Over the past 20 years, Kurt Bayer has interviewed hundreds of old soldiers, many now dead and gone. He's heard recollections from survivors of Western Front trenches more than 100 years ago, Nazi and Japanese prisoners-of-war, and veterans of some of the most famous and infamous battles and conflicts of the 20th century: The Battle of the Somme, El-Alamein, Crete, Monte Cassino, D-Day, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Today, with the centenary of Armistice Day approaching, the Herald journalist pays tribute to the human touchstones to history, and reflects on the hell of war, enduring loss, mateship, memory, forgetting, and remembering.

When I was a kid – about 11 or 12 – I blew up army men. Little green plastic figures moulded into combat poses: grenade toss; prostrate snipers. In a neglected herb garden, I wiggle 5cm-tall figurines into dirt - some under withered parsley for cover – and fetch the pohas and tom-thumbs from an old apricot crate in the garage. "Mum, can I have a lighter?" "What for?" "Pohas." Checking the dog's tied up, toy soldiers planted for battle, I kneel in the earth and plant the explosives. Wedge pinky-finger-thick poha between the legs of an upright marksman. Tom-thumbs – also reddish-pink, quarter the size, eighth of the bang – mined beneath unsuspecting commanders. A few lobbed by the frontline. After finding a longish dry stick, I light it up my jumper, wait for a sturdy flame, and hear the pale fuses hiss. Hiss ... Bang! goes the tom-thumb, blasting over a British-helmeted Tommy. BANG! poha-power sending a little green patriot tumbling in an impressive shower of earth. Bang! BANG! BANG! Bang! Once the smell drifts off in the late spring breeze, I pick the wee guys up. Tom-thumb-inflicted injuries are superficial: vague scarring, scratches. They'll fight another day. Back in the shorts pocket. But the poha victims, more serious: charred blast marks, black scaled up to grey, disturbingly grey, a sinister feeling that sinks in my tummy. I spit on my fingers and try to rub it off. I put them in a cigar box under my bed. That night I wake in the dark, and move the box into the wardrobe. Tomorrow I'll put them in the garage. In the old apricot crate.

It's hard to know where my interest in war begins. My family has no military history links, that I know of. We never rose in the dark on Anzac Day. Apolitical, atheistic (perhaps as a result?), there were no dusty shoeboxes of exotic letters or knee-bouncing accounts of ancestral heroics. Boys would bring grandfathers' medals to school for "news", and afterwards I'd jealously skulk home and demand, "Did my granddads fight in the war?"

Old soldiers David Smith (left) and Alan Burgess at the Rangiora RSA in 2012. Photo / Kurt Bayer
Old soldiers David Smith (left) and Alan Burgess at the Rangiora RSA in 2012. Photo / Kurt Bayer

As a small child, when I thought cats were female dogs, I dismissed World War I as "boring" and gravitated towards the "cool" World War II. The "Great War 1914-18" felt too far back, an abstraction from another time. A costume drama. I was yet to realise they were all our wars. At swap meets and flea markets, pocket money was spent on rolled bundles of glossy military magazines: 10 for $1. Colour depictions of implements of war: tanks, mounted machine guns, fighter planes. I'd use Mum's baking paper to trace the sleeker, nastier WWII ones; simply cooler than the clunky, archaic WWI contraptions.

At school, we'd sing Maori Battalion March to Victory. While I can't remember much of the periodic table, I can still recite:

For God! For King! And for Country!
AU - E! Ake, ake, kia kaha e!

Advertisement

The only time I was allowed to stay up late on school nights was to watch Tour of Duty - an American TV series set in Vietnam. Dad and I would make sweet mugs of Milo and sneak two biscuits. It seemed real, bloody, depressing and grim, and made me want to join the Army. The Paint it Black instrumental theme tune my own doomed youth anthem.

At 18, by then a cub reporter, I joined the local RSA, mainly for the ridiculously cheap beer, even though the drinking age was 20. I was proud to slip my unlaminated membership card - number 399 (membership numbers are now in the 3000s) – inside my wallet. Beer poured to the brink of the stippled pint glass, no hint of foamy head, the slow trawl to the tables tidal, perilous.

El Alamein veteran Bill Bristow returns to Egypt in 2012. Photo / Michael Dickison
El Alamein veteran Bill Bristow returns to Egypt in 2012. Photo / Michael Dickison

The old boys would be there. Parked at round tables, backs to walls. Some liked to drink rum and milk, a strange tradition picked up in the early Anzac Days when nobody cared but them. They kept low-talk to themselves, safe in their lifelong familial ties that only war or extreme circumstances can provide. But they liked to talk to us youngsters. Maybe because we sat and listened? Maybe we were a mirror to back when they were our age? Young, dumb, bulletproof.

