War’s lessons not al­ways ob­vi­ous

The Dominion Post - - News Armistice Day – 100 Years On - Jonathan Milne

They ar­rived at 4 o’clock in the morn­ing. Qui­etly in the cold au­tumn hours be­fore dawn, De­tec­tive Sergeant Thomas Gib­son po­si­tioned his con­sta­bles around the dark­ened Christchurch house. Then, at 5.30am, they moved in. Gib­son knocked on the back door of the res­i­dence on Vic­to­ria St.

Scared, Ella Price came to the door. Who’s there?

‘‘I have war­rants to ar­rest two mil­i­tary de­sert­ers,’’ Gib­son an­nounced.

She re­torted: ‘‘Those you want are not here.’’

So the po­lice broke down the door. Storm­ing up the stairs, they found two sin­gle beds, still warm. Then, hid­ing in the ceil­ing cav­ity, Price’s son, Wil­liam, and his friend, Fred­er­ick Paintin.

The young men were cuffed and re­turned to the ten­der mer­cies of the mil­i­tary.

Ella Price and her hus­band were ar­rested for breach­ing the Army Act, sec­tion 153, sub­sec­tion 3. To make an ex­am­ple of those who aided de­sert­ers, they were hauled be­fore the courts and sen­tenced to six months’ jail.

But as the so-called war to end all wars drew to­wards its end in 1918, the Gov­ern­ment and its forces were los­ing the hearts and minds of the New Zealand pub­lic. Too many had lost too much. There was an out­cry at the jail­ing of a mother for pro­tect­ing her son, and the Cabi­net re­mit­ted her sen­tence.

Don’t be­lieve what they tell you. The Great War was no grand ad­ven­ture. And New Zealan­ders were not the en­thu­si­as­tic par­tic­i­pants our Gov­ern­ment pre­tended we were.

By this point, po­lice were seek­ing more than 3000 de­fault­ers. They dis­ap­peared in plain sight: one joined the cir­cus; an­other lived as a va­grant around Auck­land’s One Tree Hill; a third took refuge in his boat on the wa­ters of Waitem­ata Har­bour.

Anx­ious to win favour from Mother Eng­land, our Gov­ern­ment had vain­glo­ri­ously told the world that New Zealand was united be­hind her; we had been quick to in­vade Ger­man Samoa the mo­ment war was de­clared; in Europe, as fast as our sol­diers ran head­long into ma­chine­gun fire, they were re­in­forced with new re­cruits and then, when New Zealand men stopped vol­un­teer­ing, the Gov­ern­ment con­scripted them.

When it was dis­cov­ered that mar­ried men were ex­empt from con­scrip­tion, the mar­riage rate soared. And with hun­dreds flee­ing the coun­try, the Gov­ern­ment was forced to be­gin is­su­ing pass­ports for the first time – to keep us in, not to let us out. Shirk­ers would not be al­lowed to flee their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, ‘‘when the Em­pire is call­ing for men, able and will­ing to as­sist in its de­fence’’.

Moth­ers who had lost sons joined White Feather Leagues, sham­ing shirk­ers and their fam­i­lies by ac­cus­ing them of cow­ardice.

‘‘There ap­pears to have been a con­cep­tion of fam­ily sac­ri­fice, a tax in sons that should be evenly shared,’’ says his­to­rian James Belich.

But many moth­ers would rather be shamed than lose their chil­dren. In Christchurch, the women of the White Feather League were chased off the streets by other moth­ers.

This was a bat­tle be­tween sib­lings – New Zealand, Aus­tralia, Canada, South Africa – to demon­strate their loy­alty to the Bri­tish Em­pire, in the ex­pec­ta­tion of re­wards at the end of the war.

‘‘I do not want New Zealand to be in the po­si­tion of Aus­tralia and Canada,’’ pro­nounced De­fence Min­is­ter James Al­lan. ‘‘We have a higher aim, a higher pur­pose, and I hope at the end of the war we shall reap a higher re­ward.’’

In truth, no mother can see the re­ward in her sons go­ing off to war.

More than 18,000 grim tele­grams, lit­tle rat­tled slips of terse, syn­co­pated lan­guage that might eas­ily have been barked by a cap­tain in the trenches. And from 1914 to 1918, it was the job of our na­tion’s post­mas­ters to de­liver them.

So it was that the Golden Bay post­mas­ter knocked on door of Mary Newlove, a wid­owed Takaka farmer and mother of eight, to bring her the news that her son Char­lie, 40, was dead on the Western Front. ‘‘Killed in ac­tion in the field, Bel­gium, on Oc­to­ber 4, 1917 . . . buried about 100 yards north-west of Otto Farm pill­box.’’

