Monday, February 23, 2015

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“ANNIE”S WAR – A New Zealand Woman and her Family in England 1916-19” edited by Susanna Montgomerie Norris with Anna Rogers   (Otago University press, $NZ45)

Does anybody still remember the quaint fad from the earlier twentieth century of burying time capsules? In a (supposedly) hermetically sealed container, various items from the present would be buried in the foundations of a new and important building. The idea was that hundreds of years hence, archaeologists would unearth the said capsule, open it and be delighted to find a snapshot of the age in which it was buried, where fads, crazes and trivia were mixed with more important things.
In reading these selections from the wartime diaries of Annie Montgomerie, I feel I am opening a time capsule. Annie was neither a great intellect nor a particularly perceptive person. Many of the opinions she expressed were the commonplaces (or prejudices) of her class and time. Yet it is still fascinating to read what she wrote, as it tells us so much about that time.
Let’s put her into context.
Susanna Montgomerie Norris is the granddaughter of Annie Montgomerie. With the help of the professional editor Anna Rogers, she has brought long sections of her grandmother’s diary to publication. Military historian Glyn Harper provides a brief forward, linking the diary to the war whose centenary we are still commemorating. There are helpful marginal notes throughout explaining topical references, and two selections of photographs. But the text’s the thing.
In 1916, in the third year of the First World War, Annie Montgomerie (aged 49) travelled from New Zealand to England on the Remuera, with her husband Roger (aged 50), their two sons Oswald (20) and Seton (18) and their two daughters Winifred (22) and Alexandra (14). The plan was for Oswald and Seton to enlist for war service, and for their father Roger to find some work related to the war effort.
In the event Seton joined the new RFC (Royal Flying Corps) and saw service on the Western Front while Oswald went off to the Middle East in another branch of the imperial forces. Winifred found work as a nurse, Alexandra was still at school, and Annie’s husband went through a number of positions including work in forestry. The Montgomeries stayed in England until the war was over. Throughout that time Annie, who socialised, shopped and vented her opinions, kept her diary. The first entry in this 240-odd page selection is dated 23 June 1916 and was written as the Remuera left Wellington. The last entry is dated Christmas Day 1919, written as the Ruahine pulled back into Auckland harbour and the Montgomeries resumed their lives as New Zealanders rather than as “colonials” living in England. They had stayed in England for a year after the war ended, and a few letters from Annie’s husband suggest that there were tensions over money and difficulties in arranging their return to New Zealand.
The Montgomeries were clearly an upper-middle-class family. Roger was related to a former Governor of New Zealand. In England, Annie was glad to receive invitations to receptions at the Foreign Office or at other government ministries and she claimed aristocratic connections. In her entry for 22 January 1918 she refers to Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionists, as “my friend”. There are references to visiting titled hosts. The Montgomeries were the sort of family who looked up the Tatler to keep up with the news of their society friends.
The daughters are mentioned only sparingly in what we are given of Annie’s diaries, and the older son Oswald is hardly noticed. But the younger son Seton is always on his mother’s protective mind. Seton emerges as the second most important “character” in this diary with his frequent letters to his mother. A macabre one dated 15 March 1917 has him describing the experience of training in a “gas chamber” where the effectiveness of soldiers’ gas helmets is tested. He details his apprenticeship as a pilot in the RFC and his first solo landing. (He crashes into a hedge, of course!)
When one reads some of Seton’s letters from the front, one wonders how much he was presenting a stiff-upper-lip image so that his mother would not be too worried for him. For example on 10 January 1918 he writes nonchalantly: “My personal contribution to the National Day of Prayer was a successful shoot on a Hun battery. At the time Jim was watching the crowd at St Paul’s I was being chased around the heavens by Archie [anti-aircraft fire], and at the same time doing my best – through the battery – to blow a few Huns and their guns out of position. Archie does not worry one all the time; he looks you up when he has nothing better on, and that is usually once an hour with luck.”
Seton gets involved in, but survives, a ferocious dogfight with enemy planes on 11 March 1918. Regrettably, we do not hear about this in Seton’s own words, but only in a summary provided by the editors. Seton finally gets a “Blighty one” (wound that enables him to be invalided back to England) and tries to step back from front-line service and get qualified as a flight instructor. Of course his mother (who at such moments reveals herself to be something of a dragon) believes the examiners who do not immediately accept him in this capacity must be “meddlers”.
