Gallipoli to the Somme: Recollections of a New Zealand Infantryman
Alexander Aitken (Alex Calder ed)
Auckland University Press, $40.00,
Odyssey of the Unknown Anzac
Auckland University Press, $35.00,
As we come towards the end of the four-year centenary of the Great War, the question looms: what have we learnt over these years about what was arguably the greatest trauma affecting the largest number of people that this country has ever seen?
There can be no question that from television, newspaper articles, exhibitions and conferences, more people know something of the terrible costs of that experience. For readers of books, thanks to historians like Ian McGibbon and Glyn Harper, Gallipoli is no longer so dominant in consciousness, and we have a more detailed and accurate understanding of the military history of the Western Front and even the Middle East than before. Some of the leading officers, such as William Malone and Andrew Russell, have been given their due. The experience of the foot-slogger has also received attention, particularly through the publication of many personal accounts and oral histories. We eagerly await Monty Soutar’s forthcoming study of Māori in the war. There has been some new attention given to the dissidents and conscientious objectors, which goes beyond Archibald Baxter’s long-recognised classic, We Will Not Cease. We have learnt about memorials and memory and, through the dedicated effort of Jane Tolerton, the range of experiences of women overseas in those years has received some just attention. Gaps remain, such as the home front and the economy. But the most important I will leave to the conclusion.
Given this outpouring, what do these two short books, both paperbacks under 200 pages and published by Auckland University Press, add to our knowledge about the war? Do they deserve publication, let alone close reading? The question is especially pertinent as regards Alexander Aitken’s memoir. For a start, it is not a new book, having first appeared between covers in 1963. Many people interested in the war will have read it already; and its coverage of the war experience is quite limited. Aitken did not reach the Gallipoli battlefield until 10 November 1915, long after the April landing and the August offensive, and he stayed only five weeks before he was evacuated.
He then travelled with the New Zealand Division to the Western Front. He first went up to the front line at Armentières in late May 1916 and some three months later was seriously wounded at the Somme and was discharged from the army in June 1917. So he took no part in the battles of Messines and Passchendaele, nor the German Offensive of 1918. Further, his accounts of the front-line experience echo many others, available in published letters or memoirs. His cynicism about the contrast between official bulletins and the front-line experience, and his bitterness about the failure of the high command to plan properly, especially in the action of 27 September 1916 which brought about his serious injuries, were echoed by many. Aitken expresses his feelings in more precise and vivid language than some others: there is his chilling self-analysis at Gallipoli when he confronts the likelihood that he had killed an enemy soldier; and there is his distinctive way of coming to terms with the death of mates and the scale of the slaughter by succinctly inserting brackets after their names: “(killed 25 September 1916)”. But the essence of the experience will be familiar to anyone who has read other accounts.
Yet Gallipoli to the Somme is worthy of republication. The original edition is no longer widely accessible and, although largely written in 1917, it did not appear until 1963, after the outpouring of war memoirs in the early 1930s and before the current revival of interest, so it did not receive wide attention. The new edition includes superb editorial work by Alex Calder. His scrupulously accurate and fair notes add much. Calder argues that the book deserves new attention because it is a literary classic, “unquestionably the most distinguished writing we in New Zealand have from the Great War”. That is a very bold claim indeed and, if a reader wants to share the front-line experience of a New Zealand soldier, then I would argue that Robin Hyde’s Passport to Hell based on oral histories with the larrikin Starkie, or John A Lee’s autobiographical Civilian into Soldier, or Ormond Burton’s history The Silent Division, are all more complete and in many ways more intense descriptions.
It is the distinctive elements of Aitken’s writing which give the book a worthy place in this literature, and they all derive from his unusual personal characteristics. There is his phenomenal memory. The importance of this is not just his extraordinary feats of remembering such as when, dazed and semi-conscious after a front-line raid, he heard amid his confusion that the platoon roll-book was missing, so he promptly dictated the full name, regimental number, name and address of next of kin for all 56 members of his platoon! Rather, it is his ability to memorise in exact detail the physical characteristics of every location he visited. Place is hugely important to Aitken – the book is entitled Gallipoli to the Somme and every single chapter is defined by place – “Egypt to Lemnos”, “Flanders to Picardy”. So the reader comes away with a wonderfully visual experience of these locations, and there is a nice movement from the bucolic hills of Lemnos, where classical allusions abound in the early chapters, to the vividly-recalled horrors of the trench. There are precise moments recalled “in minute and unforgettable details”. On a train journey, he remembers a level crossing,
where a dog-cart carrying two girls was waiting for the train to pass … and one was beautiful; and I had a sudden vision of a lost former world, containing poetry and the music of Chopin, to which mud and dust and khaki were strangers and unknown.
Such descriptions are worth a savoured re-reading.