They'd tell the comical stories, mainly. The cruel memories, the ones which would flood back and glaze them over would be shook off or result in a quick march to the bar, held back for yet another day.

Alan Burgess was a tankie with the 2nd New Zealand Division, delighting in its nickname, "Freyberg's 40,000 thieves". He had countless crack-ups marauding through Italy chasing retreating Nazis. Like the time in Rome when Claude Mortimer, a "cocky little publican from Tekapo, with a handlebar moustache and suede boots" stole a public bus – complete with its public. Or the time they came across a Vermouth factory. It was "knee-deep in plonk" so Burgess and his mates spent a day filling jerrycans with boozy loot before tearing off again.

One old flyer was shot down over Occupied France. The local Resistance sheltered him in a town where he became friendly with the railway stationmaster's daughter. He never wanted the war to end.

Another World War I veteran was in a bicycle regiment. That in itself was hard enough to get your head around - fighting a war on a bike! One day, while gently pedalling through the idyllic French countryside, he heard a faint buzzing growing louder. A flying machine lurched from above the hedgerow, with a German ace leaning out the flimsy cockpit pointing a pistol. He promptly shot him in the backside. It would give the old boy a yarn to spin over the next 80 years, proudly claiming the distinction of being the first person in history to be shot by someone in an aeroplane.

Even as a teenager, I loved the yarns. Maybe that curiosity and interest led me into journalism, or maybe journalism led me deeper into those stories. But I wanted to hear them all. I soon found that almost every family had a war story to be told. And yet, I have never been pro-war. As a journalist who's spent more than 20 years covering old soldiers' stories, military history, veterans' affairs, and contemporary conflicts, I've been slated as being a bloodthirsty warmonger, a killer of babies. But in 2003, I joined an anti-war movement against the invasion of Iraq. I wrote press releases and strongly-worded letters pleading with Prime Minister Helen Clark to see sense. I marched down my home town's High Street, past the war memorial with names linked to local streets, established law firms, and schoolmates.

New Zealand millitary historian, Dr Christopher Pugsley, at Gallipoli in 2015. Photo / Alan Gibson
New Zealand millitary historian, Dr Christopher Pugsley, at Gallipoli in 2015. Photo / Alan Gibson

Later, I would protest against the Gaza bombings, and travel to the West Bank to report on the Palestinians' daily struggles. I weeped at soldiers' funerals in the UK at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Door-knocking mothers who lost young sons to IEDs and Taliban ambushes. I cried at Burnham Military Camp when five New Zealanders were killed within a fortnight in Bamiyan and sobbed on the slopes of Chunuk Bair with military historian Dr Christopher Pugsley, thousands of bones beneath us in the dusty Turkish earth. "I always believe that the boys tap you on the shoulder and tell you, 'You're in the right spot,'" Pugsley said, tearing up, even after four decades visiting the Gallipoli peninsula.

I wanted to know more, I wanted to hear the stories. More than that, to record the stories. At the Imperial War Museum in London, I once spent a day listening to taped interviews in the extraordinary Sound Archive with veterans of the Spanish Civil War, members of the International Brigade. Glaswegian dock workers and Yorkshire coal miners recalling how they downed tools and kissed their mums goodbye and marched off to fight Franco and fascism, because it was the right thing to do.

Telling their stories, recording them for posterity, before they were all gone, that to me was my right thing to do. There's been 30,000 New Zealanders killed in wars since 1840. All WWI vets are today all long dead. The World War II survivors are all well into their 90s now at least, and fewer by the week. These men and women, they witnessed history. Touchstones, last living links to some of the most momentous and monumental events of the last century and they needed to be given a voice. They should be able to die peacefully, knowing that someone listened.

Often, when they came home, they struggled to return to society, normal life. Nobody understood them, except those who had been there. But they didn't want to talk about it anyway. It was too hard, grown men crying. Who wants to see that? Plus, you grew up humble, no bragging or you get a clip in your ear. Know your place. Kiwi vets were supposed to be strong, unflappable characters, brave, laconic and generous. And many were. But so often too they were damaged souls, robbed of their youth, battlers who sucked it up and worked and drank and worked and drank and were sectioned in wooded hospital grounds and bounced grandchildren on rickety knees and told funny wartime tales, about pinching paintings from the walls of bombed and strafed villas and casas, sleeping on grand pianos, chafing filterless cigarettes, downing arak, fighting, and falling over in sandy gutters.

