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Problems of 2 NZEF



So much for the ‘Crimes’. It is now the turn of the ‘Follies’. Of all the various aspects of human relations with which HQ 2 NZEF had to deal, marriages were the most troublesome. A military headquarters is not the place best fitted to compete with this task, and even the best of staff officers is likely to be a bit heavy-handed when dealing with it. The average citizen does not realise the kind of task with which the headquarters of an expeditionary force has to deal, particularly when operating in a foreign land. Soldiers are trained in military tactics and administration; but it is unlikely that they have been trained to decide on the suitability or otherwise of a proposed bride, or to compete with that lack of reason that assails a man in love. The whole marriage problem, whether between members of the force, or between a member of our force and a member of another force, or between a member of the force and a civilian, was an unending trial.

It is a fair question to ask what the marriage of a member of 2 NZEF had to do with Headquarters, and if we were not making heavy weather of it. Surely, it may be said, a man or woman should be allowed to marry whom and when they like, just as in peacetime. An attitude of general approval would be easy for all concerned, and could be defended. Had the Expeditionary Force been operating in the United Kingdom or entirely in a western European country, it is more than likely that this is the attitude that would have been adopted, subject always to the needs of proper registration. On the question of approval, more will be said shortly; but even if ‘general approval’ had been the method followed, Headquarters would still have been dragged in, for other little difficulties cropped up beyond the power of the individual to solve. Registration, release from service of the partner, repatriation—all these brought work to Headquarters, as will be seen below.

First, the question of approval to marriages. Throughout the war the whole or part of the force was living in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the midst of a population largely oriental, or at best included in that comprehensive but indefinite term ‘Levantine’, meaning the semi-Europeanised inhabitants of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. The population ran to extremes of wealth, beginning at the bottom with an illiterate, wretchedly poor peasantry, and ending at the top with an ostentatiously wealthy page 224 layer, living lives of a type that died out in Great Britain in the eighteenth century. A large part of the educated population had a layer of European culture, but was accustomed to life in the enervating atmosphere of the Eastern Mediterranean, where servants are plentiful and cheap and no wife has to do any housework. The ‘Family’ played a part which is strange to British eyes, forming a closely-knit clan, where matters of personal relations were freely discussed, where the approval of the head of the family and of the members, too, had to be given to any proposed marriage by a member of the clan, where the daughters of the house still lived under strict parental or family control, and where the wife was still the obedient servant of her husband. The form of life was altogether different from ours in New Zealand, different not merely in a few details, but basically.

There was, moreover, the question of colour; for while the educated inhabitants of the Levant are not truly ‘coloured people’, it is a fact that most have complexions much darker than the Western European.

It was unfortunate that despite these difficulties and drawbacks the young ladies of the Levant have great charm—doubly so to the young man far removed from his own people.

At an early stage we raised with Army Headquarters the desirability of ‘mixed’ marriages, as we thought that having brought men to an area where they were thrown among people whose mode of life was so different from that in New Zealand, and where separation from their own womenkind made them all the more susceptible to the attractions of local girls, it behoved us to try to stop them taking hasty action which they might regret later on.

The question was considered to be of sufficient importance to merit the attention of the Government – and its attitude was clear. No marriages were to be allowed without the approval of the GOC, and no marriages with non-Europeans were to be allowed at all. It may be said now that this decision was reaffirmed on more than one occasion, and that particular importance was paid to the prevention of marriages with such races as Armenians or Syrians.

It was thus most unfortunate that when the Prime Minister visited us in 1941, he gave permission to one man (who had approached him direct) to marry an Egyptian. The man's application, for obvious reasons, had already been refused by Headquarters in accordance with the Government's direction. The case became known and, for some time thereafter, made the position of Headquarters difficult. The marriage in question was not a success.

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In Italy the position was easier. There were not the same objections to marriages with Italians as there were to marriages with Levantines. All that could be said was that perhaps it was a pity.

In theory, therefore, no marriage should have taken place without the approval of the GOC, given through HQ 2 NZEF; but here it must be said that legally we had no power to stop a man marrying whom he pleased. Provided a man could find a clergyman or priest or civil authority to perform the ceremony, he could go ahead, and our veto was just so many words. This was especially the case in Italy, where no ban of ours would stop the Roman Catholic Church giving its blessing to the desire of two people with no impediment to enter on the sacrament of marriage.

Where our ban was of some effect was in the subsequent registration of the marriage, which was necessary to give it full legal force. In the Middle East the registration authority for all British forces – using the word British in its widest sense – was the Headquarters of the British Troops in Egypt, which stood in the place of the official registrar of marriages in any British country. Before the registration could be effective, the approval had to be obtained of the man's commanding officer and of the formation headquarters under which he was serving. We thus had power to block the registration of what we considered an unsuitable marriage, pointless though this might be; for we had no power to prevent a man going on with a religious ceremony that normally would have been binding and was so viewed by the participants. In Italy, moreover, after an initial period of doubt, it was ruled that civilian registrations would be accepted by the military authorities, as Italy had a satisfactory civilian system – and so our last chance had gone!

But we could make a nuisance of ourselves. We could delay giving approval in doubtful cases. It was ruled also that if a man married without permission he would get no dependants' allowances, and none of the post-war benefits of a married man – would not be entitled, for instance, to a passage to New Zealand for his wife. Naturally, the approval of the Government had been obtained before these rulings were promulgated; and in fact the direction not to pay allowances was initiated by the Government. It must be stated, however, that it appeared to us to be of doubtful legality, and needed some further legal action to make it effective. The Pay Regulations merely said that certain allowances might be paid to the dependants of a married man, and said nothing about obtaining approval to a marriage; but there was a comprehensive power given to the Minister to refuse to grant the allowance, and it was presumably on this that the direction was based.

