This month, on 25 April, we remember the New Zealand and Australian soldiers who fought at Gallipoli in 1915. Many of them died as a result of a bungled leadership, others from the conditions in the trenches or from the poor nutrition that went with field battles. Margaret Orange of Masterton offers this reflection on her father’s experience of The Great War.
I stand in a replica of an earth-walled trench in the Auckland War Memorial Museum and I think of my father. In a place like this he had lived for hours, days, weeks, maybe months, and I know nothing about it.
The hell of those war years from 1916 to 1918 was never spoken of. This trench does nothing to portray what it was really like. It is neat and sanitized, silent and orderly. How can I imagine the terrifying din, the unrelenting mud, the stench? How can I feel the despair, the gut-clamping fear, the courage, friendships never forgotten, the interminable waiting, hopelessness, merciless exhaustion, all the terrible intangibles that bonded men and left them with a legacy of life-long silence?
I quote from Cecil Burgess of the Wellington Infantry of 1914-1918.
‘I went home to a father, mother and four sisters and no one ever asked me what it was like. For seventy years no one ever asked me what it was like.’
As children, my brothers and I did ask, ‘What was it like in the war, Dad?’
His reply would be a terse order to get on with our meal or our homework, or he would sigh and walk out to the vegetable garden to stand in silent contemplation.
There was nothing that Dad could say to describe what he and thousands of other men had endured.
He was a taciturn man struggling with ill health as a result of mustard gas and the horror of the trenches. Worse than this though was the irreversible injury inflicted on his soul. His young man’s spirit had been broken, and I don’t think he ever regained the joy and the excitement of living. Being alive had come at such cost, his younger brother and many mates killed in action.
When the second World War began my brothers and I, aged nine to twelve, were caught up in the glamour and patriotic zeal of New Zealand and the British Commonwealth’s stand against the evils of the German Reich and its allies. Dad kept his counsel, very occasionally making a bitter or cynical comment when we eloquently declaimed the baseness of Germans, Italians and Japanese, and when our pride in the exploits of the Allied Forces became unrealistic and extravagant. We had no idea what we were talking about. How could we?
I well remember the only time my father spoke of his experiences in the war to end all wars. He’d had a whiskey or three, and I suppose our ignorant chatter gave him the encouragement to say,
‘You don’t know, you youngsters! You talk a lot of rot! There was a night – I remember….’
Hushed, we waited, hoping Dad would go on. It would be important, what he had to say, this rare moment of memory.
‘The big field gun – had to keep it firing, all through the night. Me and my mates, we were a team. Just keep firing all night, pounding away at the German trenches. One by one, my friends were killed. They died around me, one by one, and we went on firing that gun. In the morning I was the only one left.’
We were silent for a long, long time. At last I said, stupidly,
‘Dad, you should’ve got a medal for that.’
Disgusted, Dad shook his head wearily and walked away.
© M J Orange
23 08 05