Some say that time heals all wounds. Old soldiers disagree. For them, the scars of war are always there. "It's just near the surface somewhere," Vietnam veteran Chris Mullane, nearly 50 years since he crept through the thick, swampy jungles and paddy fields hunting Vietcong. "You might think it has, but it sneaks up on you. And something can just kick it over."

Life went on; what was the alternative? Often when loved ones would gently try and tease some details out of them and ask, "Tell us about the war, Dad?" they would all too commonly shrug it off with rehearsed sidesteps: "Oh, not a lot to say there"; "I didn't do anything special"; or "That was a long time ago".

It was only later, which coincided with the time I started floundering around journalism, did they finally want to speak. To forget was to disrespect their mates, the ones who never made it back. Alistair Urquhart survived the worst the Pacific theatre could've have thrown at anyone – but he never told a soul, not even his wife of 46 years. But nearly 70 years later, he was finally ready to talk.

Alistair Urquhart, The Forgotten Highlander, who was a Japanese POW and survivor of the Death Railway. Photo / Supplied
Alistair Urquhart, The Forgotten Highlander, who was a Japanese POW and survivor of the Death Railway. Photo / Supplied

There was a brief article, a few paragraphs, in the evening newspaper in Dundee, Scotland. It said how a WWII veteran had given a well-received talk to a primary school. My editor at the time - whose father was wounded in Korea, and who remembers his grandfather cursing Germany for the Great War, "Aye that Kaiser, he was a bastard" – sent me round to door-knock the old soldier and see if he was newsworthy.

I returned four hours later wide-eyed and somewhat shell-shocked with an incredible tale of survival. It became a double-page spread in the Daily Mail before we turned it into a Sunday Times Number One best-selling memoir. I spent dozens of hours in the lounge of Urquhart, then in his early 90s, who still had to eat rice several times a week. I'd ask him about the infamous Death Railway and he'd clasp his hands across his stomach, lean back, and say, "And then the Japs put us on trains and then into the holds of ships, hundreds of us, for days with no food, until the Yanks torpedoed us and I drifted on a raft in the South China Sea for four days before being picked up and taken to Nagasaki before the bomb got dropped..." And I'd jot it all down, and gently say, "Let's go back a few steps ... what were you doing when the Japs came?"

Beaten, flogged, starved to almost half his bodyweight, Urquhart spent 750 days as a Far East prisoner-of-war, which ended when he was knocked sideways by the atomic blast at Nagasaki some 15km away. He saw fellow prisoners beheaded by the samurai sword of a sadistic Japanese officer. "I could not escape the chilling swoosh of the blade as it cut through the air or the sickening thwack as it struck our comrade's neck, followed by the dull thump of his head landing on the ground."

Tom Renouf helped capture Heinrich Himmler during World War II. Photo / Supplied
Tom Renouf helped capture Heinrich Himmler during World War II. Photo / Supplied

Publication of The Forgotten Highlander led to meeting another World War II veteran, Tom Renouf. His war was Europe, joining the fight for D-Day. He fought through Normandy, the liberation of Holland, Battle of the Bulge, and stormed over the Rhine into Nazi Germany. He helped capture Heinrich Himmler, leader of the dreaded SS. Hitler's right-hand man allegedly chomped on a hidden cyanide tablet, but others think Renouf's mates might've been over-vigorous in their "handling" of the mass murderer. One of the lads nicked Himmler's watch, which Renouf managed to swap for 300 cigarettes. I touched the Etanche German Army issue watch, which Renouf used to wear until he dropped it on a marble floor. Even though the time had stopped ticking, its golden numerals tarnished, it sent shivers down my spine.

"Some people don't want to touch the watch when they hear it used to belong to such an evil man," Renouf said.

The stories were everywhere, but becoming fewer every day. The RSA flag flies at half-mast every other day.

Shortly before he died in 2005, aged 109, I interviewed Alfred Anderson, the last surviving witness of the 1914 Christmas Truce. He was a teenager suffering the horrors of the Western Front trenches when there was a lull in the nerve-shattering shelling. A hush fell over the lines. German and British troops met in the middle of a frost-covered No Man's Land, shook hands, exchanged mementoes, and sang Christmas carols. Anderson said they wished each other a "Merry Christmas", even though "nobody felt merry".

For Christmas 1914, every British soldier at the front, was sent a gift package from the Princess Royal. It included a brass cigarette case, which a former editor of mine once gave me. A most prized possession, it has pride of place on my bookshelf. It's embossed with the name of Britain's then allies: Belgium, France, Servia, Monte Negro, Russia, and Japan. It's smooth and heavy, something worth placing in your tunic pocket, over your heart.