Aitken’s second distinctive ability is his mathematical inclinations, which would later lead to his career as a professor in the subject at Edinburgh University. Repeatedly, he sees geometrical shapes – the first tanks are seen as rhomboids, no less. One day, his awareness of the regular pattern of falling howitzer shells coming ever closer convinced him to get out of the way. As Calder notes, “mathematics had saved his life”. The final aspect of Aitkin’s personality is a love of his violin, which becomes a character in the tale. Carried illegally into battle, cared for by his fellow soldiers, played in a dug-out under Chunuk Bair once a mate had unravelled a telephone wire to substitute for a busted E-string, trundled around camp kitchens near Messines and Ypres, and eventually presented to Otago Boys High School, Aitken’s alma mater, where it remains in a glass case. The violin’s war service turns out to be more prolonged than that of its owner.
Although David Hastings’s Odyssey of the Unknown Anzac is not a reprint, but a new and fascinating work of history, there are some similarities in the tale. Again, the focus is on an ordinary soldier whose service is not long. Like Aitken, George McQuay was a New Zealander who joined up in early 1915 – in the 5th reinforcements (Aitken was in the 6th). He also served briefly in Gallipoli, and his war ended, like Aitken’s, in 1916 on the Western Front. Yet this is a very different story, an engrossing mystery.
The book begins in 1928 with the circulation of a poster appealing for help to identify a patient in a Sydney mental hospital. The man was said to be a returned Australian or New Zealand soldier, George Brown, who had been found wandering the streets of London during the war. Bereaved relatives responded in hundreds to the appeal, all hoping that their missing son might have been found. Eventually he was identified as George McQuay, son of Emma McQuay who ran a maternity nursing home in Stratford, Taranaki. Hastings proceeds to reconstruct McQuay’s war and journey to the mental hospital. This is not an easy task. There is no memoir, no letters, even the army record is deficient. Hastings manages to do so through a brilliant use of sources – the Papers Past website allows him to reconstruct, through contemporary newspapers, the world of Stratford in which McQuay was brought up: the diaries, letters and other accounts of soldiers who served alongside McQuay (which included Starkie of Passport to Hell fame), medical and hospital records.
At first, the story seems simply to be a typical case of shell-shock – for McQuay was picked up, not in London, but dressed as an Australian wandering behind the lines on the Western Front with a loss of memory and bouts of delusion. Through exhaustive sleuthing, Hastings shows that McQuay’s story was a bit more complicated than this and that his uncooperative behaviour had a long history.
But since both Aitken and McQuay had such similar wars – a short time on Gallipoli, in the trenches at Armentiêres, and a war ended prematurely – it is worth asking why their responses to their experience seem on the surface so different. Aitken became a successful university professor, McQuay an inhabitant of a mental hospital, highly unsettled, suffering from dementia and outbreaks of violence. There were obvious differences – Aitken must have enlisted because of his belief in serving the British Empire, and so his ideology could have kept him mentally strong; Hastings speculates that McQuay may have joined up because he was unemployed in 1914 and was perhaps harassed by the white feather brigade. Aitken is always close to his mates, who sing along to his violin and give him constant support. McQuay had the misfortune that, having trained with the Wellington Battalion, four days before leaving New Zealand he was shifted to the Waikato Company of the Auckland Battalion, and he quickly seems to have got offside with them. So he lacked the support of others. Aitken was always an obedient soldier, but McQuay seems to have infringed by missing drill soon after the boat sailed and he had a continuing record of indiscipline. By the end of the voyage to Egypt, it had been decided that he should be sent back home because of mental deficiency, but, through army inefficiency, this was never acted upon. Hastings decides in the end that McQuay may well have suffered from schizophrenia which had manifested itself even before he joined up. This all helps to explain their different responses.
Yet the differences are not quite as great as they may seem. For all the support Aitken received from his mates, the consolation of his violin, and his ideological belief in the larger cause, he too later suffered mental distress from his time in the front line. There were at least six periods in the years after the war when Aitken had breakdowns with insomnia, “smashed nerves”, seeing the world “through distorted glasses”. Writing and revising his memoir was one way of coping. His distance from the torments suffered by McQuay was not perhaps as large as it may seem. One wonders how other returned soldiers fared.
In the end, what these two books, Aitken’s elegant writing and Hastings’s brilliant researches, suggest is that the psychological and human costs of the war demand far more exploration. We know what it was like on the front line; but what happened to families anxiously trying to cope back home; and what were the long-term costs to the men themselves when they returned and tried to integrate into a world that could not easily empathise with their war experiences? Nor should we ignore the women and families who had to care for the returned men. George’s mother and sister lovingly looked after him from 1928 until his death in 1951. Aitken’s wife, Winifred, helped support him through his later psychological torments. The war’s effects did not stop in 1918. There were painful long-term consequences which involved women and children as well as returned men. We must hope that the deep exploration of that ghastly ordeal will not stop in 2018. There is still much work to be done.
Jock Phillips’s most recent publication is To the Memory: New Zealand’s War Memorials, reviewed in NZB Summer 2016.