Problems of 2 NZEF
The irritating ways of Egyptians have a lot to account for. To an occidental, the habits of the oriental as seen in Egypt were often amusing, but just as often infuriating. The New Zealand soldier, spending the evening in Cairo or other Egyptian town, would find dirt and noise, stupidity and dilatoriness, bad drink, blatant attempts to cheat, until the point was reached when there would be an explosion, which at the worst might take the form of an attempt to wreck the place. Those officers who were in positions of authority in Maadi Camp, and so were responsible for New Zealand discipline in Cairo, always felt that they were sitting on the safety valve of a volcano, and heaved a sigh of relief each morning if nothing out of the way had happened in Cairo the evening before. Charge sheets or complaints from the series of British officers in charge of the Cairo Area were a common feature of the morning mail at Maadi. Looking back on it now, however, our methods must have been reasonably good, as we were spared any riot comparable with the famous ‘Battle of the Wassah’ of the First World War. Disorder was somehow or other kept within limits.
It is a lamentable fact that few New Zealanders know how to drink. This is not the place to enter into discussions on the rights and wrongs of consuming alcoholic liquor; but it will have to be accepted that consumption of alcohol is a habit spread all over the world, and that wherever New Zealand soldiers go, there they will find alcohol provided for them, much more readily obtainable than in the homeland, and in pleasant surroundings. Our New Zealand conditions of drinking are far from pleasant, and consist in the main of consuming as much beer as possible in the hour from five to six, without any chance of sitting down and taking it quietly. Beer may be a good drink, but large quantities are an element in its consumption – nothing less than a half-pint.
Few New Zealanders understand the ‘short drink’ – the small glass of sherry or pink gin or vermouth or other aperitif, drunk in a leisurely manner before a meal or as a concomitant of conversation, seated at a table, and really only an incidental to human companionship. To make a drink last a long time is foreign to past experience for the New Zealander, who has been trained to cram it all into that one fatal hour after work, and moreover to take his drink in a large ‘man-size’ glass. When the drink is beer alone, the harm done is not so great; but in lands where there is a large page 218 choice, where a man may be offered a drink the name of which conveys nothing to him but is probably some form of absinthe, to start off by consuming a large glass is fatal. Our New Zealand habits may be all right for as long as we are in New Zealand, but they are the worst possible training for drinking in any foreign land. The British soldier with his experience of the peaceful atmosphere of the ‘local’, where one drink, even of beer, may be spun out for hours, is much better placed to compete with the differences he finds overseas. The majority of offences in Cairo had drink as an element; and probably the majority of those came from the inability of men to understand a more leisurely way of drinking in small quantities.
It must be admitted that some of the over-drinking, alike in Egypt and Italy, was due to not knowing what else to do. The subject of welfare is dealt with in Chapter 16, but it may be said here that despite all our efforts – greater efforts than for any other force – there were never enough clubs or institutes or other suitable means of filling in time after work. Our experience tended to show that the best answer was to keep facilities for drinking within the camp or lines, and so make it unnecessary for men to go further afield. If the drinking that goes on can be spread over a series of bars, so much the better. Mass drinking easily produces mass excitement and may lead to mass trouble. Our attempt at having one large beer bar associated with our club in Cairo was a failure on account of the large numbers of men that assembled there; more of this, however, in the chapter on welfare.
Our troubles in Italy were never so acute. To start with it was a European country, with a population of agreeable and friendly people with whom one could talk reasonably (despite language difficulties), and living a life that had many things in common with our own. Especially was this the case in the countryside; and even in the towns the population and the habits remained European. It was of great help that men could freely enter private homes and talk with people in family surroundings, a form of entertainment that New Zealanders found most acceptable. We owe a debt to the hundreds of humble folk in Italy who in a simple way entertained our men and kept them from trouble. The New Zealander likes more than anything being taken into a house. If he can help with the baby or the washing-up, he will be perfectly happy.
