On My Way to the Somme
In the Face of the Enemy
Glyn Harper and Colin Richardson
The Big Show
Alison Parr (ed)
Auckland University Press in association with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, $40.00,
Climates of War
Hazard Press, $44.99,
On My Way to the Somme invokes a convenient “professionalism” as the standard for judging the performance of new chum citizen-soldiers from down under in WWI. This concept is not hindered by moral qualms about warfare or the justice of any particular cause. With Prussian detachment, professionalism sees no alarm in using troops as obedient cannon fodder on the Somme battlefields and it justifies their expenditure as a kind of graduation fee for a mythical, undefined condition called “nationhood”. If wallowing in a sea of mud and doing repetitive, senseless attacks is the prerequisite for fancying oneself a member of a nation, the mutineers of Étaples, the deserters in the Chalkpits or a fast train to the Finland Station take on a tempting attraction as sensible alternatives.
On My Way is a narrative plod through diaries, letters and other memorabilia of the New Zealand Division in France in WWI. It is supported by a number of maps and some 16 pages of undistinguished photography. Macdonald attributes the heavy drinking by returned men after the war to an attempt at “the relief of tension”, but psychologically much of their alcoholism and alienation was just as likely to have been self-therapy by glum heroes in dingy hotel bars, trying instinctively to recreate a huddled semblance of the nurturing small-group relationships of military life.
Macdonald sees the Unknown Warrior as “the story of a nation, its identity and its loss of innocence”. But one wonders if there is something perversely wrong with a country that can waste millions importing an expensive box of bones from France, as well as planning to spend yet more millions on yet another war memorial in London, when it cannot provide modern defence services and will not build adequate roads or look after the sick properly in its failing public health system.
Lynn McConnell’s Galatas 1941 is a detailed account of a startling episode on Crete that raises questions about the capabilities, qualities and larger potentialities of New Zealand soldiers. Led by C Company of 23 Battalion, a counter-attack was temporarily successful in stopping the advancing Germans in their tracks. It owed much to the ability of the attackers to perform valiantly in a bold and dangerous undertaking. Some of their success can be attributed to inspirational leadership, but it may also have been implicit in the innate ability of these men to work together in the pursuit of common goals.
Perhaps their collectivity was a cultural trait derived from life experience in the homeland and augmented by training and military discipline. The instinctive communal togetherness of the rank and file is perfectly symbolised by the dramatic front-cover illustration of this important book. It is an informal photograph by an unknown source of a bunch of ordinary Kiwi soldiery relaxed in a heap under the olive trees in Crete. But the untidy heap is not demoralised. It is about to reassemble itself in order to fight a rearguard action.
McConnell does not say much about the meaning of Galatas beyond a few comments about courage, but implicit in the episode is the ability to work together in near impossible circumstances in the urgent common interest. Nor should the example of the Division itself as a powerful web of shared beliefs, meanings, understandings, responsibilities and practices be overlooked. However, in these days of ruthless globalism the common interest has almost disappeared from public discourse and is now as rare as the little spotted kiwi. A pity our corps of peacetime rope-dancers and Flimnaps has failed to make better use of this inherent agility of New Zealand males.
The impression that these same males had some useful advantages as soldiers receives statistical support from the annals of heroism. In their scholarly study of the Victoria Cross, Glyn Harper and Colin Richardson note that in terms of population size, we have produced a higher proportion of winners than anyone else. It is no surprise that in the chronicles of civil homicide our favourite weapon is either a rifle, an axe, a knife or a primitive blunt instrument of some kind, notably a bottle, crowbar, poker, lump of wood, brick, piece of concrete or stone, even a handy teapot on one ferocious occasion! Our aptitude for crude forms of violence seems to translate readily into a cultural production of war as legalised violence.
On a battlefield everyone is a candidate for the services of Moloch. To fortify themselves, most soldiers find it convenient to cultivate at least a facade of the heroic. It takes guts not to give way to a panic attack under shellfire or in a bombing raid, and then to stand up and go forward into the barrage … and to keep on doing it. In 1999 we made it easier to become a distinguished hero by substituting a Victoria Cross of New Zealand for the traditional British award. “In the presence of the enemy” has been expanded and perhaps diminished to include “belligerents” so that a candidate for the honour could be anywhere doing almost anything since belligerency is now a universal condition of modernity. All the world our battlefield in a bold spirit of global enterprise.
The first problem of potential VC winners is to be noticed so that recommendations can go up the chain of command for processing. This has not always happened smoothly or justly. In the Face of the Enemy records some strange examples of injustice and discrimination. One aspirant in the Boer War, instead of a Cross, received a sort of compensation pass in the form of a woollen scarf knitted personally by Queen Victoria. Handy on cold nights and now worth a fortune on Trademe!
