The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front, 1914-1919
Chapter I Of How We Commenced to Go about the World and up and down in It
Chapter I Of How We Commenced to Go about the World and up and down in It
And away across the bay they rowed southward, while the people lined the cliffs; and the women wept, while the men shouted, at the starting of that gallant crew.
Within a few days of the declaration of war the young manhood of New Zealand was assembling in the camps at Alexandria Park, Awapuni racecourse, Addington and Tahuna parks. From the gum fields and the timber mills, from the sheep runs and the dairy farms and the flax swamps, from mine and office and factory and school, shop hands and lawyers, labourers and university professors, mechanics and parsons, a few crooks and deadbeats, and a great crowd of decent chaps—they came pouring in. There was no troubled conscience in New Zealand. The schools and the editors and the parsons had done their work too thoroughly for that
… how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?
There was enthusiasm and a haze of rather splendid feeling. A great adventure was opening up. All page 2the humdrum of life suddenly fell away and men were like young gods in a new world of romance.
Civilian clothes were quickly bundled up and uniform donned with a feeling akin to reverence. The various odds and ends that go to the making of the complete soldier were issued by instalments. Men gradually learned their right relationship to their sections and platoons and companies. Everyone was desperately keen because the war was bound to be over soon, and if anybody was slack they were to be left behind—a fearful fate. Apparently the matter of greatest importance was the magic thing—discipline. It was the greatest virtue of the soldier— the quality which if we could only attain we would win the war. The old regulars who seemed to spring up in the most amazing fashion as sergeant majors hinted that in all probability we would never get it. We were a little downcast, but persevered, manfully clicking our heels, casting the eyes to the left and right and saluting at all times passing authority with what precision we could muster. The shining of brass buttons was another all-important matter. The glitter and gleam of these were evidently to cause consternation in the ranks of the Hun, who was, according to the cablegrams, growing a blacker and more unspeakable person every day. For the rest men learned to turn to right and left, to form fours, to make proper connection between rifle and bayonet and to march reasonably.
But for the awful fear that the war might not last, all went well. The food was splendid. The training was not too hard. There was a reasonable page 3amount of leave. Khaki, too, seemed to have a very potent influence over the youth and beauty of the towns, and this was as it should be for all felt themselves to be heroes in advance, as it were, and therefore due for a little hero worship. But the weeks were passing, and every day the papers were announcing marvellous victories. Surely the Germans could never stand such a battering, such staggering losses. Why didn't the "heads" hurry up before it all finished? Transports in all the harbours—and an ocean wide enough to dodge the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, surely?
Most of us, like Sir Francis Drake and Mr Phileas Fogg, went round the world. We took on the average about the same time as the former, but proceeded rather more in the manner of the latter. On transports of every kind from Atlantic liners to Channel ferries, some supplied by Lord Inchcape on a strictly business basis, others kindly donated free of all charge by His Imperial Majesty of Germany; by stretcher, ambulance car, hospital train, and hospital ship; by London bus, and motor lorry, and troop train; on mule and prancing steed, and most of all on Shanks's pony—we peregrinated up and down and roundabout on the most marvellous of all the grand tours.
The majority of New Zealanders throughout the war commenced their Odyssey from Trentham camp. As dawn broke in pink and grey over the dark mass of the hills that backed the training ground, the rubbish fires blazed, and the men, falling in, marched away to the train, rattled down the Hutt Valley, and page 4then through the crowds to the wharves and the waiting ships
The Main Body of the N.Z.E.F. put to sea at dawn on 16 October, and, steaming out in file, the grey-painted transports fell into two divisions of five ships in each and headed westward across the stormy waters of the Tasman Sea. At Hobart the men were landed for a route march that rapidly degenerated into a triumphal procession. The whole population of the town was in the streets thronging round the marching men, walking beside them, breaking into the ranks, pressing on everyone Tasmanian apples, bunches of roses, cigarettes, parcels of cake, handshakes, kisses. It was a most marvellous burst of spontaneous welcome. When all had re-embarked the people thronged the wharves, still showering the men with gifts until, with the bands playing "Tipperary," the transports drew away, followed by burst after burst of cheering. A week later the New Zealand ships entered the waters of King George's Sound and found awaiting them the vessels crowded with men of the Australian Imperial Forces. From all this motley assemblage of ships came cries of greeting, shrill "coo-ees," and a roar of cheers and counter-cheers.
