Victims of the times, Les Cleveland

Massacre at Passchendaele: The New Zealand Story
Glyn Harper
HarperCollins, $39.95, ISBN 1 86950 342 2

Dear Lizzie: A Kiwi Soldier Writes from the Battlefields of World War One
ed Chrissie Ward
HarperCollins, $34.95, ISBN 1 86950 340 6

Private Wars: Personal Records of the Anzacs in the Great War
Greg Kerr
Oxford University Press, $39.95, ISBN 0 19 550799 1

Up the Blue: A Kiwi Private’s View of the Second World War
Roger Smith
Ngaio Press, $29.95, ISBN 0 473 06531 2

Kia Kaha: New Zealand in the Second World War
ed John Crawford
Oxford University Press, $39.95, ISBN 0 1955 8438 4

Modernity grasped New Zealand in its steel claws at Passchendaele in October 1917. Like dumb beasts, more than 5000 soldiers in the First New Zealand Expeditionary Force were killed, wounded or missing in a series of futile attacks that had no chance of success and should never have been attempted. They floundered in a sea of glutinous mud against the German wire and machine-guns emplaced in concrete pillboxes. Yet the extent of their failure and the reasons for it were never dealt with accurately in the NZ press, nor was there any political backlash against the fiasco. Did nobody care? Glyn Harper in his aptly titled Massacre at Passchendaele blames the upper levels of command and sees the disaster as a “pivotal moment in our history because of its effect on families and people’s lives.” He also thinks it is a source of the mistrust, suspicion, hostility and the near-contempt New Zealand has demonstrated in the past towards the military. He observes that for all its devastating impact we have little collective memory of the event. Why?

Harper mentions the national tendency to repress the detail of bitter experience by saying nothing and pretending it never happened as one reason for the silence about Passchendaele. He also cites the “hard-man” theory about the psychology of New Zealand males to the effect that one should never show pain, fear or weakness. And there is the difficulty most soldiers have in talking about combat to those with no experience of it. But perhaps a more generalised cultural approach is called for. Do we accept 20th century war as an inevitable generational ordeal, an experience, not essentially different from the repetitive, punishing visitations of economic depression and the rigours and hazards of industrial life and urban experience? Were the 5000 casualties of Passchendaele a meaningless statistic in the daily parade of sensation, and no more “real” to bystanders in the homeland than the jerky figures of troops marching to their fate on the celluloid battlefields of popular entertainment?

Dependents and relatives were able to keep in tenuous touch with individual soldiers in World War 1 by mail but correspondence from the troops was inhibited by censorship as was the content of the wartime press. Much of the latter dealt in bland trivialities and very little of it took a critical tone either for lack of hard information or out of deference to wartime regulation of the media. But whatever it might have been for the troops some 10,000 miles away, World War 1 in New Zealand provided local opportunities for entertainment and diversion at concerts, dances, rallies, patriotic fund-raising, civic functions and occasional ceremonial parades. It was something to make money out of if you could, or to enjoy as a change from humdrum peacetime routine. Perhaps war, to its mass audience in remote New Zealand, was not an overwhelming passion or a struggle for life and death. It was more like a distant sporting engagement or an amusing distraction that one read about from time to time in the intervals between the despatch of successive reinforcement drafts. Censorship and the reportage of the war helped to present it as a fragmented mosaic of encounters and distant deeds lacking historical depth or strategic analysis and resulting largely in a blurring of the distinction between actuality and its contrived representations. The distance of the homeland from the battlefields lent indifference and incomprehension to what was taking place.

For example, the Auckland Weekly News of 29 November 1918 in an end-of-war special issue reported that at Passchendaele, men up to the middle in mud and “suffering heavily from machine gun fire … had to go rabbiting and dig Fritz out from his bunny holes.” At Bellevue Spur “wave after wave advanced to death” and “determinedly expended themselves”. Such surrealistic abstraction had little resemblance to horrifying actuality. Nor did the report mention the number of casualties.