So we hear a lot about Seton, who was apparently his mother’s darling.
But it is Annie herself who dominates this selection. Of course she enjoys the attractions of London, taking her daughters and her sons (when they are on leave) to meals at Whitely’s and the Lord Mayor’s Show and on shopping expeditions and to the theatre to see Chu Chin Chow and Gerald du Maurier and H.B.Irving and Gladys Cooper and George Robey as well as being impressed by D.W.Griffith’s film Intoleranc and laughing at Charlie Chaplin’s film Shoulder Arms. She gets angry at the sight of prostitutes openly plying their trade in Piccadilly. She has harsh things to say about the English. But on 7 February 1917, she is delighted to get a good position to see a royal procession, including “Queen Mary’s smile and all”. She goes to War Loan demonstrations like the one on 15 February 1917 in Trafalgar Square (where “our Mr Massey spoke a few words, or rather roared them, but he isn’t an inspired orator.”) She is a mother, a tourist, a socialiser and a staunch supporter of the British Empire.
Dire news does come from the front (the Montgomeries arrived in England when the Battle of Somme was being fought). Dangerous things happen in London too. On 3 September 1916, the family experience their first Zeppelin raid: “Roger and the girls saw one Zep focused in a searchlight and later on all saw it blaze up and fall to Earth. And we couldn’t feel sorry for them either. To look out of one’s window on the sleeping city and see those fiends up there dealing out cruel death to helpless men, women and children dries up one’s human feeling.” There are many similar passages in which Annie shakes her fist angrily at the horrible Hun in the sky. Later, Zeppelins are replaced by the more efficient long-range German Gotha bombers and there are so many raids that we are reminded how much Londoners experienced the latter years of the First World War as a foretaste of the Blitz in 1940, even if the First World War raids were on a smaller scale.
I must make it clear that if I were in a mocking mood, I could have great fun deconstructing this diary in terms of Annie’s dated vocabulary and attitudes. Passing through the Panama Canal on 14 July 1916, she writes unselfconsciously: “the darkies, men and women, were a huge interest to us and the scantily clad sometimes naked nigger children amused the family muchly.” She is fully implicated in current prejudices and fully accepting of the wildest rumours that circulated in wartime. The entries for 25-29 September 1916 reveal her participating in “spy mania” as she summons constables to investigate what she thinks are secret signals being flashed by spies. They turn out to be the lights of a lift in a nearby building. She whines about how unfairly and inequitably conscription is being organised in England when her boys are doing their bit and she writes (8 November 1916) “they [the British government] haven’t the pluck to enforce it in Ireland.” Clearly those Irish deserve a jolly good thrashing for rejecting conscription. When Annie hears of the (first) Russian Revolution, she writes on 16 March 1917 “I wish we could strike our Unseen Hand traitors as they have done theirs.” The notion of the “Unseen Hand” was a popular fantasy at the time that German agents were systematically “corrupting” powerful and influential people in England and hence sabotaging the war effort. [Ironically, when Annie refers to the “Red Revolution” on 16 November 1918, she is reacting hysterically to industrial unrest in England, not to the Bolshevik phase of the Russian revolution.] Of course she hates and loathes those Germans who still live in England. On 16 July 1917, she writes: “Went down Moscow Road to hateful German cobblers shop to try to get sprigs for Roger’s boots; can’t get them anywhere else. Managed to get three small parcels. Just hate going to that vile place and speaking to the slimy, creepy-looking creature.” It is her husband Roger who writes on 22 November 1918: “Would like to see someone slate Lord Hugh Cecil in the papers re conscientious objectors, which he rightly deserves.” Hugh Cecil was a politician who fought not to have conscientious objectors disenfranchised. Annie’s husband (and I am sure Annie herself) believed that conscientious objectors should be given no quarter.
So, in their casual obiter dicta, we have a couple who were British Empire-lovers and were as thoughtlessly racist as everybody was else one hundred years ago.
