Thursday Three #3: Age Will Not Weary Them

Today’s Thursday Three, our weekly assortment of oddities in triplicate, falls on April 25th, which is Anzac Day down under—a national day of remembrance. The acronym ANZAC stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, whose members fought for the Allies in the First World War. And the date marks the start of the (disastrous) Battle of Gallipoli, the first major campaign in which the Anzac forces took part. (In total, 100,444 New Zealanders would serve in the war—roughly 10% of our population at the time—and we suffered one of the highest death rates per capita of any country involved.)

ANZAC DayFollowing the Second World War, Anzac Day’s commemorative scope was broadened, and it became a day of general remembrance for all those lost in battle. Every year on April 25th, people all over New Zealand and Australia don red poppies, attend dawn services, and trade stories about great-uncles who never made it home. So, if you’ll forgive this soppy antipodean disruption to our regular services, let’s do our bit with an Anzac Day Three.

1. When I was a kid, the BBC sitcom Blackadder was my favorite TV program, and my father and I watched every episode together (my mother found it too silly). For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it follows the exploits of Edmund Blackadder, a cynical and cowardly chap who attempts to improve his lot in life through a variety of “cunning schemes.” Each series was set in a different historical period: Blackadder first does his wheeling and dealing in the English royal court at the end of the Middle Ages; in the next series he reappears (as the great-grandson of the original Blackadder) as a Lord during the reign of Queen Elizabeth; and then he pops up again as the Prince of Wales’ butler during the Regency period. Finally, for the show’s fourth season, poor Blackadder must serve as a Captain during the First World War.

This last series starts off much like the rest: finding himself in a bit of a pickle (i.e. in a trench in Flanders), the wily Blackadder employs various farcical schemes in order to achieve his objective, which in this case is to land himself a cushy military desk job as far from the front line as possible. The series parodied the conditions of life on the Western Front, but it never strayed too far from the show’s typical ribald silliness—it was business as usual, comedy-wise, with the familiar daft jokes about weasels and willies and potatoes. (As you’ll see in the clip below, Blackadder takes constant delight in mocking the last name of his nemesis, the upper-class twit Captain Kevin Darling.)

So imagine me and my dad sitting down to watch the very final episode, excited to see how Blackadder will once and for all escape the battlefield. A cunning plan involving a pigeon and a cigarette, perhaps? Or will Captain Darling return to England’s posh green fields and let Blackadder take over his job as the General’s chief pajama folder? Nope, not going to happen. Blackadder’s luck runs out, and in the show’s closing scene the cackles on the laugh track become hesitant, then trail off. The jaunty theme tune slows to a funereal dirge. And my dad and I had to keep swallowing the lumps in our throats as we watched the final moments of Captain Blackadder:

2. Conscientious objectors didn’t fare much better. New Zealand pacifist Archibald Baxter (1881-1970) refused to serve during the First World War—he claimed “all war is wrong, futile, and destructive alike to victor and vanquished”—but they sent him to the Western Front anyway, where he was beaten and tortured by army officers in an effort to get him to cooperate. He steadfastly refused to obey military orders, and was eventually subjected to Field Punishment Number One, also known as “the crucifixion,” an ordeal he recalls in his autobiography, We Will Not Cease:

field[The sergeant] took me over to the poles, which were willow stumps, six to eight inches in diameter and twice the height of a man, and placed me against one of them. It was inclined forward out of perpendicular. Almost always afterwards he picked the same one for me. I stood with my back to it and he tied me to it by the ankles, knees and wrists. He was an expert at the job, and he knew how to pull and strain at the ropes till they cut into the flesh and completely stopped the circulation. When I was taken off my hands were always black with congested blood. My hands were taken round behind the pole, tied together and pulled well up it, straining and cramping the muscles and forcing them into an unnatural position. Most knots will slacken a little after a time. His never did. The slope of the post brought me into a hanging position, causing a large part of my weight to come on my arms, and I could get no proper grip with my feet on the ground, as it was worn away round the pole and my toes were consequently much lower than my heels. I was strained so tightly up against the post that I was unable to move body or limbs a fraction of an inch…

A few minutes after the sergeant had left me, I began to think of the length of my sentence and it rose up before me like a mountain. The pain grew steadily worse until by the end of half-an-hour it seemed absolutely unendurable. Between my set teeth I said: “Oh God, this is too much. I can’t bear it.” But I could not allow myself the relief of groaning as I did not want to give the guards the satisfaction of hearing me. The mental effect was almost as frightful as the physical. I felt I was going mad. That I should be stuck up on a pole suffering this frightful torture, a human scarecrow for men to stare at and wonder at, seemed part of some impossible nightmare that could not continue.

Baxter’s autobiography was required reading when I was at high school, and for that it got filed in the BORING BOOKS section of my brain. But picking it up again as an adult, I’m amazed by Baxter’s courage and resilience. He recounts his experiences with incredible humility, and he makes a point of recording the many acts of kindness shown to him by the ordinary soldiers. His plain, straightforward prose reveals no bitterness, only sadness and bewilderment. It’s a moving account of the consequences of dissent.

I remember before I reached the front meeting men who had been there and thinking they looked hard and strange. Their faces had a drawn look and they seemed to have eyes like eagles. Now that I was amongst them I did not notice this. They seemed ordinary, but new arrivals looked as gentle as sheep.

3. And what do we do on Anzac Day? On Anzac Day we search the house for war memorabilia. There’s a box of medals in the drinks cabinet; no one can remember who the Star of Burma belongs to. There are also letters from my great-uncle Eric, who served with the Auckland Mounted Rifles during the First World War. He spent most of 1915 in Turkey, his horse tethered to a tree. He writes to his mother:

I forgot to tell you in my last letter that we had seen quite a number of swallows; the first we saw was on New Year’s Day, and we have seen them on several occasions since.

We are all hoping and living for the day we shall be in the thick of it, and it shouldn’t be long now—there are hundreds of our infantry boys to be avenged, some battalions were almost wiped out. But you needn’t worry too much about us, Mater, as there is a ten to one chance in our favour, and things are not quite what the papers say. Don’t believe all you read in them.

He was killed at Gallipoli a few weeks later.

My grandfather’s records from the Second World War are kept in the writing desk, beneath the Christmas wrapping paper. He would never talk about the war, and there isn’t much to go on; just an army logbook and a bundle of pay slips. He served in the Pacific for 796 days, and for this he received £39.16. He took with him to war a pocket-size New Testament and a photo of his wife.

His brother Harold also fought in the Second World War, in Tunisia, and tucked inside the logbook is a letter to their mother from Harold’s Company Commander:

Dear Mrs Hill,

I saw your son killed. It happened during an attack on a strong enemy position in front of the village of El Hamma, in the Mareth Line. He was with 2nd Lt. Friend (since wounded), his Platoon Commander, and his section, mopping up German pockets of resistance. He was endeavouring to get some Germans out of the bottom of a trench, but was shot through the head at very close range. He died instantaneously.

On Anzac Day we wear crepe-paper poppies and thank our lucky stars.