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The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front, 1914-1919

Chapter IX Of the Domesticities of Anzac

page 80

Chapter IX Of the Domesticities of Anzac

Whilst seated at ease in my dugout,
Weary and ill at ease, I saw a gunner carefully
Scanning his sunburnt knees. I asked why he was searching
And what he was looking for But his only reply was a long drawn sigh,
As he quietly killed one more.

Whenever possible, whether in the line or out of it, a man paired off with a mate and established a "bivvy." This was a structure of a very primitive sort. With pick and shovel a cut was made in a slope that gave protection from the bullets of the snipers, and if possible from the bursts of shrapnel. A couple of salvaged oil sheets pinned across with salvaged bayonets made a roof that would keep out the dew at night and the sun glare by day. Furnishings consisted of commandeered sandbags or old overcoats for softening the hardness of the baked floor, a cut down petrol tin for a "bath" and a whole one for storing water. As soon as the work was finished the flies and the lice—the permanent residents—took up their abode, while the casual boarders such as centipedes and soldiers strayed in from time page 81to time as opportunity offered. All round the bivvy areas the dwarfed, prickly scrub was trodden down by the continual passing and repassing of men, until all the slopes came to have that peculiar chequered appearance so characteristic of Anzac.

Day by day the sun grew hotter and hotter until it burned down scorchingly hot. There was scarcely any shade. The bivvies themselves were swelteringly hot. The ground was almost red hot. There was little stirring of air beneath the great cliffs. Men soon commenced to shed their clothing. Slacks were ripped off at the knees and the vogue of shorts commenced. Coats were flung off and then shirts. The "Tommy hats" in which the New Zealanders had landed were soon thrown away and replaced by Australian felts, pith helmets or the New Zealand issue of unfortunate members of the reinforcement drafts. The caps were never again worn throughout the whole war. As men felt more and more strongly the growing sense of separate nationality, as they became increasingly proud of the New Zealand name, the felt hat dinted to a point or creased, with its distinctive touch of colour in the pugaree, became more and more a prized symbol of what men felt very deeply, although it was seldom articulately expressed. Within six weeks of the landing the fashionable costume had become boots, shorts, identity disk, hat and when circumstances permitted a cheerful smile. The whole was topped off by a most glorious coat of sunburn.

The shedding of superfluous clothing was due not only to the heat but also to the fact that a man's page 82clothes were no longer his own undisputed possession. The average New Zealander's acquaintance with "lice" had been a grammatical one pure and simple.

"What is the plural of 'louse,' Willie?" asked some fresh young miss of her best pupil. "Lice," came the prompt reply and on both sides there was utter lack of comprehension of what they were so glibly talking about.

When Willie first realized that he was lousy he tore his shirt off and flung it from him with a sort of shuddering horror. Nothing would ever have induced him to put it on again if it had not been that it was his only one—and the nights were chilly. And so for perhaps the next three years he and the lice were close companions. They were beasts of prey and of a most voracious and ferocious nature. They did not haste and they did not rest. They moved slowly, deliberately, surely. They could not jump or fly but they could crawl and they moved with a certain cold, passionless persistence in quest of blood. They throve on Keating's powder. They would not drown. They refused to die—except under great pressure—and they multiplied with amazing rapidity. One generation perished in the morning offensive, but at midday their descendants were foraging fiercely. They also died but their children were there to be massacred at the time of the "evening hate." At midnight a new generation was in readiness to carry on fighting the good fight. At any hour in any of the bivvies of Anzac, men with rapt and earnest faces could be seen with their page 83only garment across their knees searching anxiously along the seams, performing deft operations with the thumb and first finger and punctuating the process with long drawn sighs of content—"as they quietly killed one more."

The heat brought the flies in swarms. They were a very venomous lot of brutes who seemed to have descended from those who plagued the unrighteous Pharaoh. They bit like young scorpions and savagely attacked every patch of bare skin. Every meal was a pitched battle. With one hand the soldier fought back the black swarm that threatened to descend upon his jam and his biscuit, and with the other thrust the morsel hastily into his mouth—with luck beating off the advance guard of pursuers. Any scrap of food or offal was soon black with them. They swarmed from No Man's Land to the sea, from daylight to dark carrying filth and germs and making sleep in the daytime almost an' impossibility.