Mere days later, the post­mas­ter was back. Her 27-year-old son Ted was dead too, and buried at Pass­chen­daele’s Belle­vue Spur.

When the third tele­gram ar­rived, the post­mas­ter couldn’t stom­ach it any more. He gave his as­sis­tant the task of run­ning across town to give Mary Newlove the news that her youngest son, 22-year-old Les­lie, was also dead at Pass­chen­daele.

For New Zealand, they were just more names on the roll of hon­our of those who died at Pass­chen­daele, our coun­try’s grimmest day. But for Mary Newlove, they were ev­ery­thing. She’d sent four sons to war; only one re­turned, wounded.

Her story has been told be­fore. What hasn’t been told is how the legacy of war was vis­ited on later gen­er­a­tions of her fam­ily.

Her great-grand­son, Bryce, still lives at the bot­tom of Takaka Hill. ‘‘She just got the tele­grams like that, bang. And they never found the bod­ies.’’

He’s 68 and works along the road on some­one’s sheep and beef and deer farm. He wears a green Swazi bush-shirt and an old brown cap and the weight of too much war.

His grand­fa­ther, Herbert, lost his three brothers. ‘‘The war it­self was just bloody stupid,’’ Bryce Newlove says. ‘‘And to me, be­ing in the army and the way we were taught to fight a war, their tac­tics were mind-bog­glingly stupid.

‘‘The aris­toc­racy, the Bri­tish hi­er­ar­chy they were brought up in, they didn’t give a damn about any­one else. Ev­ery day, ev­ery bloody hour, they’d just send an­other wave over the top, know­ing they were go­ing to get shot to bits. And two sec­onds later they were all dead.’’

Then, in World War II, both his mother and his fa­ther lost brothers in Bomber Com­mand. ‘‘And I re­mem­ber as a kid, there were guys here who were shell-shocked from the Sec­ond World War.’’

So one can only imag­ine his par­ents’ pain when first his brother, then Bryce, vol­un­teered for jun­gle war­fare in Viet­nam. There, in his unit, he found com­rades and friends – but it didn’t last be­yond the war.

‘‘I come home and thought I’d done my bit – and got rat-s...ted. You run into guys who say you shouldn’t gone over there, protest­ing. It was a big shock for some of the boys.

‘‘And I was down at the lo­cal pub here, the night I come home on leave, and I got rat-s...ted by the lo­cal school teacher. None of them un­der­stood it, I don’t think.

‘‘I could never set­tle down. My mates got mar­ried, then di­vorced, be­cause they couldn’t set­tle down.’’

With hind­sight, was it post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der? ‘‘For sure. Ev­ery one of us, prob­a­bly. It’s al­ways in the back of your mind – you go to see a movie, and away you go again.’’

Days were, Bryce Newlove would go to the an­nual An­zac Pa­rade with his dad. But not any more. ‘‘When you’ve been in a war zone, you know ex­actly what it’s like. You prob­a­bly feel it a bit deeper.’’

That’s the legacy he wears, the legacy many of our sol­diers wear.

Be­cause it may well be true that Gal­lipoli and the Somme and Guadal­canal and Crete and Korea and Viet­nam nur­tured New Zealan­ders’ No 8 ra­zor-wire prag­ma­tism.

It may well be the case that the cheeky ir­rev­er­ence of a re­mote is­land colony too small for real class di­vides, and the strate­gic lessons from fast-mov­ing Ma¯ ori war­fare, gave birth to a pow­er­ful in­de­pen­dence of thought among our sol­diers.

It may even be that we were, as we so love to be­lieve, more coura­geous than the sol­diers of other na­tions. Belich says: ‘‘In the hor­ri­ble and un­fa­mil­iar cri­sis of bat­tle, New Zealan­ders some­times be­haved how they thought New Zealan­ders were sup­posed to be­have: bravely.’’

But it is also, al­most cer­tainly, true that suc­ces­sive wars cre­ated men who were an­gry, hard­ened, whose rage was bot­tled up so tightly in­side them that they couldn’t de­scribe it even to them­selves, let alone to their loved ones. And, by what­ever means nec­es­sary, they tried to for­get.

He called him­self a ‘‘paci­fist’’. He set up a ‘‘con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors’’ group at Otago Uni­ver­sity. ‘‘Rat-s...ter’’ is prob­a­bly not a term Ian Fraser would use to de­scribe him­self in his op­po­si­tion to the Viet­nam War.