Eyeball witnesses to remarkable history and man's inhumanity to man: Teenager John Keiller charging into German machinegun fire on the first day of the Battle of the Somme where 20,000 British died within hours. Relentless shelling boom-boom-boom, sinister invisible gas, snipers pulping idle smokers, the mud and blood and death all around, in your nostrils, under your skin like maggots in your great-coat seams. The Kiwi solders at Crete in May 1941, when one morning they woke to thousands of Hitler's elite paratroopers falling from the sky, invading the Mediterranean island. Gisborne tailor Howard "Slim" Holmes describing it as a "turkey shoot". Pukekohe mechanic Bill Bristow taking his chances and running into the Cretan hills, hiding in a cave with like-minded Aussies, playing poker with a stolen suitcase of cash. Glider pilot Thomas Davidson, the only one of his squadron not killed or captured during the 1944 airborne operation, codenamed Market Garden, which inspired the classic film, A Bridge Too Far. Les Munro, the last survivor of the pilots who took off for the attack on German dams, later immortalised in the move, The Dam Busters. Syd Scroggie fighting crack Nazi alpine troops in northern Italy when he stepped on an anti-personnel mine that resulted in him losing his right leg and sight. He became a legendary blind and one-legged mountaineer.

Sometimes they would tell you the worst bits. The dead mates; the things that kept them awake at night, decade after decade. Burgess saw one of his good tankie mates, Maurice "Morrie" Aitcheson get hit during a battle in Italy, December 1943. "[His tank] was on fire, all twisted metal. "Brewed up", as we used to say. At least he wouldn't have known what hit him." Another of his mates, George Hart, an All Black who won the 1931 New Zealand 100-yard sprint title in 10.4 seconds, was killed at the Battle of Monte Cassino in June 1944. Burgess was 20m away "when a shell screamed in and copped him walking around the corner of a farm building".

Near misses, unexploded shells, bullets that struck the man they stood talking to. What they struggle to talk most candidly about, is taking another man's life. Often, they distance themselves from the moment. "Oh Willie, took them around the corner and there was a gunshot. I didn't hear anything after that, and I never asked," one veteran told me.
British paratrooper Tony Banks tells of coming across a terrified Argentinean teenager trying to surrender deep in the Falklands War. An argument broke out between Banks' comrades over whether to take him prisoner or kill him. "Finally, somebody threw a tarpaulin over him, shot him, and finished him off with a bayonet. That was it. One less to worry about. Nothing was said as we moved on." As Witi Ihimaera once wrote, "In war, there are no innocents. No right or wrong. Only the living and the dead."

For many, their wars came to define their lives. They found out who they are, the good and the bad, and about the world they live in, the good and the bad. There's something about the extreme environment, of killing and being killed, that distils life into a rare clarity. War can also help define a national character. Australians are fond of saying they are a nation forged in the fires of Gallipoli. The characteristics that Kiwis showed on the world stage for the first time in World War I remain evident abroad today: resilient, resourceful, reliable, rugged.

But war plays a major role in family history too. There can be little doubt that the rise in popularity of genealogy and people wanting to know where they came from, and who their ancestors were, TV shows like Who do you think you are?, has coincided with the rise in interest in military history. The increased relevance of Anzac Day and the ever-rising crowds for dawn services is well-documented. Sleepy kids wearing grandad's medals. Schools studying World War I's industrialised mass slaughter.

If nothing else, war lends itself to great writing. Ordinary WWI troops turned to poetry in grappling with the extremes of human nature witnessed: hope and despair, honour and shame, life and death.

"The moans of men haunt the survivors," writes not Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, or any other Great War poet, but rather 11-year old North Canterbury schoolgirl Janayha Johnstone at last year's Anzac Day.

"Soldiers young and old remain to fight for the test; the test of survival, the test of time, the test for humanity."

And that's it. Sitting down with old soldiers and hearing their stories is not about glorifying war. If anything, it's the opposite. Of the hundreds of war veterans I've met over the years, I wouldn't count any as being gung-ho and pro-war. They've been there and seen what it does to people, what it reduces them to. If anything, you sense deep within them a primal sadness, eyes which can't unsee. And they won't want that for anyone, not least their grandchildren.

So, put the kettle on. Shout them a pint. And say, "Thank you for your service". They may want to talk more, but more than likely, they'll chat about the weather or the All Blacks or the price of whitebait. And that's okay. One day, they might say.