Modernism in the early 20th century implied detachment from the past and its habits of thought. Its emphasis on isolated moments of individual experience owed much to shifts in popular sensibility consequent on several inter-related developments. By the beginning of the 20th century, New Zealand had entered the era of mass production, standardisation, mass consumption and mass entertainment characteristic of modernism. New Zealand males were well fitted to the social and economic transformations this process involved because of their occupational familiarity with imported farm machinery, the large-scale expansion of freezing works and dairy production, the development of railways, factories, mining, timber milling and bush work. Their adaptation to these industries was accompanied by the growth of advertising and cinema with their emotional explorations of life in terms of individual moments of gratification and excitement in the all-pervading present.

World War 1, as an exercise in mass production and consumption using humans as raw material, was an extension of the onrush into modernism by a mass clientele well-exercised in the use of machinery and in the discipline of the workplace. But no amount of boisterous enthusiasm, misguided patriotism, repetitive training, slavish adaptation to military routines, and mass media fantasies could save compliant cannon fodder from the follies of their leaders. The unfortunate “consumers” of Passchendaele were victims of the times and were ineptly commanded.

Decades later we are delving into some of the actualities of 20th century war that they encountered, using the techniques of biographical inquiry. For instance, Chrissie Ward’s Dear Lizzie offers a worm’s eye view of the Western Front and of Passchendaele and the ordinary soldier’s perception of it as “a horrible nightmare”. Ira Robinson, in the Rifle Brigade, wrote letters home to his sister and they have been reproduced as an account of his time at the front. Complete with family photographs and Ira’s sketches, they offer an understated, prosaic account of how it was. He was lucky not to get hit at Passchendaele. His company went in 146 strong and came out with 40. The survivors had spent five days lying in the mud listening to the cries of the wounded.

A richly impressionistic perception of World War 1 is located in Greg Kerr’s Private Wars. This is a compilation of photographs, reminiscences, letters, and anecdotes from individual Australian soldiers. Kerr traces the experiences of 160 participants from Gallipoli to the homecoming in 1919. He gets close to his subjects and uses their snapshots as well as more formal portraits to construct a patchwork of their lives. Some of this material is so compelling that it is not possible to enter the work without emotion and without wonderment and admiration for the raw courage and flashes of impudent humour of these men. Many of Kerr’s images are derived from faded soldiers’ snapshots in photo albums and collections of family ephemera, but in spite of their age and degrees of delapidation the publisher has managed a commendable job of reproduction.

Because of the limitations of the lenses in the folding cameras in popular use, most of the photographs are close-up shots that show a fascinating variety of detail: the Light Horse roll-call on Gallipoli; three soldiers in a trench on Gallipoli; the 26th Battalion marching into battle in Belgium; German soldiers in the remains of a church; and the awful, unhealed wound in the side of an anonymous soldier with the thousand-yard stare – all have a compelling integrity like the best photo journalism. But, reassuringly, Corporal Greg Kerr (the author’s grandfather) is seen triumphantly taking tea with some ladies in London after spending three miserable years in a Turkish prison camp.

In Up the Blue Roger Smith has resurrected a 1950s manuscript compiled originally from his World War 2 diary. The result is a kind of dramatised documentary account of his experiences in the 24th Battalion in the desert and in Italy. “Up the Blue” is vernacular idiom for the wide open spaces where large areas of empty sky are visible. Smith’s narrative describes his adventures in battalion signals until at
Enfidaville he is transferred to one of the rifle companies which soon finds itself on the Italian front. The narrative follows the adventures of its central character until he finally gets sent off to an officers’ training course.

Much of the detail of typical platoon activities has already been treated in several novels about New Zealand troops in World War 2, but some of the incidental aspects of Smith’s chronicle now seem the most interesting – cooking tinned-oyster fritters on a primus stove; trying to keep clean with a soapy flannel and a cut-down petrol tin; braziers made out of jam tins; digging a trench in the mud of the Sangro; a glimpse of the piratical-looking Maoris armed to the teeth on the Rapido; getting stuck in a minefield at Orsogna; and what happened when he once fell asleep at his Bren gun post.

Kia Kaha, subtitled “New Zealand in the Second World War”, indicates the broad range of scholarly interest in its subject. It consists of 20 essays by various contributors along with an introduction by its editor, John Crawford, a professional military historian. The contents cover strategic studies (5); operational studies (8); manpower and national service problems (2); religion (1); Maoris (1); scientific research (2); and victory celebrations (1).