On the first of November the whole fleet put to sea, the Australians, twenty-eight ships in all, leading in three lines and the New Zealanders, still in two, covering the gaps, while the escorting warships, the Minotaur, the Melbourne, the Sydney, and the Ibuki of the Japanese navy, went before, behind and on the flanks. In this order the great procession of page 5ships, filling the sea from horizon to horizon, moved on through Australian waters, and so out into the calm blue stretches of the Indian Ocean.
The New Zealand troopships were boats that had been trading in New Zealand waters at the beginning of the war. They had been rapidly transformed by fixing up tiers of bunks in holds, smoke rooms and lounges by running long tables down the dining-rooms or at any convenient place between decks, and by fixing up horse boxes on the promenade decks. The main consideration was to pack as many men and horses on board as could reasonably be done. The result was that the free portions of the deck were during the day-time so crowded with men that it was difficult indeed to move about, and almost impossible for any serious training to be done. Now commenced that utter lack of all privacy that some truly social souls appreciate; that the majority learn to endure with tolerable equanimity; and that for some few is unending torment. From this time for one, two, three, even four years, a man could not eat by himself or sleep by himself. If he looked at his sweetheart's photograph there was probably an audience more or less appreciative; if he opened a parcel there was his own section at least to assist him; if he was cheerful his exuberance might be infectious or it might provoke the wrath of someone who was indulging in a fit of melancholy; if he was miserable he was regarded as a bringer of gloom, a wet blanket; if his mate was offensively drunk he could not do more than edge a few inches away from the odorous reality of the exhilarated page 6one; and sometimes hardest of all, he could not die by himself. One of the kindly fruits of this enforced proximity was a wonderful growth of tolerance.
The nautical and military authorities did their best to prevent Satan finding employment for idle hands, but even their ingenuity could hardly cope with so great a problem. After all there was a limit to the brass work to be polished, the decks to be scrubbed, the boat drills to be gone through, the musketry courses that were possible in such limited space, the military knowledge that could be imparted by means of lectures, the odd jobs that could be found for orderlies, and yet there seemed no limit to the number of men. So for the greater part of the time the majority lay around in the sun smoking and playing cards, yarning and sleeping, but coming to life with a rush when the bugles called all and sundry to—"come to the cookhouse door." Despite the relative inactivity men developed amazing sea appetites which were most nobly catered for.
It was when well out to sea that the troops suffered the first of the many things that had to be endured at the hands of the Medical Corps. "No. X platoon will parade for vaccination at 9 a.m." And so No. X paraded, not altogether without misgivings and found itself moving in a long procession clothed in singlets and trousers. A Red Cross orderly dabbed a brawny arm with methylated spirits, another dropped a spot of vaccine on the clean patch, a doctor scraped the place three or four times with page 7a sharp needle, and the victim passed on. All very simple; until the arm grew sore and stiff and swollen and it was a struggle to put a coat on or to take it off. Some clumsy ass was always bumping the inflamed place and not improving matters by his clumsy apologies.
The days passed one after the other. The sea became a deeper blue; the sky above was unflecked by clouds. Men stood by the hour leaning over the rail and gazing into the break of foam that trailed away from the bow or the propellers. There is an extraordinary fascination in watching water, that has been stretching ahead like levels of shining glass, suddenly broken and churned into tumbling white foam, swirling, leaping, cascading past, bursting with silver bubbles that split the sunbeams into gleaming rainbows. As the day wears on the sun dips toward the western horizon and draws to itself low fleecy clouds that gradually change from dull grey and white to vivid bars of gold flecked with crimson. And while the colours change, the sky to the east grows dark. As the boat rises and falls on the long even swell the sun disappears then re-appears again. For a moment it is like a ball of fire floating on a fiery sea. But from the east the wide grey curtain is falling fast. At last the sun dips beneath leaden waves. The light lingers for a moment and then all is dark save for the soft cold shining of the moon and stars. From the stern streams a phosphorescent pathway to the far off fairyland of home.
There was one supremely dramatic moment dur-page 8ing the voyage. From Cocos Islands sixty miles away came urgent wireless calls:
"Sos! Strange warship at entrance! Sos! Sos!"
And then jumbled indecipherable messages. At 6.30 a.m. the Sydney turned and steamed away at full speed. The Ibuki tore round the head of the convoy her battle flags streaming crimson in the wind, black smoke belching from her funnels, and took up station on the exposed flank. The excitement grew intense. At 9.30 came a message that the Sydney had commenced action with the Emden. Two hours later came the news:
"Emden beached and done for."