The ac­tor, broad­caster and pi­anist, who went on to lead the New Zealand Sym­phony Or­ches­tra and then TVNZ, was in the late 1960s an un­known high school stu­dent and as­pir­ing ac­tor. And it was at Dunedin’s Globe The­atre, per­form­ing the works of the cel­e­brated play­wright and poet, James K Baxter, that he no­ticed a tall, el­derly man sit­ting in the sec­ond row, each per­for­mance. ‘‘If I didn’t know bet­ter, I would have said he had a mil­i­tary bear­ing.’’

That man was James K’s fa­ther, Archibald Baxter, whose pub­lished ac­count of his treat­ment as a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor has shocked New Zealand. He was one of 14 men sent on a troop­ship to France and bru­talised, dragged by his feet to the Front and tied with wire to a pole in the bit­ing cold, all but cru­ci­fied re­peat­edly for hours, for days, for weeks. This was in­tended to send a mes­sage to those who dared speak out against the war.

Fraser’s knowl­edge of World War I was from his grand­fa­ther, who fought at Gal­lipoli. His dis­dain for the Bri­tish lead­er­ships and es­pe­cially Field Mar­shal Haig was ex­plicit. ‘‘He was a vil­lain,’’ he told Fraser, turn­ing puce. He went back to Eng­land to £100,000 and an earl­dom. I would have put him up against a wall and had him shot. He hated ev­ery minute of the war.’’

But through the late 1960s, through the sea­sons of the­atre, Fraser got to know Baxter. He was in­spired. And Baxter made it clear that he sup­ported Fraser’s against send­ing troops to Viet­nam.

‘‘Most peo­ple weren’t brave enough or sin­gle-minded enough to do what Archibald Baxter did, there were a lot of peo­ple in the early stages of that war who couldn’t see the point of it – and ar­guably couldn’t see the point of war, full-stop. As a re­sult of the ex­pe­ri­ence of the First World War, there was a much stronger sense in al­most ev­ery New Zealand fam­ily that it has been a price not worth pay­ing.

‘‘And mixed with re­lief that the whole bloody thing was fin­ished, and we could set it aside. I think am­ne­sia is a quite im­por­tant cul­tural qual­ity, when there’s been that much suf­fer­ing,’’ Fraser said.

When John Rus­sell’s fa­ther died in North Africa, in World War II, he be­came closer to his grand­fa­ther. That grand­fa­ther was Ma­jor Gen­eral Sir An­drew Hamil­ton Rus­sell, a Hawke’s Bay farm boy who was sent to board­ing school in Eng­land, and then Sand­hurst Royal Mil­i­tary Academy. He was ed­u­cated along­side other of­fi­cers who would lead Bri­tish troops in World War I – but he was dif­fer­ent from them.

‘‘I think that be­cause he was a colo­nial, he had quite a dif­fer­ent rap­port with his men. In New Zealand there was much less of a class dis­tinc­tion,’’ says John’s wife, Phill­ida Rus­sell.

At Gal­lipoli and then on the Western Front, he could be as tough as the next gen­eral. He was com­man­der of the New Zealand Divi­sion in France and, like the Bri­tish, he ex­e­cuted men for cow­ardice. But from com­ments he made to his grand­son, Phill­ida Rus­sell thinks he came to re­gret those or­ders. ‘‘I like to be­lieve he did.’’

More fa­mously, he was re­luc­tant to send his men vainly over the top. And rather than com­mand­ing from a ho­tel miles be­hind the lines, he would join them at the front. A bul­let once pierced his hel­met and grazed the top of his head.

He re­tired to his Hawke’s Bay sheep farm, Tuna Nui. ‘‘It took him al­most four years to re­cover his health. I think he’d spent more time at the front line than any other leader of that stature.’’

When he died at 92, he had spo­ken lit­tle of the war.

For civil­ians in Lon­don and New York and Auck­land and Welling­ton and Christchurch, the sign­ing of the Armistice to end the war was a day of great rev­elry. But for many sol­diers on the front, it was a muted an­ti­cli­max. Some, like Sir An­drew Rus­sell, faced many more months march­ing to Ger­many and tak­ing con­trol as an oc­cu­py­ing force.

‘‘Muti­nous be­hav­iour re­ally flow­ered af­ter the Armistice of 11 No­vem­ber 1918, which was re­ceived with quite stag­ger­ing ap­a­thy among the troops,’’ says James Belich. ‘‘The sur­vivors of the slaugh­ter sys­tem were dead­ened if not dead.’’


Bryce Newlove’s great-grand­mother lost three sons in World War I. His mum and dad each lost a brother in Bomber Com­mand in World War II – and then he and his brother went off to Viet­nam.

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