Several of these studies indicate that New Zealand civilians in World War 2, even in the face of an invasion threat, continued to see war as subsidiary to their immediate local interests. An essay by John E Martin about the National Service Department and New Zealand’s manpower crisis of 1942 demonstrates the limitations of the nation’s commitment to the war effort. The then Prime Minister Peter Fraser talked grandly of mobilising everyone, and every atom of the country’s services, but Martin finds the government was never able to achieve either “a substantial general extension of [working] hours nor a radical attempt to reorganise industry.”

John Crawford examines the ill-fated attempt to campaign on two fronts and discusses the problems encountered by Major-General H E Barrowclough as commander of the 3rd Division in the Pacific. By mid-1942, we were trying to operate two infantry divisions on two fronts – one in the Middle East and the other in the Pacific. The government found it could not adequately reinforce both these formations and at the same time maintain production from essential industries. In the event, the Pacific force was disbanded and its troops used to stiffen up essential industry and to reinforce the other front. Yet other human resources were available.

Much has been made of women’s involvement in World War 2, but the total female labour force was never fully deployed. Some women between the ages of 18 to 40 were directed to specific occupations, but not all were. Some 32,000 men in essential industries never saw overseas service and no comprehensive effort seems to have been made to use women replacements for them. The division in the Middle East was always short of infantry, but again no attempt was made to use women reinforcements in lines of communication jobs so that some of the thousands of men in rear echelons could be sent to the front. It would appear that the wartime labour administration did not want to use the female labour force to its fullest capacity and also shrank from considering the drastic expedient of lowering the age for military service to 16. Popular sensibilities in wartime New Zealand did not extend to much serious consideration of actual operational problems in the field.

Writing about the victory celebrations in New Zealand, Jock Phillips describes the wartime occupants of the homeland as “respectful of public authority” and “to a considerable extent self-controlled and mindful of public decorum.” However, another explanation for their relevant lack of exuberant revelry in the celebrations that took place suggests itself. Could it be that, as a whole, the population simply may not have felt all that strongly about the war? After years of state regulation of their lives, they may have been comfortably secure in an insular cocoon of self-interest and personal preoccupation under the spell of the all-pervading, daily present.

Robert Rabel looks at the activities of the Division in Trieste in 1945 when it confronted the partisan forces of Yugoslavia in a standoff that could easily have provoked hostilities and an early Cold War crisis. On the basis of a very small sample of veterans, he thinks the soldiery were not politicised by this confrontation. But, statistically, his data cannot be considered representative and amount to no more than the views of the 17 persons cited. In fact, a lot depended on who and where you were. In the present reviewer’s experience, some of the politically conscious rank and file of at least one rifle company (who would have had to take some of the brunt of any offensive operations against partisans) were indeed pondering whether or not they would attack an ally of the Soviet Union if so ordered.

Fortunately they were not put to the test, but it is worth noting that New Zealand civilian armies, though capable of some extraordinary feats, are not always subservient robots at the disposal of their political masters and are known to take political action when their circumstances demand it. Thus rank and file soldiers in the Division in 1944 were circulating a song that asked Peter Fraser to take them home and threatened to punish him electorally should their appeals be ignored.

History has been described as “an expedient accommodation”. Passchendaele and the treatment of war in general by the New Zealand popular culture bears this out. Our 20th century wars are adventures in modernism as much as they are moral crusades, assertions of a vague national identity and opportunities for politicians to vent an expedient, sentimental patriotism. The pace of history has so accelerated that there is more than collective memory can bear. Like its soldiers, Passchendaele is an expendable pulse of time – a remote mishap in a menu of transient distractions and diversions. It has been overlaid by a century of continuing global outrages and catastrophes. It has mouldered in deep obscurity because it never achieved the symbolic significance of a celebratory rite de passage like the equally foolish and reprehensible disaster at Anzac Cove, which has become our annual evasion for seriously trying to come to terms with our bloodstained past and our problematic future.

Les Cleveland is a former 2NZEF soldier and the author of a book, Dark Laughter, and numerous articles about war and popular culture.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, War
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