A boy at war

by The Listener / 26 April, 2011
When the first Anzac Day ceremony was being held in Tinui, on April 25, 1916, a boy born in the Wairarapa town was about to become a soldier – although aged just 15. The authorities knew how old Sydney (Stan) Stanfield was, but let him go – as they did thousands of other under-age soldiers. By the time he turned 19 – the age he should have been to enlist – he had fought in the Battle of Messines, and been wounded at both the Battle of Passchendaele and the Second Battle of the Somme. This is his story.
These are edited extracts from Stanfield’s interview with the World War I Oral History Archive’s Nicholas Boyack and Jane Tolerton in 1987.

‘My father and I were building a new stockyard on this bush farm we had at Te Rehunga, and my mother ran out with the evening paper to say war had been declared. I believe that I did say, ‘Well, I’ll be going’ – and I’d be 13 then.

“This British Empire business, which has gone now, was at the peak of its popularity. People were wildly enthusiastic over the war, and the pressure on young men was terrific. It was just there.
“I thought [going to the war] would be a great adventure. It’d be real fun. And so it was up to a point. Past that point, it wasn’t funny at all!

“I was a good big lump of a farm boy, about 11-and-a-half stone, and I was cunning enough to let my adolescent beard grow for about a week beforehand, which made me look a little older.
“When we were leaving Dannevirke to go into camp, this chap Davies, who had been the officer in charge of the Dannevirke Military District when they brought compulsory military training in, saw us off on the train.

“Someone said to Davies – this was retold to me later – ‘You’re going to let that boy go?’ And he says, ‘Well, if he’s got the guts to go, it’s not for me to stop him.’ It wasn’t a case of guts, it was just a case of a boy wanting to go and see things, just a question of pure curiosity. All boys are like that, aren’t they?

***

‘You’re loaded down with 220 rounds of ammunition in your pouches, two bandoliers of 50s, one slung over each way, 48 hours’ rations, a full water bottle, a shovel or a pick shoved down your equipment at the back and a rifle and bayonet. So this business of ‘Charge the blighters, boys – give them the cold steel’ was just a lot of bunkum.

“You just blundered along and hoped you didn’t get shot, and if you came up against something that you could get close enough to, you’d shoot back. That’s about all there is to it. You’re not afraid because the movement takes all the fear out of you. It’s sitting in little wet holes and being shot at with big stuff, heavy shell fire, high explosive, that’s the nerve-racking part.

“If you came under heavy fire from a machine gun, you’d take shelter in a shell hole or any little bit of broken ground to size up the situation. Immediately you bunched you drew fire, so there’d only be two of you, at most three, in one shell hole at a time. In lots of Messines I seemed to be alone mostly.

“You’d be sitting there, crouched in a bit of a hole with your rifle between your knees, wondering if the next shell’s going to land in where you are. And then Jack Johnsons, we called them, would burst, just above the ground – shocking things, hell of a noise when they went off. In the position we dug in after Messines, we were heavily shelled with Johnsons and we had constant casualties.

“Practically every shell someone was hit. I heard the shrapnel hit my mate, sitting right beside me. I looked at him. His face had gone grey, and he was trembling. You take the tunic off and have a look to find out where it is and get the field dressing on it as best you can. He didn’t want to go because there was heavy shell fire at the time. But wounded men were a complete embarrassment in the trench. You had to get rid of them. He survived the war.

“Another chap, Jim Hallett, was killed beside me. We were sheltering in a wide, freshly dug German trench, and the Germans were enfilading it with machine gun fire. We were hard against this bank and the bullets were hitting the other bank and the floor. Hallett moved out, and of course got shot.

***

‘The French people, some of them, were very nice, especially the rural people.

“When we were getting ready for Passchendaele, I went out to buy bread and I called in at this place well away from the line, a long way from the rumble of guns. An old lady came to the door and I asked her if I could buy some bread, and she looked me over and she went inside and she had the bread wrapped in butter paper. And I took the five franc note out of my pocket to pay her, and she said, ‘No, it’s for you, my poor little boy’ – in French. When I got back to the section, I found she’d cut the top off the round loaf and put about a pound of homemade butter on top. We never tasted butter.

“At Bac St Maur in 1916 there was a woman we knew as Marie – a thin, worried woman about 35-40. Her husband was in the French Army. She would sell us eggs and chips, and wine. In her kitchen, in the winter of 1916, the hardest winter since 1872, we’d all be crowded round the big stove. And look, if anyone had said anything wrong to that woman, he’d have been given a thrashing and dumped outside.

