Soldiers' voices before, during, and after battle

This hook provides diary entries and letters of soldiers at different stages of their involvement in the war: before and during battle, when wounded, when seeing the dead, in recreation, and when returning to New Zealand. It explores a range of soldiers’ experiences and what might have been their consequent emotions.

Before battle

So, again, goodbye to all at home, to all my relations who live there, and whom I did not see before leaving. Only if luck guides my steps shall I return. For the order has come that we are to move to the forefront of battle, to enter the scorching flame of the firing line. We Maoris are now off to strike – to finish what we came here for. … Your letter of love has come to me. I am well; my only grief is I hear nothing but the English voice. It is so; therefore, I must not grieve. I now feel my spirit, my soul, my whole body are not mine now. Never mind.

Private Huirua Rewha, of Ngāpuhi, in a letter to his parents at Rāwhiti, Bay of Islands. Source: The Maoris in the Great War by James Cowan (Auckland: Maori Regimental Committee, 1926).

During battle

…the moment we appeared over the ridge every gun was on us … and we had a good 200 yards to go over very heavy broken ground… A dozen men emerged from the smoke, reeling, staggering and collapsing in every direction. More than half the platoon was lost in that moment.”

16 September 1916 Armentières and the Somme by Cecil Malthus (Wellington: Reed Publishing, 2002), page 113

Wounded

… the doctor removed the bandages and felt my arm. It was swollen beyond belief. “Listen son,” he said, “I’ve been operating all afternoon and I’m sick with the ether. Do you think you could let me remove this thing without going to the theatre?” “Go ahead,” I said. After much probing, the doctor finally removed two-and-a-half ounces of steel shell, a piece of khaki, a rag of shirt, a tatter of singlet, and a flood of pus. It was all over.

The Twilight Hour by William Taylor (Morrinsville: Sutherland, 1978), page 71

Seeing the dead

We mounted over a plateau and down through gullies filled with thyme, where there lay about 4000 Turkish dead. It was indescribable. One was grateful for the rain and the grey sky. A Turkish Red Crescent man came and gave me some antiseptic wool with scent on it …. I talked to the Turks, one of whom pointed to the graves. “That’s politics,” he said. Then he pointed to the dead bodies and said, “That’s diplomacy. God pity all us poor soldiers.”

Captain Aubrey Herbert, “Truce for Burying the Dead”, ANZAC, May 1915, sourced from Gallipoli by Les Carlyon (Picador Australia, 2001). bit.ly/1CZbZ7m

Recreation

On nights that we could sleep here (on top of the Cheops Pyramid) we would hold racing competitions. The first three to reach the top got to sleep on the very top square pad. There’s such a grand view from the top so at night we would try to be up there before the sun went down so that we could watch it settle over the tops of the other pyramids. A sort of breathtaking, spiritual experience really.

The Autobiography of My Grandfather Tupu, transcribed by Steven Johnson (S. Johnson, c. 1994), page 308.

Returning to New Zealand

Colonel Evans was more to the point. “Remember,” he said. “When you go ashore you are not heroes. The heroes lie in France.”

The Twilight Hour by William Taylor (Morrinsville: Sutherland, 1978), page 108.

 

Context

As one reads soldiers’ accounts before, during, and after the war, in letters and diary entries, they seem to reflect the wide range of emotions that the men must have felt. Often quite different emotions appear to have been felt at the same time: for example, leaving home there might be sadness and excitement. Propaganda meant that soldiers heading off to war were often enthusiastic and eager to embark to do their duty. This enthusiasm quickly waned as soldiers experienced the realities of war.

Later, many soldiers found settling back into life in New Zealand difficult, with many suffering from shell shock or injuries.
Letters home were often highly censored, both by the soldiers themselves as a way of protecting friends and family from the harsh realities of war, and by official censors to prevent information falling into the wrong hands.

Possible discussion questions

  • How might soldiers’ emotions change over the war? How would different events affect their emotions?
  • How might a letter home contrast with a diary entry of the same event? Which one would reflect the soldier’s voice more accurately?
  • How did letters home convey the realities of war? How did letters home differ for various recipients, for example, a letter to parents compared to a letter to friends?
  • Whose voices and stories dominated the public arena before, during, and immediately after the war? Whose stories dominate lives now?
  • After the war, how were narratives about the war different from those made public during the war? How did the voices of different groups impact this change?
  • Why might people be reluctant to share negative experiences? What might be the advantages and disadvantages of doing so?
  • What relevance do the experiences of those living during the First World War have for us today?
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