Cleveland has shown often his gift for telling its secrets about ourselves in poetry, prose, and photographs and as a raconteur. Vaughan never loses his deftness and delights with his tale of the Kiwi Concert Party which “was not the popular idea of a soldier show. It was, of course, slick and smartly dressed. But there were no uniforms on stage, no jokes about the cook or the colonel. The humour was gentle rather than brash, rarely risqué and never camp. One swearword a show was the limit. None of this was a conscious decision. The idea was simply to give the boys a break from what they heard all day, to give them a reminder of civvy street ‑ something they might have taken the girlfriend to back home and, with luck, would again.”
Vaughan had the dedicated backing of Freyberg, the New Zealand commander, who took a personal interest in each of the Kiwi’s revues. It was a touch of humour and home, very important for New Zealanders overseas for six years of war. It followed a tradition established by the Perriots of the New Zealand Division on the western front in the first world war. Then one New Zealand soldier wrote: “We wanted the stuff we used to hear with Mum and Dad and the girlfriend and in the main we got it.”
Vaughan’s Kiwis gave it to them, too. One soldier who saw them after El Alamein wrote in his diary: “Tea and the Kiwi Concert Party … huge crowd but got a good view. The male impersonator, dressed as a nun and with male voice accompanist, sang ‘Ave Maria’, It was really wonderful … The whole concert was great.”
Seigfried Sassoon could have been writing of them in his poem of a concert at Kantara in Egypt in 1918:
Jaded and gay, the ladies sing: and the chap in brown
Tilts his grey hat; jaunty and lean and pale,
He rattles the keys ‑ some actor bloke from town ‑
God send you home; and then A long, long trail;
I hear you calling me; and Dixieland …
Sing slowly ‑ now the chorus ‑ one by one
We hear them, drink them, till the concert’s done.
In every war New Zealand has fought, small town and country went to war. It is still true today when New Zealanders who are strangers meet overseas. Start a conversation and you are the exception if you cannot find an acquaintance in common. I cannot imagine that this happens in any other country, except perhaps Andorra. Three times in the space of a single day in London in 1992 I met by chance New Zealanders I knew.
In both wars this unique bond became one of the strengths of the New Zealand units which were organised on provincial lines. This meant that young men lived, fought and died with men of their own home town. Group identity and mateship were essential in allowing men to survive. It kept them in the trenches in both world wars. You could not run away, no matter how sane that action might be, out of the fear that everyone at home would get to hear of it. You were trapped by what Monte Holcroft termed “the village pattern of relationships” that is so typical of New Zealand.
Song provided momentary escape but fear was a constant. The longer a soldier served the more it hovered waiting to pounce and break him. A veteran coming back to the division in Italy after furlough leave in New Zealand wrote: “Feel very tired today. Reaction, I think. Been rather scared off and on but gradually getting back to the old form of “Malish”. If one is going to be hit one will be hit!”
The lingering impact of war is the theme of Alison Parr’s Silent Casualties. She examines the lives of seven men out of the 10,070 veterans who were receiving war pensions for psychiatric disorders from a war that ended 50 years before. Today it is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It has been called many things: shell‑shock, combat stress, nervous exhaustion and also cowardice or Lack of Moral Fibre by the military bureaucracy.
New Zealand males traditionally don’t cry or show emotion. We are dour, inarticulate, phlegmatic, goal‑oriented, “bugger the game, it’s the winning that counts” professionals, despite our status as amateur citizen soldiers. In the first world war the New Zealand Division was known as the “silent division”. We did not burst into song to and from the trenches as did the “Tommies” of the British divisions and we lacked the expressive arrogant urban cockiness of the Australians. We quietly got on with the job.
The same traits are with us still. When the veterans came home, they did not want to talk about it and correctly assessed that no one wanted to listen anyway. Even when they escaped to the Returned Services Association they maintained their wartime veneer over their fears. The fear that was in every one of them was compounded by the guilt of having survived when their mates had died and the guilt of being scared and letting their mates down.
Ironically, the bond that held them together in war made them each lonely men, living with their families and their fear for 50 years. If asked about the war, the songs and the good stories are told but the reality is bottled up inside. As Parr indicates, the known cases are but the tip of the iceberg. It was a veteran of Gallipoli who said that “those that war destroyed were not those who were killed or wounded but those who came back to New Zealand without a mark and had to get on with their lives as if nothing had happened”.
Everyone who goes to war becomes a casualty whether society recognises it or not. That is the message of Silent Casualties, and its implications have yet to be addressed.
Christopher Pugsley is a Wellington war historian.