Paradoxically, though, this woman who loves British royalty and the culture of London is also often ready to show how much of a New Zealanders she is. The English are, in her view, vastly inferior physical specimens when compared with the healthier colonials who have come to their rescue in wartime. Annie Montgomerie can do her block when it comes to matters touching New Zealand servicemen. As she interprets it, the whole failed Gallipoli campaign was a matter of bungling British high command sacrificing colonials – and she does not hesitate to write negatively of an English national hero. Following in the newspapers the enquiry that was held into the campaign, she writes on 9 March 1917: “The daily papers are full of the Gallipoli Commission report. So went into smoking room after breakfast to digest them. The report only confirms what I have said from the very beginning about it: I am thankful those muddling blunderers are uncovered at last. They can’t be hung but they should certainly be prevented from ever holding a position of responsibility again, in justice to those poor boys who had to bear the brunt of their ghastly ignorance and ineptitude… After tea had a great argument in the lounge about the Gallipoli business and its muddling instigators. These English people will hold Kitchener up as a little tin god. They won’t look at his feet of clay at all. They won’t look anything in the face, that is the unpleasant fact, and they will never learn. Narrow-minded, stiff-necked, smugly self-satisfied crowd of blind idiots.”
She is often bitter at news of the death of New Zealand soldiers, like her reaction when she hears of the death of a Kiwi her daughter knew. She writes on 20 April 1917: “While in town watching crowds of ‘Tommy Atkins’ coming from Victoria Station – just made me bitter. They all, or nearly all, looked rough uncouth creatures, yet they were back safely and that splendid young life was stilled forever. And those commonplace, middle class-looking English crowds get on my nerves. They don’t look worth dying for, indeed they don’t, smug, ordinary-looking lot. To be truly British you don’t want to see too much of England and the English. They won’t face close inspection.”
In fact in 1918, and especially at the time of the last great German offensive, she is particularly scornful of the English war effort and the quality of English troops. So we have this curious paradox of a woman who is clearly an Anglophile, royalist and social snob – one who would have her sons in English rather than New Zealand regiments – nevertheless constantly speaking of the superiority of ‘colonial’ troops and even praising the Americans as more efficient and less slack than the English.
The urban dirt and sleaze of England, its slums and its brazen prostitutes, appal her. After the Armistice, on 26 December 1918, she joins the crowds going to welcome President Woodrow Wilson on his visit London. She is disgusted to see English slum dwellers: “Some truly awful people – poor, degraded, dirty, wolfish, unwholesome and perfectly horrible. It always makes my blood boil to see these slum people; it is an unthinkable crime to have such conditions.”
She is irritated by those who sought a negotiated peace with Germany. On 16 December 1917 she writes: “After breakfast sat in lounge a while and blew up a mine by telling them that Lord Landsdowne [who wanted a negotiated peace] represented a good number of the English who would face an inconclusive peace rather than give in to the fact that England couldn’t win on her own bat and had to acknowledge that America was going to save civilisation. I don’t care if they were wild. I am too sore and bitter just now to care in the least what they think. The war would be over now if England had gone to work like America is doing.” The efficiency of the United States in its swift mobilisation in 1917 is a thing that should shame the English.
I hope I have given enough evidence here to provide you with the flavour of this interesting diary. Annie Montgomerie was opinionated, but one century on, some of her opinions would either amuse or appal us. Annie was caught in the “colonial condition” of at once loving “Home” or the “Mother Country”, but still thinking her own corner of the Empire was much superior. Assessing fighting men, she is as liable to praise Australians, Canadians and Americans as New Zealanders, and she makes a remarkable number of comments on what cowardly beasts English soldiers are in battle. Doubtless she was filtering here some of the grumbles of her sons. Even so, the diary shows somebody on the cusp of ceasing to be British and becoming a New Zealander, which is essentially where the whole population of New Zealand was one hundred years ago.
I would be unfair if I didn’t note that Annie Montgomerie’s diary is as much concerned with personal, private and family matters as with the big scene and – for all her snobbery and prejudices – Annie was a loving and concerned mother. The photographs show her as she was in London, a woman in her early fifties, but already looking much older than that. As one caption suggests, this may well have been the result of the stresses she was suffering in wartime.

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