“In that kitchen of hers there was a hole right through the corner where a shell had gone through, taken the corner off, and it was packed up with sandbags and she was still carrying on. They had their little farm and it had to be kept going. You could hear the machine guns crackling from her kitchen. She had a little Belgian girl she called Antoinette, who had a little withered arm, working on the farm. And I can remember: ‘What about sleeping with me tonight, Antoinette?’ And she’d say, ‘After the next war,’ and her black eyes would twinkle like anything – and that’s as far as it ever got with those people. Prostitution amongst the French people we associated with was practically non-existent.

***

‘Passchendaele was depressing – complete and absolute desolation. It wasn’t so much the Germans that defeated us at Passchendaele, it was the conditions.

“On October 12 and 13, I was a stretcher bearer. It rained and rained and bloody rained, and it was cold. We were picking men up from a regimental aid post, an old German concrete [gun] emplacement. The doctors were working inside, and at one period I believe there were 600 stretcher cases laying around the place in the wet and cold, just dying where they were dumped off. They weren’t even laying on stretchers; the stretchers were used for picking up other men.

“On October 4, I was just an ordinary infantryman. An ordinary infantryman at Passchendaele was a pretty dumb beast. That’s how he’s treated. He was only gun fodder – because it was hopeless before you started. We all knew that.

“But we were the first New Zealand Expeditionary Force and we were proud of ourselves and it never entered our heads to give up. And don’t forget the propaganda. We were brainwashed that we were so good that you had to be good. We were taught not to lay down, therefore we didn’t lay down.

“By the time we left Passchendaele we were back to a C-class division. We’d been hammered too hard and our morale was low. The old soldiers were all gone – sick, knocked out – and you had too many reinforcements from New Zealand, not toughened up.  A group of soldiers is just the same as a football team. You’ve got your stars, the leading men, and if they’re gone, morale deteriorates.

“I was in hospital by then. I got hit at Polygon Wood right in the heart of winter, December 1917. Ground frozen, snow. I wasn’t very long in hospital. They dug the iron out of you and you soon got better.

***

‘The people of England were lovely to us. They were aching to do something for us New Zealanders – taking us into their houses, doing anything at all they could to make life easier for us.

“It was quite obvious that the women were out to do everything they could for the soldiers because the soldiers were going to die, a lot of them.

“Wartime was wartime, and the shackles were off for the women too. They weren’t necessarily professional prostitutes, they were just women living for the day because a huge war was on and the casualties were tremendous. I suppose they were frightened of the future and they’d take what was available while it was available – the company of young men.

“I landed in Brockenhurst Hospital at the end of the war. I’d had my leg badly injured, broken with a hunk of shrapnel.

“I was on leave and I got drunk this day and two women picked me up. One was a war widow. I spent the afternoon and night with them and they looked after me, saw that I had a good feed and put me on the train next day. Armistice week, you see, and everybody was just kicking their heels up. I never even knew their names but we just enjoyed ourselves for the few hours I was with them.

***

‘I was very confused when I landed back [in New Zealand]. The only place I felt at home was in a pub when I got half full of beer. We all drank terrifically. Drank ourselves into oblivion, I suppose. It was even preached in the churches against the drinking of the returned soldiers, and to be a returned soldier for the first few years when I came back was to be something that was no good for any bloody thing.

“It’s down to relaxing, trying to relieve the tension. The thing I’ve been trying to get through to you about the fighting, and the life, on the Western Front, was the terrific tension you lived under all the time. That’s the thing I feel was the biggest factor in eroding the nervous systems of the people that took part – apart from the physical hardship. It was more of an emotional thing than anything else.

“I had nightmares for years. Not actually just the nightmares but the thing that I was afraid of – howitzer shells. In the night-time you’d hear the thud of the gun that was firing and you’d hear this wailing shell coming along, and you could tell whether that shell was going to go over or drop under or come pretty close. Well, I heard them for years and years. Not that I was particularly afraid, but it’d leave me unsettled the next day.

“Some men never got away from the shadow of it, but you see I’ve had time. It’s obvious, when you ask me a question, that it’s not very far away, that I can get back very easily. My own children sometimes ask questions. I find that if I allow myself to go too far, to become too realistic, I’ll begin to weep.

“Well, that’s the shadow of it, isn’t it? The shadow has left something. The futility of it all, the waste of time and effort, and the destruction of it – all for nothing. That’s what I mean by the shadow. It left that feeling with me.”

After the war, Sydney Stanfield returned to rural labouring jobs. With wife Lorna, he brought up 19 children. He died in 1990.

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