War’s lessons not always obvious
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.