Monday, August 25, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“GREECE CRETE STALAG DACHAU – A New Zealand Soldier’s Encounters with Hitler’s Army” by Jack Elworthy (Awa Press, $40); “TO FIGHT ALONGSIDE FRIENDS – The First World War Diaries of Charlie May” Edited by Gerry Harrison (Harper-Collins, $36:99)
I am both pleased and enlightened to read a straightforward first-person narrative by a soldier, who gives an unvarnished and far from glamourized account of his experiences in the Second World War. Jack Elworthy wrote a rough version of what is now called Greece Crete Stalag Dachau some years before his death in 1999. Parts of his narrative were broadcast on Radio New Zealand, but only now has his daughter Jo Elworthy managed to edit her father’s writings into a publishable book.
Jack Elworthy’s war career is quite easily summarised, and fairly signalled by that title Greece Crete Stalag Dachau.
Elworthy was a professional soldier in New Zealand’s small army in the 1930s. When war broke out in 1939 he was sent overseas as a warrant officer. In early 1941, Elworthy was part of the British, Australian and New Zealand force sent to prop up Greece ahead of a possible German invasion. The Germans duly invaded. The Allied force went into full retreat. Most managed to be evacuated to the island of Crete. Again the Germans invaded. Again the Allies retreated. Only a minority were able to get away to Egypt. Elworthy was captured and spent nearly four years surviving various German POW camps, first on Crete then (after arduous forced marches and journeys in box-cars) in Germany. When he was liberated by the Americans in 1945, his professional pride made him want to contribute to the final Allied victory before he was returned home to New Zealand. He managed to talk an American officer into allowing him to join the American “Thunderbird” division, and for the last few months of the war he was, in effect, a uniformed American soldier. It was his American division which liberated Dachau concentration camp. Elworthy had some postwar adventures in Europe, and had to negotiate repatriation committees, before he finally made it back to New Zealand in 1947, seven years after he had last seen his wife and young son. He speaks of the extreme dificulties of readjusting to domestic life in New Zealand. He retired from the army in 1956.
That is a crude summary of a book which is never cluttered with superfluous detail.
Some of the things Elworthy records came as great surprises to me. It had never before occurred to me that when British and Commonwealth troops were sent from England to fight in Egypt, Greece or Crete, they had first of all to sail on troopships all the way around the continent of Africa, reaching Egypt via the Red Sea. Now it seems so obvious – they were avoiding U-Boats and the like in the Mediterranean. I was also amazed to learn that when the Allied forces first landed in Athens, Germany was not yet at war with Greece, a German consulate flying the swastika flag was still operating there, and German consulate staff freely strolled up and down the quays making notes on the equipment, size and strength of the disembarking Allied forces – all of which information was doubtless later of great help to the Nazi forces when they invaded.
Those were two pieces of factual information that struck me, but more than anything, the attitudes and personal observations of the author make this book worthwhile. As a New Zealander who had never been overseas before the war, Elworthy was both surprised and shocked at the class-bound and hierarchical nature of English society when he went through advanced training in England. As a typical anecdote, he notes:
“Every so often we would be reminded how different England was from New Zealand. There was a street in Charing, about 200 yards long, running up a hill and serving a lot of new houses. It was signposted as a private road and the people living there had placed a sign at the entrance saying ‘Tradesmen’s vehicles are NOT permitted in this street’. The butcher, baker, milkman and coalman had to park their vans and carry everything up the hill to the houses. Although a German invasion was a real possibility, the people from this street petitioned the War Office and demanded that all troops around Charing stay clear of the vicinity as the noise of the vehicles passing by disturbed them. In one incident one of my drivers who was towing a truck was approached by a resident, who pointed out that he was encroaching on a private road. The resident took extreme exception to the number of times my driver called him a ‘so-and-so bastard’ in the ensuing conversation. He assured us that he had never before in his life been addressed in such a manner and we would hear from his solicitors. We never did, of course, but we felt if this was England it was a pity we hadn’t known before we came over to fight and defend it.” (p.23)
These are not the words of a larrikin soldier with no respect for order or rank, but of an egalitarian Kiwi. Elworthy was a very responsible soldier and knew how necessary rank and order were in warfare. For this very reason, you can sense his rage at the total disorganised messes that the retreat through Greece and (even more) the retreat across the Cretan mountains became. Soldiers panicked. Soldiers threw away necessary kit when they still had a fighting chance. On Crete, says Elworthy, “As I walked I picked up bits of kit that had been thrown away; soon I had collected all the clothing I needed to replace what I had lost or had thrown away when we were evacuating from Greece.” (p.69)
He is shocked at officers who don’t do their duty or desert their men, soldiers who rapidly turn to looting and theft, men who steal the identity of others in order to be first on the evacuation boats, and so on. Always, there is the anger of the professional at the shambles being made by men who should have known better. He does not dwell on it, but it is clear that he would like to say harsh words about Freyberg and his senior staff who flew off as soon as the Allied surrender on Crete was announced, and thus left the bulk of their men to the Germans.
