My father in the war: a volunteer, he sailed for England
as a 22nd Battalion warrant officer shortly after his
wedding on St Patrick's Day, 1940. The battalion spent
some months stationed in Kent before being sent to
Greece to stem the advancing German tide. That didn't
last long. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner,
mostly in the NCO camp (Stalag 383) at Hohenfels,
Bavaria. He hardly talked about the war at all to us
children. All the evidence we have indicates that it
changed him for the worse. The difference between his
loving letters to my mother early in the war, and the
black-tempered father we knew, testifies to that.
A rare reference to the war: once, at lunchtime, when I
was complaining about having to eat silver beet (a
perfectly reasonable objection, one might think), he
rounded on me and roared out something to the effect
that, in prison camp, they’d have been glad just to
scrabble for stalks from the dirt and I’d better eat up and
be thankful for what I had.
I think Keith Ovenden may have it right when, in his
biography of Dan Davin, describing the terrible things
men experienced in war, the blood and the gore and the
pain, he goes on to say:
This, surely, was the true terror of war, and it could
only be broached as a topic of domestic conversation,
if at all, by reformulation into something else. From
this sprang the habit of camouflaging ugly truths that,
even if expressed, were otherwise unlikely to be
understood...their presence, whether distorted in the
recollection, or suppressed into tormented silence,
was corrosive. They ate away at a soldier’s sense of
moral connection with others, promoting a degree of
alienation that is easy to underestimate.
The American poet Louis Simpson has also written: 'To a
foot-soldier, war is almost entirely physical. That is why
some men, when they think about war, fall silent.
Language seems to falsify physical life and to betray those
who have experienced it absolutely—the dead.'
Davin himself, in a very good short story called 'Not
Substantial Things,' poignantly describes the moment when
when he realized that the war was going to end and that he
and his mates would live on:
The fact was that chaps like me had got older without
noticing it. We’d never give anything again what we’d
given the Div. We’d never bring the same energy to
anything that we’d brought to things like the
break-through at Minqar Qaim or the assault on
Cassino. And we’d never be able to make friends again
the same way or drink and laugh and die the same way.
We’d used up what we had and we’d spend the rest of
our lives looking over our shoulders.
And not at their wives and children.
Tellingly, Davin adds this observation: once the
excitement of war was gone, 'A man’d soon have to start up
again all the old fights within himself that used to go on in
the days when there was no danger to his skin.'
Denis Glover, coming home from the war, sank into gloom
at the first sight of New Zealand from the ship. It was like
returning to jail, he said.
Michael Cunningham in The Hours on how it was after the
war: 'So many of these men are not quite what they were
(no one likes to talk about it); so many women live
uncomplainingly with the quirks and silences, the fits of
depression, the drinking.'
What did my father do immediately after the war? It seems
that, like many New Zealand soldiers, he spent several
months in England waiting to be shipped back home. There
is some suggestion that he spent at least part of that time in
hospital. He returned to New Zealand in July or August
1945 and, before long, my mother conceived me. During the
war I was inconceivable.
All day long he was fighting for you,
And he didn’t even know your name.
—Phil Collins song lyric