Helen Watson White
Gallipoli to the Somme: Recollections of a New Zealand infantryman by Alexander Aitken (Auckland University Press, 2018), 264 pp., $39.99; The Anzac Violin: Alexander Aitken’s story by Jennifer Beck and Robyn Belton (Scholastic, 2018), 36 pp., $27.99
For the ordinary infantryman in World War I, a period of ‘active service’ was lived in two modes: you were either engaged in fighting at close range, or you were waiting. In waiting mode you could be travelling to a battle site, the location of which was a mystery, or you had arrived, and remained mystified. This is the much-repeated scenario in Alexander Aitken’s memoir, Gallipoli to the Somme: Recollections of a New Zealand infantryman, first published in 1963 and now re-issued with an introduction, chronology, notes and commentary by Alex Calder.
Although it’s unclear why Aitken enlisted (at age twenty in 1915), young men were generally excited to be going to war in countries they had only read about or were totally ignorant of. In Aitken’s case, he had already studied Latin and French and learnt Virgil’s Aeneid by heart; countries of the eastern Mediterranean were not foreign to him but were deeply imprinted by the classical myths and history that he knew.
In his original foreword he describes drafting, in 1917, ‘a long discursive letter to no one in particular, and with no regard for literary style (which I imagined would put a false gloss on the facts)’. Yet his writing ‘from memory’, while factual, is also intensely personal. His sense of honour and honesty – those old-fashioned virtues – mean it is as near to true as he can make it.
This superbly crafted story has been through several re-visions. Aitken began, he says, by jotting down notes in London during a three-month hospitalisation in 1917, then produced a fuller draft when invalided home and an outpatient at Dunedin Hospital. In 1920, ‘memory had recovered some more details’, and in 1930, now a lecturer at Edinburgh University, he was induced (by reading Blunden’s Undertones of War and Sassoon’s memoirs) to ‘disinter my old manuscript and to rewrite it with rather more care’.
Because of that ‘care’ allied to a detailed factuality, the writer makes you feel you are right there with him, in the exciting and novel, shocking, then horror-filled experience of going to war. In September 1915, as a boat carries four platoons of Aitken’s 6th Infantry Reinforcements to join the ‘Main Body’ of the NZEF on the island of Lemnos, he describes a whirl of preparations:
We passed east of the two sentinel islets that guard the fairway, and were soon merged in an enormous fleet of vessels of every kind, close-packed for miles along both converging shores: cruisers, monitors, transports, hospital ships, trawlers, paddle-steamers, surfaced submarines, tugs, pinnaces, motor-launches, down to cockle-boats and local Aegean fishing craft …
Although Aitken seems simply to record what he saw, his manuscript is shot through with complex emotions and the hard-won wisdom of hindsight. On the day of the Lemnos landing, he continues:
It was fully dark when we descended the farther neck of the three-mile long Peninsula, guessing at an unseen inlet on the right and striking north-west across salt marsh … A cold north wind blew down the divide; for the first time on my active service I felt depression and the sense of exile in the wrong hemisphere.
Emotion does not, however, impede the progress of his story. He proceeds in his telling just as the soldiers proceeded in their march:
About 20.30 we made out a few muffled lights on a slope ahead, our apparent destination. They were marquees, candle-lit. We formed up and dismissed to quarters in them. I felt then, as everyone else must have, an obscure disquiet. Last Post had not yet sounded, it could not be as late as 21.00; yet the marquees were almost silent, voices were subdued, men could be seen through the flaps already under their blankets. There was not a trace of the animation usual in a camp … Only one man had had the curiosity to walk out a short distance and see us arrive; yet our arrival had been no surprise, for dixies of tea stood waiting for us. No-one had asked for news of New Zealand or Egypt. There was a mystery somewhere, perhaps even a disaster …
Having built up suspense alongside the uncertainty of tired men’s perceptions, he saves his resolution exactly as long as the men had had to wait for it:
In daylight the explanation was drastically simple. The casual proceedings of the night before had been that long anticipated event, the ‘joining up with the Main Body’; but this camp of a few marquees held all that was left of that Main Body … After almost five months on Gallipoli without relief, from the Landing of 25th April until the dying spasms of the August advance, never out of range of bullet or shell, tormented by flies, weakened by dysentery, these survivors had been taken off for a rest … The remainder, the large majority, had been killed or wounded, had died of sickness, or been invalided … These men, who had gone to bed so early the night before, were seen by daylight to be listless, weak, emaciated … prematurely aged. They had suffered also in nerves. The pastoral silence of the ancient island was felt to be deceptive and sinister; it was unnatural to walk abroad at large without the fear of sudden death …
At this point we are only fourteen pages in! Much worse is to come: after the return to Gallipoli with the ‘rested’ troops and reinforcements, we read of their evacuation from Anzac Cove following the great blizzard of November 1915; after a sapping journey across the Mediterranean and into France, weeks of struggle in the mud-filled trenches around Armentières; then from 1 July 1916, what is officially called the Battle of the Somme, including the Raid – and ruination – of the 4th Otagos in mid-July and, through the summer, repeated (large) battles for (small) ground until Aitken is injured on September 27.
