Today, 25 April, is New Zealand’s memorial day – Anzac Day. It’s the day when we remember all our war dead, more than half of whom died in just one campaign, the Western Front. Here is a short extract from my new book, The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front, pondering the legacy of New Zealand’s two largest First World War campaigns on the people who fought it.
The experience left deep psychological scars on all involved, and the mundane world of civilian life — certainly at first — was foreign to the returning soldiers. It was understandable. These New Zealanders had faced the teeth of the dragon and seen friends die before German rifle and machine-gun bullets. They had lived in trenches under constant threat of death; a sniper’s round, heralded always by the sickening thud of bullet on flesh before the scream of the bullet arrived; an abrupt shell; and always, always the terror of gas. In battle they had killed without compunction, shooting, grenading and bayoneting enemies, who had to be first dehumanised to make such an act possible. These young Kiwis had seen comrades pulled, screaming and maimed, from the field. They had seen friends slipping helplessly into ooze-filled shell pits, begging to be shot before they drowned in the foul liquid. They had lived among rats and other vermin in trenches that doubled, inevitably, as graves. They had gone on leave, lived brief lives of Riley in London, and done things that stood well distant from the values with which they had been brought up. And yet they had not flagged or failed at their harder task. They had found the strength to endure all that could be endured. It was — democratically, in an everyday sense — heroism. And then they had come home to mundane life: to New Zealand.
The cost was paid in the decades that followed. Sleeplessness was, perhaps, the least of the symptoms. At a time when social conformity was exalted and when even moderate vices were demonised, post-traumatic stress disorder with its characteristic behaviours was difficult to handle. Commercial cures did not take long to arrive. Advertisers in the New Zealand Truth insisted as early as 1919 that ‘the treatment for neurasthenia’ was ‘Dr Williams’ Pink Pills’, available at three shillings a box and apparently certain to produce ‘rich red blood’. How many fell for such facile assertions is unclear. What is certain is that all returned soldiers suffered long-term psychological effects to some degree. For most the issue was relatively minor. Others suffered the tortures of the damned. And there was no simple answer. The extreme cases were institutionalised, variously in prisons or asylums. Others descended into a life of trouble. A few gained solace by recounting what had happened to them in all its awful detail.
For all that, the reality of war memory was that many who had been through it found it difficult to talk about the experience. This was more than Kiwi laconism — it was a coping mechanism. Even for those for whom the post-traumatic stress was a relatively minor issue, the horrors of the war had to be shut away, put into a figurative cupboard and forgotten. To do anything else risked provoking madness. Most managed it, one way or another. Some never spoke about anything but the trivialities of their war experience for decades, and when they did recount the deeper side, even as octagenarians, they cried. For these people the armistice had not brought closure.
The point became obvious soon after the war as a new generation of memoirs and reminiscences emerged in print. It was a world phenomenon that New Zealand shared. These darker revelations were popularly epitomised for the world by Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen Nichts Neues of 1929, literally ‘nothing new in the West’, published in English as All Quiet on the Western Front. This blood-and-guts account pulled no punches. New Zealand had an equivalent exploration of darkness in Passport to Hell of 1936, where writer and journalist Iris Wilkinson, pseudonymously as ‘Robin Hyde’, offered a largely fictionalised account of J. Douglas Stark of 2 Otago Battalion. Although one of the ‘incorrigibles’, he had discharged himself well in the field. His stories, as John A. Lee put it, were often ‘out of joint’ factually, but ‘amazingly correct psychologically’. By novelising the tale, Hyde was able to focus on the deeper human reality of personal perception and experience — often through overstated visual metaphor, at one point even presenting Stark as a mace-wielding Viking berserker.
Hyde’s theatrical treatment also underscored another human truth of the trench experience: the raw conceptual contrast between that life and the wider world of peacetime. This was the essence of the ‘hero journey’ that the war, symbolically, represented even in the hard light of real life. Combatants had to come to grips with the enemy in ways that were horrific — a struggle as visually unspectacular as it was grubby and personal. And while that might have been normal in the trenches, it was psychopathic in the quiet world of peace. The horror came back in their dreams, and the tension between these contrasting realities took a heavy toll. Stark himself was left as one of the ‘war-broken men’ of the age. The issue was shared by a generation of New Zealand men through the 1920s and 1930s. Most tried to forget, and as late as 1939, [Major-General Andrew] Russell was still positive. ‘As events recede into the past, by a merciful dispensation of Providence, it is mostly the pleasant memories which survive’. This was hopeful. The fact was — as Russell was no doubt aware — that the unpleasant memories had merely been suppressed. They could not be undone; and none of those who had gone through the First World War wanted to repeat the experience, still less see their children go through any war themselves.
But that is precisely what happened. The First World War was merely the opening act in what Eric Hobsbawm has called the world’s age of catastrophe.
You can buy The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front in all good New Zealand bookshops, or directly online from the publisher.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017