Lest we forget: Gallipoli, the Western Front and war memory

To mark New Zealand’s memorial day this year I’m re-posting an except from one of my books, which I published a few years back. Enjoy.

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 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.

A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22371427

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.

Graves of New Zealand Division soldiers at Tyne Cot – a photo I took in 2004.

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.

Click to buy.

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


7 thoughts on “Lest we forget: Gallipoli, the Western Front and war memory

  1. My Dad fought on the ‘other’ side during World War II, but what you’ve written here finally explains something that always puzzled me – why did Dad only ever tell me funny stories about the war? I mean, I knew that no one would tell horror stories to a young kid, but the worst thing he /ever/ mentioned was being in hospital with shrapnel wounds and how ‘uncomfortable’ it was. Now I understand. Thank you.

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    1. The horrors of war were seldom spoken of afterwards, and for good reason. My own family were the same – mentioned only the lighter side. It’s also been clear to me in my various researches that many of the combatants in the world wars – many of them ordinary citizens with only basic military training – had no particular hatred for those on the other side, who were fellow people in the exact same position. Hatred emerged over time in WW1, particularly, as the trench fighting dragged on; and the Nazi-Soviet war involved a very great deal of hatred, what Richard Overy has called ‘deep war’ (in the sense of ‘deep night’ as the darkest part of the night). But other aspects of the twentieth century’s two world war were less intense: Rommel’s reference to the desert war as ‘krieg onhe hass’ was apt.

      What I find interesting about the twentieth century’s wars is the way society became their inverse. It’s no coincidence, I think, that society ‘tightened’ after the First World War – a focus on idealised middle-class nuclear family life, relatively sanitised entertainments with no graphic violence – a ‘tightening’ that remained so until the 1960s when a new generation rejected it. Those who had been through the horror needed no vicarious thrills of this kind; they were, instead, struggling to keep the flashbacks and imagery at bay. I think it’s no coincidence that today’s exultation of graphic violence has happened at a time when we are two and three generations past direct experience of a population-encompassing war.

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      1. ‘krieg onhe hass’ ?? Sorry, no idea what that means [Hungarian not German].

        I agree about the tightening after WWII but what about the Flapper era between the two world wars? From what little I know that was a loosening, at least for women.

        I guess vicarious violence is nothing new. 😦 Rome had its gladiators, and the guillotines of the French revolution apparently drew great crowds… sorry, not very fond of homo sapiens today.

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        1. It’s ‘war without hate’. I suspect Rommel noticed the difference between the desert war and the Western Front environment.

          Yes, as I understand it the ‘tightening’ of society was – as always – far from a simple matter; and what people said, and what they did, were often two different things. Temperance was another example. I’m not familiar with Australia’s experience, but here in NZ we missed prohibition by a whisker in 1919 – only the votes of the Western Front soldiers stopped a referendum in favour. The soldiers were threatened with everlasting damnation by the temperance movement but for obvious reasons that threat didn’t work! As matters stood there were many other restrictions, including ‘dry’ districts, followed by criminalising those who sold alcohol into them (the lists were published in official government records).

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          1. Aaaah! Thank you. I know very little about military history, but from what little I’ve read it appears that Rommel was a ‘good’ commander. I can’t help wondering whether his ‘war without hate’ may not have stemmed from his own example/lead.

            I don’t really know about whether Australia endured prohibition or not, but I do know that here in Melbourne we still have some suburbs that are designated as ‘dry’. We can drink here, just not buy alcohol here.
            I didn’t realise this odd state of affairs may have been left over from prohibition.

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  2. We must never forget the sacrifice these men made so we can enjoy freedom today. The activists who want to sanitize the past because it does not fit with their ideals of the future should take note. We learn from history..

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    1. Today’s world – with its democracies and its freedoms – certainly would not have happened had the world war not been fought, or had they ended differently. I often wonder what the twentieth century – and, of course, today – would have been like had the First World War not been fought, or if Germany had won quickly as they intended. Would the old order have collapsed so quickly? It would have crumbled, no doubt: revolution was already simmering. Would the Kaiser’s Germany have become the predominant European power, as the Kaiser wanted? One certainty, I think – and paradoxically, given the terrible human cost of the two world wars – is that there would have been a good deal more suffering than actually occurred. And democracy, as a governmental system, probably wouldn’t have the global ubiquity it does today.

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