Men of our islands and our blood returning
Broken or whole, can still be reticent;
They do not wear that face we are discerning
As in a mirror momentarily lent,
A glitter that might be pride, an ashy glow
That could be pity, if the shapes would show.
– Allen Curnow, "Attitudes for a New Zealand Poet II"
Allen Curnow's poem captures the return of soldiers to New Zealand at the end of a war holding within themselves what they have seen. Reticent young men who have witnessed war's horrors and faced their own mortality. Nine per cent of New Zealand's total population of just over 1,100,000 went to World War I.
War by its nature destroys, and all of its participants are victims even if the wounds are invisible. This mental collapse has been called many things. In World War I, the term "shell shock" was coined, as it was believed the concussion of a shell burst that did not draw blood but affected the brain caused the damage. Authorities failed to realise that simply being there would eventually break a man.
In the early 1980s, I interviewed a cross-section of Gallipoli veterans, the youngest 87, for the Allan Martin-inspired TVNZ documentary Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story. With the inevitable scones and tea, I quizzed families on the realities of living with Dad after the war. Consistent themes emerged. Dad's nightmares that gradually faded as the years passed but then returning with old age with the same intensity. Mum bringing up the family as Dad was in and out of the sanatorium. A daughter's indelible image of her dad, an Ōtaki grocer, standing in the storeroom holding his hand to stop it shaking before he could walk out to the counter and serve a customer.
Tony Fagan, who landed with the Auckland Battalion on April 25, 1915, survived the war, but bore both its physical and mental scars. He told me: "I was in a hospital in England before coming back and then moved up to Kamo Sanatorium, and I was there for seven months recovering from shell shock, they called it.
"The effect of slaughter and death, and the smell of death and blood and people killed in the most fearful way all around … so that one became overfamiliar with death. They were lying out in No Man's Land to begin with, then swell up, as you can imagine, the body would, and then, after a time, they would collapse slowly into the ground and Mother Earth would fold them into her arms once more and they would disappear into the mud. So, you couldn't talk to people back home about death. Could they understand that? I don't think so."
Gunner Norman Hassell, in his memoirs, also spoke of this wearing-down process. "I could stand up to anything in the way of shellfire for the first couple of years, but the last year or so was my undoing. Every burst used to set me all a quivering, and if the armistice had been delayed much longer, I would probably have been a shell-shock case."
The politician John A Lee, who won the Distinguished Conduct Medal at Messines and lost his arm in 1918, gave his fictional self, "John Guy", his own symptoms of shell shock in his 1937 novel, Civilian into Soldier.
"Ever since Messines, he had been haunted by a growing fear of life. In billets away from the line he could shake off the twitching fear of shells, although not the nervous consequences of that fear. But he could not shake off the fear of ceasing to be a man in the eyes of others." Exhausted, Guy meditated "upon the slight trigger pressure that would end him and his fears".
Lee conquered this, but, back in New Zealand, the strain told on his digestive system. Unable to digest food and facing death, he devised his own diet of raw fruit and vegetables with a slice of fruitcake, and apart from one normal meal in the evening, existed on cups of weak tea.
Srangers at home
Each veteran had his own journey. Wellington architect Bill McKeon was seriously wounded at Crèvecoeur in October 1918. Then, on the long recovery and voyage home, losing a man overboard, "a shell-shock case who escaped from the sickbay and jumped from the after rail", McKeon found himself a stranger in a strange land – with a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between him and those he knew and loved. "There appeared to be no honour in having served one's country and we felt withdrawn and unwanted. Even our own families remarked how changed we were.
"Of course we were changed … How could one suffer mud, cold and discomfort, see friends and comrades blown to fragments, suffer the pain and misery of serious wounds without changing. Young as many of us were, we had aged immeasurably."
In late 1919, reaction set in. "Pain from the wound and mental depression, nightmares and lack of sleep, difficulty in concentrating on my work. In short, the beginning of a mental breakdown." McKeon spent his wartime gratuity on a two-month holiday enjoying the sun, surf and sights of Australia, and in this found a way to fight his way through depression.
This is the price New Zealanders paid in each of the world wars as it was for Korea, Malaya, Borneo, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor and for the many United Nations operations that our service personnel have taken part in.
It was the experience of the New Zealand Army officer John McLeod, whose Elusive Peace: A Kiwi peacekeeper in Angola is one of the finest and most revealing accounts of the demands that such service makes on an individual.
"I felt like a stranger at home and unconnected with New Zealand, which seemed someone else's world. I was not sleeping; jumpy and ever vigilant. People struggled to deal with my obsessive and unpredictable behaviour. I disappeared for hours at a time, walking, thinking, drifting into my own teary state …"
McLeod, with the help of friends and professionals, had to find his way back home. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as it is termed today, in all its forms is a reality not just of war but of times of stress and crisis. Today, that burden is borne not only by those in armed conflicts, but also by the frontline medics and support workers responding to the global Covid pandemic. Who helps them?
Dr Christopher Pugsley is the author/editor of some 22 books. A former army officer, he is an authority on New Zealand at war.