Elworthy judges the Germans by their soldiership. Once captured, he is surprised at how well he and fellow prisoners are treated by German front-line troops. But the horrors begin once they are in the hands of camp-guards and others in Germany whom Elworthy sees as, at best, second-rate soldiers not fit for combat duty and therefore taking out their aggression and frustration on prisoners. As for the prisoners – they are not a band of brothers loyal to one another. Even allowing for the stool pigeons and spies among them, there are criminal gangs of prisoners who make it their business to intimidate other prisoners, steal their rations, get the lighter work duties and so on.
In both the retreat sections (I won’t call them combat sections – Elworthy never had the chance to shoot at enemy soldiers) and the prison sections, the chief impression made is one of squalor. This is a war of forced marches, exhaustion, low rations, hunger, disease, lice – and the annoyance of a professional soldier who is prevented by circumstances from doing his job properly. Much that appears in this book would not have been acceptable to wartime censors, at a time when a more heroic interpretation of the war was necessary for purposes of public morale.
Elworthy is both alert to, and duly outraged by, violations of the Geneva Convention. But he is apparently not too upset that his American comrades, on liberating Dachau, lined up a number of the SS guards and shot them out of hand. In the circumstances his attitude is understandable.
This paperback is a very good piece of book production from Awa Press. The book’sthree generous sections of photographs have the advantage (not always found in photographic sections) of presenting only images that are relevant to the tone and matter of the author’s narrative. The first image is of young Jack Elworthy with his wife and baby son. The last is of old Jack Elworthy on the day of his retirement in the 1950s. In between, probably the most endearing image is one of Elworthy, in the last months of the war, standing in American uniform at the right end of a line-up of his American buddies. It’s funny how he manages to look both one of them and out of place at the same time.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
These are the diaries of a British officer in the First World War. Charlie May was born in Dunedin in New Zealand, but having lived in England for some time, he joined an English “Pals” battalion. “Pals” battalions were one means of making volunteering more attractive as England built up its “New” Army to add to its very small professional army. Friends from a certain locality were allowed to volunteer together and serve in the same units – hence the book’s title To Fight Alongside Friends. The downside (not dealt with in this book) is that if “Pals” units were hit hard in battle, a specific locality back in Blighty could find itself deprived of most of its young manhood. Charlie May was a captain in the 22nd Manchester Service battalion.
Front line officers were forbidden, by King’s Regulations, to keep diaries for the obvious reason that, if they were captured or killed, such diaries could fall into the hands of the enemy and be gleaned for military information. Charlie May, however, ignored regulations. He had spent some time as a journalist before enlisting and had a compulsion to write and record things. He kept his diary in seven small notebooks which survived his death and were sent back to his family.
The first entry is in November 1915 before he had embarked for France. The last is early on the morning of 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. This day has become iconic as the day when the British Army suffered more casualties (dead or wounded) than on any other day in its history. Among common soldiers, with a less fastidious vocabulary than Charlie May, it became known as “the big f**k-up”. Charlie May was killed on that day. In his last entry, before going over the top, he writes in a spirit of exultation, as if he is about to be part of a great military achievement.
Of course there is a cruel irony in this ending and, for this reader at least, there is unintended irony throughout the book. May’s attitudes are, by and large, conventionally patriotic ones, very much in tune with the times. He hates the enemy and sees Germany as being entirely responsible for the war, writing on 13 January 1916: “Curse the Kaiser, say I, and all similar tyrants who bring war and misery and devastation upon the world?” (p.69). He is mildly amused by those near the front, such as the padre, who do not have a military spirit and who are not like the common soldiery. “Parson Wood came in to tea,” he writes on 13 April 1916, “He is a somewhat dolorous person but means well, works harder and is I fully believe a most Christian man. He thinks us a sad lot of rogues and I have no doubt is justified according to his lights.” (p.153)
When he looks in the face of horror, he still sees it in the light of enemy barbarity and the gallantry of his fellow English soldiers. Consider his vocabulary in the following entry, from 3 June 1916. May has just returned to the front line from leave, and sees the bodies of dead comrades hanging over German barbed wire on the other side of No Man’s Land. The German is a very devil, whereas the dead English soldiers have made the “Supreme Sacrifice”. The entry reads thus:
“We are in the line again, but it is a sad incoming. Poor Street, Cansino and one other unidentified can be plainly seen tangled in a heap among the German wire, right under their parapet. A Boche sentry is mounted over them and keeps popping his head up every now and then to have a look at them. I saw him first through the telescope and the sudden apparition of his great face caused me to think him a fiend of hell gloating over his victims. The poor fellows are quite dead. It is evident now that Cansino, hearing Street was in difficulties, went to help him and was killed in the attempt. It is one more case of the Supreme Sacrifice. The boy did well.” (p.190)
Where is the irony in this? Simply in subsequent history, which has made Charlie May’s sincere convictions and worldview seem woefully antique. We simply cannot look at war now as he did.
I do not think that To Fight Alongside Friends is a book to give startling new insights into the First World War, nor even to give us a vivid sense of what happened to one soldier. But as the expression of attitudes that once powered millions of men, it is an interesting historical document.