While the waiting phase, intended as a rest, often meant time to reflect on failures, it was also the realm of humour, for the unending frightfulness of the battle experience could not be borne without relief. Aitken reports others’ humour quite readily but often cannot share in it, as on the night before the attack on Goose Alley, 25 September 1916:
All morning we were peppered by a casual but vicious fire of German 7-mm. shrapnel; we lost several men, killed and wounded. Captain Hargest came by, his usual calm disturbed; a senior field officer, reflecting on probable casualties, had remarked to him, ‘The planter will have some work to do.’ The planter! This jarred. Captain Hargest’s own brother, in the ranks, had just been killed by this shrapnel.
While joking about burying corpses was out of bounds, a more sober irony pervades the book, reinforced by Aitken’s habit of listing those present with him and – nearly exactly – the day they died, whether it was an hour, a day or a week later, or the following year. In a foreword to the 1963 edition, the then governor-general, Bernard Fergusson, draws attention to Aitken’s acute remark on ‘the gossamer thinness of the partition between life and death’ for those men. He quotes his clear-eyed (or fatalistic) conception: ‘a platoon resembles a lizard with tail severed, a crab that has lost a claw, a trisected starfish; given time, it will grow the missing part and function as before, though not indefinitely often’.
Fergusson’s foreword also highlights the importance of music to Aitken, whose friends and colleagues helped him smuggle as far as the Western Front a violin that someone had won in a shipboard raffle and given him early on. The writer himself tracks its progress, recalling each precious occasion he had the time and opportunity to play it, and bring to the senses of those present (especially himself) something of beauty, of civilisation even, a whiff of home.
In Dunedin in October 2016 we were privileged to hear Anthony Ritchie’s magnificent oratorio Gallipoli to the Somme, with a libretto based on Aitken’s 1963 memoir and other sources reflecting on war. The vastness of his topic, said the composer, ‘made it hard to know where to begin … I decided to make my work personal and specific, rather than historical and generic.’ He was helped in this by Aitken’s ‘remarkably objective and yet vivid’ writing style. Ritchie created a haunting solo violin part to open and close the work. Continuing in the foreground through all three parts, Departing, Fighting and Grieving, and through many of the sixteen items, the music of the violin was intended to embody Aitken’s spirit, wordlessly expressing the pain of wartime suffering while tying the piece’s different strands together.
Aitken’s legendary instrument is the subject of another well-told tale, The Anzac Violin: Alexander Aitken’s story, by Jennifer Beck and Robyn Belton, published in early 2018 by Scholastic in the same format as their 1996 children’s book, The Bantam and the Soldier. The many violin references in Aitken’s memoir are gathered into a picturebook that charts the journey of the 6th Reinforcements NZEF through Egypt to Gallipoli, where ‘they anchored off Anzac Cove’. Softly sketched figures of the men who ‘struggled through thorny scrub’ present an image of vulnerability to accompany the text’s hard words: ‘In the dangerous days that followed, the soldiers had to clamber under gunfire up steep slopes of crumbling clay.’
The violin is subsequently carried to the ‘battlefields of Europe’, continually needing to be hidden by Aitken (Alec) and his comrades – army cooks, an Australian stretcher-bearer, an officer and ‘some nursing sisters in a hospice a short distance from the front line’ – until Alec is badly injured at the Somme. There he seems to have been parted from it for good; but back in Dunedin, he receives it in the post, ‘restored by a famous music firm in London’ and still in its own case – on the lid of which he’d recorded the many places it (and he) had been.
The violin and case, gifted by Aitken to his old school, Otago Boys’ High School, appears in a compelling 16-page section of illustrations in Calder’s edition of the memoir, along with maps, photographs and records from various archives. Both books show examples of Aitken’s own writing and drawing, which bring the experiences closer to the personal, the immediate, if not the everyday.
The close-focus humanist qualities in The Anzac Violin, while intended to draw in children aged 5–8 (to whom it is designed primarily to be ‘read aloud’), extend the borders of its relevance to people of all ages, starting with the parents and teachers who read the story to them. While many children’s books and films contain jokes, references and even satirical asides to keep the adults amused, Beck and Belton’s re-telling of Aitken’s memoir goes further. Dedicated ‘to the memory of Alexander Aitken and the men of the Otago regiment’, it is designed to reflect the historic involvement of the people of Otago – and all New Zealanders – in the war on the other side of the world.
The illustrations on its end-papers, an essay titled ‘Background to the Story’, the Acknowledgements and References, all indicate The Anzac Violin received the kind of authentication needed for any non-fiction work. Because the children’s book predated the Calder edition of Aitken’s memoir, its authors, like Anthony Ritchie, relied on the 1963 edition, adding references to a 1972 School Journal article about Aitken’s legendary brilliance as a mathematician (‘Swotty’ Aitken was well-remembered in my family), plus a 1995 book from Otago University Press called To Catch the Spirit: The memoir of A.C. Aitken, with a biographical introduction by P.C. Fenton.
What is being authenticated? Both Aitken-based books from 2018, while scrupulously attending to historical detail, are of course ‘historical fiction’ rather than history. They are completely focused on Aitken’s personal account, which is itself a shaped and textured work of literature, almost a lament. Both are careful not to romanticise the wartime experience, but Aitken rejects an arid cynicism as well. His criticisms of ‘Staff’ are well founded by evidence of the fallout from their misjudgments in the field. Having himself experienced at least one ‘severe breakdown’ (in 1927, Calder indicates in his timeline), he has empathy, writing in retrospect, for his comrades’ ‘quivering’ shell-shock under fire. And brazenly – with a kind of courage – he compares communiqués from both armies to arrive at a measure of truth, for the sake of history.
HELEN WATSON WHITE is a Dunedin writer, critic and photographer.