The great raider had fought a valiant fight. Trapped against the reefs, by a faster and heavier foe she had fought until every gun was out of action; until the hull was but a broken, twisted mass of ironwork with hell glowing where fires had started; until one hundred and ninety men lay dead, and half the remainder wounded in the bloody shambles; and then before her flag came down her captain smashed her ashore on the coral reef. On board the transports the news was received with rejoicing. There was wild cheering, a great exultation. A few days later in Colombo when the Sydney steamed in there was no cheering, for with her came the Emden's wounded and the victors were chivalrous.
Three months later a reinforcement convoy steamed close in to the low-lying palm-fringed islands, where combers dashed in long lines of creamy foam against the coral reefs, and dazzling white beaches page 9gleamed beneath the dark green of fronded palms. A siren island! And there lay the Emden like a child's toy broken and rusted and thrown away.
The ceremony of crossing the line was observed with full rites. Their Marine Highnesses visited all the N.Z. ships and the fun was fast and furious. Cheerful pandemonium broke loose and some 8400 men received the freedom of the seas per medium of the slippery poles, tanks of salt water and appropriate quantities of soft soap. Neither rank nor calling was sacred—colonels and privates, captains and batmen, padres and cooks, all went the same way. Conscientious objectors were summarily dealt with and were driven at the nozzle of the fire-hose to the greasy shave and the bears of the bath. Hilarity was unrestrained and for a couple of hours there was happy riot, while bucket brigades and hose parties made lavish use of Neptune's bountiful supply of free water.
The weather was swelteringly hot and many wonderful costumes commenced to make their appearance. There was no news, and in consequence the main occupation of all hands was to invent and circulate the most extraordinary rumours. Apart from roll calls and a few perfunctory parades there was nothing to do. So it was the most natural thing in the world for inventive minds to supplement the scanty scraps of wireless news with bold imaginings. The sea was filled with enemy raiders and British wrecks; the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were transferred from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean; Paris was lost and Berlin was captured; tremendous battles page 10were gained and lost; the most impossible dishes were served up for next day's dinner. The past careers, the future prospects and the actual characters of the notabilities of the Expeditionary Force were discussed with a wealth of detail, that would have astonished and confounded the personages themselves. But no question aroused such burning interest as that of the destination of the fleet. Was it to be India and garrison duty, or Egypt and guard duty on the Suez Canal? Was it to be France and real war, or England and training camp?
For a while South Africa had a great following and on board one boat a major who advertised the fact that he was landing at Durban to conduct operations against the rebel Boers was besieged by hundreds of volunteers for the job. There was no little humility in the N.Z.E.F. in those days. The legend of Mons had cast a halo round the British regular troops, and there were not enough South African veterans to dispel the glamour by reference to the experiences of the Mounted Contingents. New Zealand was a young country not experienced in war, and her men were amateur soldiers. They could hardly expect to be flung into great battles alongside such demigods as the Guards. On the whole the majority were inclined to think that their task would be the humble one of setting free the wonderfully "disciplined" battalions of professional soldiers which were held in India and Egypt.
It was a far cry to the day when a great fighting N.C.O. of a crack N.Z. battalion was to come home to his company after a tour of duty with a famous page 11regiment, then in the line, struck with amazement at their elaborate ceremonial, but unimpressed with their methods of conducting patrols.
So the ships swept on their stately way, while on board was good fellowship and exuberant spirits. When night darkened the brilliant sky and the shining sea, the men crowded on the well decks, on the spars, on the promenades, anywhere that would command a view of the space of open deck lighted by the swinging arc lamps. There were boxing tournaments and gay concerts; sometimes choruses were taken up and sung by all the great company. By a strange irony one of the last popular songs that had come to New Zealand was:—
When you come to the end of a perfect day,
And you sit alone with your thoughts.
And the chimes ring out with a carol gay for the joys
That the day has brought;
Can you think what the end of a perfect day
May mean to a tired heart,
When the sun goes down with a blazing ray
And the dear ones have to part?
The Southern Cross dipped down into the waste o£ waters to the south and the youth of New Zealand as they drew near to the fields of Armageddon sang with little realization of the finality with which an era in history was closing.