Just what induces some men to hazard themselves and sometimes their companions in exceptional feats of military prowess is not discussed by the authors though they offer the insight that valorous behaviour might be a function of leadership. Support for this explanation comes from the fact that only two of their list of VC winners were private soldiers, the rest being either NCOs or officers. From an industrial point of view private soldiers resemble factory workers, trained to perform specific roles and largely task bound, but officers and NCOs have supervisory responsibilities and greater degrees of freedom to develop the techniques of combat and to specialise in the mechanics of crude violence and individual performance. For instance, Charles Upham was given to carrying a sandbag of hand grenades with which to assail the enemy. Dick Travis, with a sniper’s rifle, two revolvers, a bayonet and a supply of Mills bombs, terrorised No Man’s Land like a preposterous psychopath in some implausible Hollywood blockbuster.
Some VCs have had to be awarded posthumously. A few winners have survived into old age, though, not surprisingly, there have been post-bellum nervous troubles. This prompts the speculation that superheroism in some cases might be a symptom of a personality disorder in which the sufferer unconsciously tries to displace deep fears and anxieties by resort to a frenzy of aggression. Another possibility is that superheroes may be driven by notions of honour, bravery, mastery, success and robust presentations of the self that lead them into an obsessive quest for dominance in which they become enthusiastic apprentices of Moloch. In peacetime such control freaks have to indulge themselves with crime, gambling, alcoholism and drug-taking or else seek careers as extreme-sports stars, media celebrities, heroes and heroines of the stock exchange, aggressive captains of commerce and power-hungry politicians.
From the vicarious excitements of superheroism, it is a relief to turn to the doings of ordinary warriors on D-Day. Alison Parr has assembled narratives from New Zealanders involved in the invasion as part of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage oral history project. Some 13 subjects tell their stories conversationally. There are no startling revelations, but the interviews are skilfully recorded, and the resulting narratives are a saga of the youthful dedication and idealism of a wartime generation that is now fast merging into the inevitable flux of time. The Big Show is significant as a memorial to the 10,000 or so New Zealanders estimated to have been serving in various capacities in Europe at the time of invasion. The author mentions that there were yet more New Zealand soldiers “battling their way up through Italy” though in fact the New Zealand Division as part of the British Eighth Army invaded Europe via Greece as far back as 1941. Again, along with the US Fifth Army and the rest of the Eighth Army, it invaded Italy in 1943 and fought its way north through two continental winters. Some of the components of this human battering ram (and especially its 8,764 casualties) thought that as far as they were concerned D-Day seemed a long-delayed and remote effort.
The Big Show is supported by a crop of illustrations, a few of which have documentary power, especially women prisoners of Belsen concentration camp cooking food over open fires in the very jaws of Moloch, a gun crew on a Royal Navy ship sleeping on the steel deck, and a column of POWs on a forced march in Germany. The work is formally endorsed by the Prime Minister, who in a foreword delivers a little homily about a “shared memory arrangement” in which New Zealand and France are to cuddle up together in a “shared future”. One hopes this romantic initiative will be more successful than our perennial attempts by conventional, fuddy-duddy diplomacy to loosen the French stranglehold on the Common Agricultural Policy.
While some contemporary historians seem obsessed by jingoistic visions of warriors performing heroic deeds in the service of a youthful nation, Edmund Bohan, an accomplished and versatile writer, in Climates of War explores the formative past in a detailed analysis of the decade 1859-69. He examines problems of political power, economic development, race conflict, warfare and the modest beginnings of an independent state. These seem like familiar core concerns.
Apart from the compilation of descriptive facts, the interesting thing about history is what these concerns might signify. Perhaps our brief history is simply a record of economic anxieties, ethnic struggles and repetitive encounters with a voracious Moloch. But what if history is not a linear account of rational development and progress as we might like to suppose, but is merely a random concatenation of meaningless happenings, a sort of epistemological jumble in which we rummage like diligent insects hoping to discover some principle of order that might satisfy our need for facile explanations of the flow of time?
Perhaps New Zealand history is not a quest for racial justice and brave nationhood, as the current official ideology would have it. In moral terms it may amount to little more than an endless cycle of intrigue, deception, greed, violence and folly. This morbid condition seems likely to continue until either the outmoded nation state is abolished as an organising ideal, or until one superstate, or coalition of states like the United Nations, manages to become an oligarchic hegemony powerful enough, with some help from an obliging Moloch, to tackle our urgent global, ecological, economic and political problems. At present the UN is but a paper tiger, but, given some claws and real teeth, could it become ruthless enough to compel compliance with its edicts in a pax Romana? If so, who would be Caesar? And what would become of our Lilliputian pretensions and delusions about the heroic warrior spirit as well as our addictive dealings with Moloch?
Les Cleveland is a former soldier in a rifle company in WWII.