If mem­ory serves

A sol­dier with mirac­u­lous re­call and a his­to­rian bring home WWI’s re­al­ity.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - By SA­MUEL FINNEMORE

Fel­low An­zacs Ge­orge McQuay and Alexan­der Aitken came closer to meet­ing than they could ever have known – first at Gal­lipoli and then on the Western Front near the French town of Ar­men­tières. But these were places where even the short­est dis­tances were mea­sured in hu­man lives. On the night of July 14, 1916, Aitken’s Otago Reg­i­ment went over the top in a ma­jor as­sault on Ger­man lines. It was caught in the open and dec­i­mated. Two days later, sol­diers of the Waikato Com­pany in a nearby sup­port­ing po­si­tion no­ticed that Ge­orge McQuay had gone miss­ing from his post dur­ing the night.

Two very dif­fer­ent An­zac ex­pe­ri­ences pivot on this brief mo­ment in France a hun­dred years ago. One of them sur­vives in a first-hand ac­count: Aitken’s mem­oir Gal­lipoli to the Somme, res­ur­rected by ed­i­tor Alex Calder in its first new edi­tion in more than 50 years.

De­spite in­ter­na­tional ac­claim on pub­li­ca­tion in 1963 – suf­fi­cient to earn its author elec­tion to the Royal So­ci­ety of Lit­er­a­ture – it came sev­eral decades too late to join the recog­nised canon of Great War mem­oirs and grad­u­ally faded from mem­ory in New Zealand.

The irony would not have been lost on Aitken. A math­e­ma­ti­cian gifted with a near-pho­to­graphic mem­ory trained close to its lim­its, he could re­mem­ber al­most ev­ery­thing he’d ever seen. That as­ton­ish­ing re­call per­me­ates Gal­lipoli to the Somme: dates and times to the half hour, songs sung by Greek chil­dren and Egyp­tian fer­ry­men (in full mu­si­cal no­ta­tion), but also the sound of bul­lets shred­ding a flower bush and the vol­leys of an en­emy ma­chine-gun­ner fir­ing inches over a trench para­pet – vary­ing his pat­tern with switch­backs “to catch any un­wary head”.

Gal­lipoli to the Somme as­ton­ishes not just through ex­tra­or­di­nary de­tail but also for the con­sis­tent hu­man­ity it dis­plays. Aitken gen­uinely knew the men in his pla­toon, not just their names and num­bers, and his mem­oir de­scribes his com­rades’ lives with af­fec­tion and com­pas­sion. The un­speak­able is gen­er­ally left un­spo­ken; but Aitken, who rose from pri­vate to sec­ond lieu­tenant, nev­er­the­less con­veys the essence of what he saw, with a night­mare clar­ity that blos­soms in the imag­i­na­tion.

Such night­mares would colour the rest of Aitken’s life. He wrote the first draft of what be­came Gal­lipoli to the Somme in Dunedin Hospi­tal af­ter be­ing wounded and evac­u­ated to New Zealand and re­vised it over the next 30 years dur­ing bouts of ner­vous in­som­nia. It stands as an ex­tra­or­di­nary re­sponse to that trauma and the need to shape mean­ing from the weight of his mem­ory.

Afew weeks af­ter the dis­as­trous Otago Reg­i­ment as­sault, Bri­tish mil­i­tary po­lice found an uniden­ti­fied sol­dier wan­der­ing near the po­si­tions at Ar­men­tières. The man seemed con­fused and er­ratic and claimed to have been briefly buried alive af­ter a shell-burst in the trenches. When asked, he gave his name and rank as that of an Aus­tralian pri­vate, Ge­orge Brown.

That bor­rowed iden­tity was to de­lay Ge­orge McQuay’s home­com­ing for more than a decade. Taken at his word for an Aus­tralian cit­i­zen, he was evac­u­ated first to Lon­don and then on to Syd­ney af­ter a di­ag­no­sis of what was prob­a­bly schizophre­nia. Warn­ing signs were, in fact, de­tected ear­lier, on his voy­age from New Zealand – the doc­tor aboard the troop­ship Maun­ganui rec­om­mended McQuay be dis­charged as men­tally un­fit for ser­vice. But the army pa­per trail pe­tered out and he con­tin­ued to Gal­lipoli. It was the first of many bu­reau­cratic fail­ings that made McQuay’s war an un­usu­ally long one.

Pre­cious few of his words and thoughts

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