Making the best of it, Paul Day

The Soldier Tourist
Gunner N H Brewer
Reed, $29.95,
ISBN 7900 0688 X

Neville Brewer, a shipping clerk, signed up with the Fifth Field Regiment of Artillery in early 1940. He (and the other 6000 members of the Second Echelon) left Wellington on 2 May 1940 for Egypt. But because of Italy’s entry into the war the convoy was diverted to the Scottish port of Greenock. For eight months the Second Echelon served under the British Army, as London was bombed and invasion seemed imminent.

Neville Brewer began writing home as soon as he boarded the Aquitania at Pipitea Quay; and he kept up a regular weekly correspondence with his mother, who preserved every item. The final letter was written aboard the hospital ship Maunganui on 15 February 1945, as she approached the Port of Wellington. More than 50 years later, those letters have been collected, edited and published in a handsomely illustrated book.

On arrival in Egypt in March 1941, the Second Echelon troops were nicknamed “the tourists” by the envious First Echelon. The label was partly deserved: based in the south of England, the Kiwis had enjoyed frequent spells of leave. Brewer had enthusiastically used every opportunity to explore and experience English places and people.

Not that his letters are rhapsodic travelogues: their standard form is thoroughly typical of most soldiers’ letters home. Basic topics are food, leave, entertainments, boredom, characters and happenings within the unit, inquiries into domestic and community affairs back home and greetings to family members.

Robbed by the censor of the most vital details, and wary of causing apprehension, writers customarily minimised disasters. “Everything’s OK here” was the general drift. Neville Brewer was unshakeably cheerful, but the gaps in his correspondence are significant; for example, before the move to Greece, and later on the eve of the Mareth Line attack. So, in reading the letters, the imagination must come into play. Then, against the grim background, the trivialities come as light relief.

Still, in his tourist role, Brewer greatly appreciated the sights and sounds of the cities – Cairo, London, Athens and Rome were all eye-openers to him. Yet he was not indiscriminate in his appreciation. The Sphinx disappointed him, “Very rusty looking”. After fitting in so well in London, Cairo amazed him: “Every nationality under the sun is living here.”

After the victory in Africa, Brewer returned on furlough to New Zealand, and rejoined his unit in Italy, in time for the battle of Cassino. After complaints about mosquitoes and humid heat, Brewer’s observations of people and countryside become charged with sympathy and admiration: “The country is getting bashed about.”

Rome was a kaleidoscope of culture for Brewer – opera, art galleries, historic statues, the Pope and the Vatican – where, as a bonus, he ran into a New Zealand priest: “As soon as I saw him I said, ‘Here’s a Kiwi’.”

The attack on the Gothic Line saw, as usual, a blackout on details. The day before it opened, Brewer wrote, “There is plenty of dust and noise … Yesterday we received our quarterly parcels from the Patriotic Society.” Ten days later, north of Rimini, Brewer was badly wounded by shrapnel from a shell burst; splinters tore through his body, injured a lung and split his teeth.  It was his third hospitalisation, and the most serious injury.

As usual, he radiated optimism as he recounted his experiences in the field hospital and the base hospital in Bari: “I have a glass of ovaltine-type stuff twice a day.  A cup of stout before lunch …”. This was a month after he was wounded, and he had survived two operations.

Neville Brewer’s letters are vividly expressed and lively. This is partly due to his disposition: stoical but not impassive, disciplined but not passionless. Before his first battle in Greece, near the Katerini Pass, he wrote: “I make it my business to pluck from each day as many moments of enjoyment as possible …. It is not wise for a soldier to be miserable in any country … [or] to be longing for the day he will return to New Zealand.”

This book is a fitting memorial to its author.  Neville died on 5 May of last year.

Paul Day is Emeritus Professor of English at Waikato University. He served in North Africa during World War Two.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review, War
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