From the heat and the lice and the flies there was one retreat, the blue sea lapping on the pebble beach. Men scrambled eagerly down to the margin and, temporarily abandoning their garments to the majority of the inhabitants, plunged into the cool waters and splashed and swam to their heart's content. They presented fine impressionist studies in brown and black and white. One man burnt almost black from shoulder to waist, would gleam whitely from the waist to the knee, and would then again go black except for a pair of white feet. Another who sported braces would show a back striped with a St Andrew's cross; another who wore a singlet was patterned page 84after a different fashion. There are perhaps a hundred or more shouting and playing like schoolboys.

No one notices a tiny splash of white foam and then another and another. Shouts of warning from the shore and many commence to wade in. "Splash! Splash! Splash!" One of the swimmers goes down for a moment and comes up with his arm streaming blood. A mate helps him in and clothed in his identity disk he is rushed up to the Field Ambulance Dressing Station. The sea is empty now and just as well for scarcely has the last man picked his way across the pebbles than there is a quick "whizz-bang" and a space of blue water is splashed with white points where the shrapnel pellets have struck. Bathing is off for the next half-hour but then goes merrily on until another burst smashes a man's leg.

A corporal in Berkeley's The Lady With a Lamp remarks: "Bless my soul, mum—if you takes the British War Orfice serious you'll precious soon die of a broken 'eart and a sick 'eadache, you will." The men at Anzac had unfortunately to take the commissariat authorities very seriously and as a result died of dysentery and enteric. Looking back eighteen years afterward the whole question of the food supplies at Anzac seems even more appalling than it did at the time. There was never any lack of food but it was of entirely the wrong sort.

Immense quantities of bully beef, fat bacon and cheese were run ashore. These were of good quality, but after the first two weeks of tropical weather they became practically uneatable. The insanitary conditions and the swarms of flies made the outbreak and the spread of disease inevitable. The wholly un-page 85suitable food greatly aggravated the evil and made recovery from attacks of diarrhoea and dysentery almost impossible unless men were evacuated to hospital. The cheese was utterly useless, the bacon was in some demand as fuel and for rendering down to make slush lights, while the bully beef was used sometimes to strengthen a parapet but more commonly to make shrapnel proof residences for the A.S.C. down on the beach.

Later in the campaign meagre supplies of fresh meat, bread, vegetables, eggs and a very little tinned milk commenced to come on shore but never in anything like sufficient quantity. Why there was this stint it is hard to say. There were boats enough lying idle at Alexandria or even at Mudros. There were thousands of sailors practically idle on board the now useless battleships. England was not three weeks away and in any case systematic foraging along the Greek and Italian coasts would have produced quantities of food at reasonable rates. Did the great meat and bacon and rum manufacturing concerns have too much say at headquarters? Or was it just plain stupidity? Probably the latter. One shudders to think what must have taken place in some of the small wars of the nineteenth century. After the rationing at Anzac one commences to comprehend Florence Nightingale's difficulties with redtape officialdom that was continually harking back to what was or was not done at Waterloo or Malplaquet.

Scorching heat, swarms of venomous flies, hosts of never-resting lice, thirst, the pervading stench of the unburied dead, and then a new experience— page 86the frightful monotony of war. A dangerous life is not necessarily an exciting one. A man is not the less bored at living in a clay ditch six feet wide and eight feet deep for a week on end without being able to move more than fifty yards to the right or left, because at some unknown moment a shell may blow him to smithereens. In war danger is part of the very atmosphere. Beyond a certain point it could not be guarded against. Snipers were always busy—shrapnel burst everywhere. These dangers could not be avoided. They were exceedingly annoying—sometimes even terrifying—but as a general rule not exciting. After the fierce rush of the Landing battles, a daily routine was established. Soon nothing was new; nothing was interesting; nothing was profitable. The bully beef was always salt and stringy; the biscuits were like armour plate bruising, rasping and scraping along the tender gums, smashing gold crowns and splintering plates. Nothing mattered. One thing was just as bad as another and nothing could be worse than some of the things that had gone before. This strain and weariness reacted upon the mental tone. The bad food, the tropical heat, the flies, the smell, wore down the physical condition. Then came the spectre of disease. In June scores of men were going down with diarrhoea, dysentery and enteric; in July they were being evacuated in hundreds.

But if it was hell to be an infantry man at Anzac —heaven was near and visible where two miles out to sea lay a great white ship with yellow funnel, green band and great red crosses.