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Actually the number of cases of true unofficial marriages was few; but we adhered to the ruling that no allowances would be paid, and for the purposes of a deterrent to others were firm in not granting any special privileges. Otherwise we made things as difficult as possible for men before the marriage ceremony in cases where the proposed bride was thought unsuitable; but if the man was insistent despite rebuffs, we had in the end to agree. It should be said here that the expected arrival of a child was not taken as sufficient justification for approving a marriage which was thought to be undesirable.

In the end our opinion was that the most one can do is to obstruct the course towards marriage as far as can be done legally, and then agree with the best grace possible. For one way or another the man will achieve his object if he is determined; and there are limits to the degree with which one can persist in stubborn action such as refusing marriage allowances. Ultimately the man must get the allowances, and the fact of the marriage, undesirable or otherwise, must be accepted.

In January 1944 we had our only dissension with New Zealand over marriages. A man applied to marry an Armenian and was refused permission, which refusal was confirmed when he appealed. He then went to New Zealand on furlough, enlisted some popular sympathy, and somehow or other prevailed on the Government to cable Headquarters suggesting that the case might be treated as an exception. Headquarters felt bound to maintain to the Government that the case was in no way exceptional, and that if permission were given the policy previously applied would collapse, as others would apply to Headquarters and could not be refused. Adherence to some simple rules was the only way to deal with this problem. Headquarters went on to say that the rule against marriage with Armenians had been made with the full concurrence of the Government. Our cable from Headquarters was strongly worded, and we could quite properly have been taken to task over it. The case ended when the man decided not to go on with his application (reasons unknown), which settled the affair to the relief of both Government and Headquarters.

So much for the awkward problem of mixed marriages, to which our solution was at best a rough and ready one. Marriages with members of other Commonwealth forces caused later difficulties over the question of release from service. If the New Zealand husband were repatriated to New Zealand, the non-New Zealand wife naturally wanted to go too; and similarly, if the non-New Zealand husband were repatriated to his homeland the New Zealand wife wanted to accompany him. Headquarters 2 NZEF never resisted page 227 a request for discharge from a member of the women's services in such cases; but General Headquarters was most resistant to releasing members of any of its women's services, its plea being that married women in England were liable to national service, and that the fact that a woman got married was no excuse for releasing her from her obligations, even though her husband might be serving elsewhere. The question became acute when the furlough scheme started. In the end, after an argument which reached the inter-governmental level, GHQ agreed to release women in cases where the husband was being permanently repatriated, and only then. In the circumstances we had to allow some husbands to contract out of the furlough scheme.

Marriages entirely within the force were the cause of a controversy, initiated by the first case that occurred. In the middle of 1941 one of our nurses married one of our medical officers, and the argument was whether or not she should be allowed to continue serving, or should be sent back to New Zealand. There were discussions among senior officers, and in the end we came to the conclusion that it was better that husbands and wives should not serve together. In such cases there was bound to be a strong wish that they should have as much of each other's company as possible, that if one got leave the other would want it at the same time and as a matter of right, and that many troubles, albeit minor ones, would be avoided if the wives went back. After all, they would then be in no worse position than the tens of thousands of wives who were likely to be separated from their husbands for years. We recommended to the GOC accordingly; but for once he thought that this was a problem that must be settled in New Zealand and so referred the case to the Government. There was a long delay while the Government deliberated on it in New Zealand, but its decision in the end was that married nurses should be allowed to continue serving. That ruling, extended to cover all women's services, held for the rest of the war.

Looking back after this length of time, it must be admitted that our reasons do not appear compelling, although they seemed so at the time. The DMS, whose department was the most affected, was later of the opinion that while there had been cases of minor troubles over leave, etc., the efficiency of the Medical Corps as a whole had not been weakened. The chances are that in any future war many more women will be serving overseas. This could lead one to the conclusion that it is more important than ever that wives should be removed from the force; but on the other hand it may well be thought that with women now a normal part of the army, marriages should be accepted as part of the price paid for having page 228 them. No answer is given here; but a firm answer should be given if ever the need arises again.

There was a kind of ironic humour in the situation that saddled Headquarters with the task of collecting all the non-service wives at the end of the war. We had to set up an elaborate organisation as a wife-finding agency in the Eastern Mediterranean and Italy, and then had to arrange to get them down to the port of embarkation and aboard the transport. Sometimes they took a lot of finding. Often we had great trouble with ‘The Family’, which in Italy as well as in the Levant seemed to have a hold over the wife even after she was married. The British idea that a wife becomes one with her husband, and that the husband is the next-of-kin, seemed to have no influence over excited Italians, where ‘Mamma’ was still the ruling authority; and here were poor staff officers having to conduct arguments that more properly should have been ones for the husbands. The latter were never any help, and in any case the majority had already sailed for New Zealand, leaving their wives to be sent on later. The Italian civil authorities required convincing proof of the marriage before we were allowed to remove the wife from ‘the family’. Even when the wives were on board the transports, we had storms because we had to put all the wives together in one part of the ship, and the wife of an officer would be in the same cabin as the wife of an ‘other rank’. All very amusing today, but not much fun at the time.