A lot of minor troubles came from deficiencies in dress and from failure to salute, both these offences being reported more frequently by the British Corps of Military Police than by our own Provost Corps. Slovenly dress was offensive to all responsible authorities, but as an offence was complicated by the custom of the Eighth Army and the Western Desert, where the less one looked like a page 219 stereotyped soldier the better, and where officers and men alike looked like pirates. All would agree that some degree of normal smartness was necessary in large towns; but it was no use trying to be dictatorial about it, and men had to be more coaxed than ordered. Saluting created its own particular crop of difficulties. Most New Zealanders are naturally polite and would be prepared to pay some compliment to an officer when addressing him; but, on the other hand, they cannot see the point of saluting every officer they pass, especially in a large camp or large town where men and officers are passing one another every few seconds – and most officers would agree with them in their hearts. Our custom, on the whole, was to disregard non-saluting unless the case was a glaring one, for rightly or wrongly most New Zealanders do not consider that saluting officers on all occasions is an essential part of military discipline, or at least of the special military discipline peculiar to New Zealand. The viewpoint of British authorities and so of the Corps of Military Police was more rigid on this question, hence the large number of charge sheets for non-saluting.
It is not claimed that the custom of the Expeditionary Force was either clear or yet correct. It is suggested that it is one of those points where a clear and reasonable solution should be found, and counted as one of the customs of the New Zealand service. It is time we developed some of our own customs, for we have assuredly grown up as soldiers.
A difficult problem, although not a big one, arises from the indisciplined soldier who is also a good fighter – the brave scallywag. Is a certain amount of indiscipline to be condoned because, for instance, a man shows exceptional initiative on patrol? By indiscipline is meant not real criminality, but such offences as an occasional drunken bout. The inclination in these cases must surely be towards tolerance; for it must always be remembered that basically ours was only a temporary force of temporary soldiers, with only one object, to beat the enemy as quickly as possible.
The really bad offender, the true criminal, never redeems his criminality by good service in the field. The problem he creates is a different one: that it is quite possible for a man of that type to make such a nuisance of himself that he never sees any fighting, spends the whole war either on the run, or awaiting trial, or in gaol, and causes all concerned infinite trouble, even if it is only in collecting the evidence and going through the procedure of a court martial. Early in 1940 the GOC suggested that we should have some sort of a purge and send ‘bad hats’ back to New Zealand; but this was resisted by COs at the time, who pointed out that it would be setting a premium on bad behaviour. Probably the answer is that the army must accept a proportion of criminals and keep on page 220 punishing them; but it must be stated that from early 1942 onwards we did start sending back to New Zealand those men who were never out of detention barracks. It is debatable if we were right in doing so.
Indiscipline was evenly spread throughout the force with one exception. It is regrettable to have to say that the Maoris figured in an over-proportion of bad offences. It appeared that if a Maori kicked over the traces, he made a good job of it while he was about it.
In Italy we had trouble with black-market activities, as has already been mentioned. Such things as army blankets or boots or rations brought high prices among the civilian population, prices which were fantastic when compared with the value set on them in the army vocabulary of stores. In the general relaxation of moral standards in the war, men saw nothing wrong in selling stores to civilians, especially items of their personal gear, for when charged with being deficient they had only to plead that the articles had been lost, and then proffer the army price. The offence became increasingly prevalent after the end of the war, when men saw masses of stores that were no longer required for war purposes lying round in dumps all over the country, and could not resist the temptation to make easy money from what they did not regard as theft. It was useless to put guards on the dumps, for they became involved in the racket. It is almost tragic to have to say that the only reliable guards in the closing stages, either in Italy or Egypt, were German prisoners of war.
At one point during the war a belief went round the troops that all monetary punishments – fines or stoppages – would be refunded after the war, so that it did not matter if such a punishment were inflicted. Apparently some small measure of action of this kind had been taken after the First World War. We asked the views of Army Headquarters and were told that such action was most unlikely after this war, for men were serving in all three services, with a resulting increase in complications. The belief died down after a while, and no such action has of course been taken.
In Chapter 17 it will be suggested that we had altogether too many orders during the war, and that a great many were unenforceable. Order after order ended with the words, ‘failure to comply with this order will lead to severe disciplinary action’, or words to that effect; but it would have been an utter impossibility to take any sort of disciplinary action, severe or otherwise, in all the myriad cases of violations that did occur. So no action was taken, and order after order joined the ever-growing collection of unenforceables, and added one more stone to the edifice of disregard for orders. Constant threats which are never put into effect lead to page 221 troops treating all orders as just so many words. It may well lead to another example of the old cry of ‘Wolf!’; for among all the chaff of unnecessary orders there is bound to be one that really matters, but which shares the same fate as the others and is ignored. It requires great care, and much restraint, before making threats in an order.