The fleet ran up the coast of Ceylon and felt its way through a swarm of small boats to an anchorage within the breakwater of Colombo. The harbour was full of ships that had taken refuge from page 12the Emden, and were now making ready once more to go about their lawful occasions. For the majority it was their first introduction to the wonders of the magic East: the scents, the colours, the glamour, the mystery and the witchery, the subtle and enchanting loveliness that is so strangely different to all that in New Zealand we regard as beautiful. At first it seemed that not many would be able to land but by a dexterous misunderstanding of orders nearly everyone finally managed to get away, pulling ashore in the ship's boats through swarms of golden butterflies that fluttered low over the water. No sooner were the men ashore than they were assailed by long robed vendors of all manner of merchandise:
"Cigarettes, master! Flowers, master! Rickshaw, master! Give it a penny master! Give it sixpence, master!" There for the first time was heard the plaintive war cry of the Oriental beggars, "Very poor man! No father, no mother! Sixpence please!"
The tribes of bright-eyed, cheeky young scamps who infested the streets were particularly difficult to shake off. They were brushed away like so many flies but were back next moment no whit discouraged. The shopkeepers left their booths and pursued likely looking buyers, brandishing their wares, pleading pathetically with their patrons to return and investigate the entire stock. Many of the men took rickshaws or carriages and drove out along the sea-shore past splendid club-houses, military barracks, and mission schools, the Y.W.C.A., Lipton's Tea House, Salvation Army Headquarters, and page 13Government House, to the Cinnamon Gardens and then back again through Tamil quarters to the Buddhist Temple and the native bazaars and so to the British India Hotel and a civilized meal, not to mention ice-cream and cold showers. The last were not entirely without embarrassment to some sensitive souls who mistook the exceedingly feminine-looking Sinhalese attendants to be really persons of the opposite sex.
It was a great day, and the tired men gradually fought their way through the crowd of bargain sellers and beggars to the boats loaded with silks and jewels, carved elephants, green-backed beetles, brazen Buddhas, and all manner of curious Indian handwork. There were heavy mail bags sent ashore for New Zealand.
A monotonous run across the Arabian Gulf brought the fleet to Aden. Then came the stifling passage of the Red Sea; up past the Twelve Apostles and Medina, sometimes in sight of land, at others in the midst of burning waters with the sun blazing pitilessly down, until the desolate and rugged shores of the Gulf of Suez were seen stretching on either hand. The N.Z.E.F. was approaching storied soil. Blue in the distance but clear, sharp, and distinct Mount Sinai rose majestically above the lesser heights of the coast range; at another point the ships passed the place where Pharaoh's chariots and horsemen were overwhelmed by the returning waves; somewhere on the right hand side was Solomon's port of Carchemish to which came the gold ships with the precious freights of Ophir.page 14
In the Red Sea a wireless message was received ordering the Expeditionary Force to be prepared to disembark in Egypt. There was some disappointment but of course Turkey had by now entered the war and a heavy attack on the Canal was expected at any time. This was some solace to those who had expected to be flung without delay into the hard pressed line France or Flanders.
As the ships entered the Suez Canal something of the sheer rollicking good fun of the voyage gave place to a serious realization of the fact of war. The bridge decks were fortified with flour-bags as a precaution against Turkish rifle fire. Machine-guns were mounted on the exposed side—guards posted. But, alas for the eager spirits who had hoped to steam into the midst of a Turkish attack! All was quiet! The starlight fell coldly on the grey wastes to either side, the powerful headlights shone on the waters of the Canal. Dawn came flushing the sky, the sombre levels shimmered with haze, and then the desert gleamed yellow in the sunshine as far as the eye could see. The banks were patrolled by Indian troops representing all the fighting races of India—Sikhs, Gurkhas, Pathans, Baluchis. In many places they gathered in groups shilly cheering:
"Who are you?" shouted a voice from the desert, and continued, "126 Baluchis here!" "We're New Zealanders," was the quiet answer. "Hooray!" cried the Baluchi. "Advance Australia."
Their enthusiasm however went a long way to make up for their geographical ignorance. The page 15transports crept slowly on through the Bitter Lakes and the blue waters of Lake Timsah, past Ismailia Ferry Post, Battery Post, El-Ferdan and Kantara and so to Port Said. Here a French man-of-war, the Henri IV was lying at anchor. She was the first French vessel the New Zealanders had seen and so, as the troopships steamed past, the men mustered along the rails and cheered and cheered. The Frenchmen lined up and sang the "Marseillaise" with extraordinary passion and abandonment. The men of New Zealand were just commencing to feel the first stirrings of that sense of nationality that was to deepen and intensify as they marched from one battlefield to another. This outburst of French feeling for their homeland moved all hearts.