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Soldiers preparing to embark for Featherston for training, c1916. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

What a tale of two brothers says about the overlooked casualties of WWI

In 1919, David Hill’s father became a war casualty. He had been called up too late to serve overseas and, as a result, he felt inferior to his serviceman brother.

A century ago: 1919. My Uncle Henry came back from glorious military service in France; my dad came back from inglorious military training in Featherston. They were both war casualties.

Henry turned 18 in early 1917 and enlisted immediately. He fought on the Western Front for six months, was invalided across to England with a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder. By the time he healed, Germany was collapsing.

He had extended leave in London. He watched “a posh-looking tart” thrust a white feather at a young man in civvy clothes, saw the young man snatch up his trouser leg to reveal a prosthetic foot, and the woman scuttle away. That was about all I heard of his war experiences. Like most of his generation, he didn’t want to talk about them.

Meanwhile, his younger brother was called up just three weeks before the war ended. So the Army, of course and logically enough, kept training him at Featherston Camp until early 1919.

He didn’t want to talk about his war, either; just said he was bloody glad to have missed the route march over the Remutakas, which took earlier troops to Wellington and embarkation.

So, here were two brothers, just 20 months apart. Family lore says they’d been inseparable as kids, Henry taking an almost paternal role after my grandfather’s early death, my father disciple and probably hero-worshipper. Now, one was a war hero and had seen the world; the other wasn’t and hadn’t. One ended up suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It was my dad.

Although he never used the word, I believe that for the rest of his life, he was eroded by guilt. He’d been too young for his brother’s war. Two decades later, he was too old for the next. He felt he’d let his country and his family down in some way.

Bob Hill. Photo/Hill family archive

Uncle Henry never saw it like that. He insisted (my mother comes in now as later informant) that Dad had done something far more valuable, being there to support his own widowed mother while her elder son was overseas. Henry insisted that he was the one who’d had it easy – wounded, decorated, feted, doors of all sorts open to him as a result, even during the 1930s Depression.

But I know my father could never shrug off the conviction that he’d failed some test of manhood. And it meant his relationship with Uncle Henry, so close while they grew up, began to dwindle.

As a kid, I remember my uncle appearing at our back door, wanting Dad to come down to the RSA with him. I remember also how my father always seemed to have some excuse. He needed to help Cliff lay that concrete; he had to finish something in the garden. Maybe next week, thanks all the same.

At the time, it was just another of a parent’s silly habits. Now I realise how ill-at-ease he would have felt at the RSA, how he’d have seen every gaze, every innocent murmur, as a challenge, an accusation, even.

It annoyed my uncle. In one of those random recollections from childhood, I can hear him exclaiming to my mother, “He’ll be fine, Molly. Nobody’s gonna mind. He’s my guest, for God’s sake! He did his bit!” I can’t hear my mum’s reply, but I picture a sigh and a shake of her head.

I do know that awkwardness seemed to creep into the brothers’ relationship. Uncle Henry called less often. My father didn’t mention him as much. They stopped heading off up the Tūtaekurī River to cut firewood together. The bond between them was never severed, but it frayed and shrank, and I’m sure my father’s sense of guilt was the main reason.

So, yes, he was a war casualty, the sort you don’t hear about on Anzac or Armistice days. I suspect it limited his life. Temperamentally, he was always a man who kept his head down, avoided public gaze. I believe his totally unjustified shame exacerbated that, compromised the rest of his years.

There must have been – still are, maybe – thousands like him. Next time the victims of war are remembered, it might not be a bad idea to acknowledge those overlooked casualties such as my dad.

This article was first published in the November 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.