Remembering and misremembering World War I

by Sam Finnemore / 25 April, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Odyssey of Unknown Anzac Gallipoli Somme

Second Lieutenant Alexander Aitken. Photo/University of Edinburgh

A soldier with miraculous recall and the story of the unknown Anzac bring home WWI’s reality. 

Fellow Anzacs George McQuay and Alexander Aitken came closer to meeting than they could ever have known – first at Gallipoli and then on the Western Front near the French town of Armentières. But these were places where even the shortest distances were measured in human lives. On the night of July 14, 1916, Aitken’s Otago Regiment went over the top in a major assault on German lines. It was caught in the open and decimated. Two days later, soldiers of the Waikato Company in a nearby supporting position noticed that George McQuay had gone missing from his post during the night.

Two very different Anzac experiences pivot on this brief moment in France a hundred years ago. One of them survives in a first-hand account: Aitken’s memoir Gallipoli to the Somme, resurrected by editor Alex Calder in its first new edition in more than 50 years.

Despite international acclaim on publication in 1963 – sufficient to earn its author election to the Royal Society of Literature – it came several decades too late to join the recognised canon of Great War memoirs and gradually faded from memory in New Zealand.

The irony would not have been lost on Aitken. A mathematician gifted with a near-photographic memory trained close to its limits, he could remember almost everything he’d ever seen. That astonishing recall permeates Gallipoli to the Somme: dates and times to the half hour, songs sung by Greek children and Egyptian ferrymen (in full musical notation), but also the sound of bullets shredding a flower bush and the volleys of an enemy machine-gunner firing inches over a trench parapet – varying his pattern with switchbacks “to catch any unwary head”.

“Unknown Anzac” George McQuay is reunited with his mother in 1928 after a decade in a Sydney mental hospital. The Kiwi was identified after appeals for information on both sides of the Tasman. McQuay was wrongly repatriated to Australia after being found wandering and confused on the battlefield near Armentières.

Gallipoli to the Somme astonishes not just through extraordinary detail but also for the consistent humanity it displays. Aitken genuinely knew the men in his platoon, not just their names and numbers, and his memoir describes his comrades’ lives with affection and compassion. The unspeakable is generally left unspoken; but Aitken, who rose from private to second lieutenant, nevertheless conveys the essence of what he saw, with a nightmare clarity that blossoms in the imagination.

Such nightmares would colour the rest of Aitken’s life. He wrote the first draft of what became Gallipoli to the Somme in Dunedin Hospital after being wounded and evacuated to New Zealand and revised it over the next 30 years during bouts of nervous insomnia. It stands as an extraordinary response to that trauma and the need to shape meaning from the weight of his memory.

A few weeks after the disastrous Otago Regiment assault, British military police found an unidentified soldier wandering near the positions at Armentières. The man seemed confused and erratic and claimed to have been briefly buried alive after a shell-burst in the trenches. When asked, he gave his name and rank as that of an Australian private, George Brown.

That borrowed identity was to delay George McQuay’s homecoming for more than a decade. Taken at his word for an Australian citizen, he was evacuated first to London and then on to Sydney after a diagnosis of what was probably schizophrenia. Warning signs were, in fact, detected earlier, on his voyage from New Zealand – the doctor aboard the troopship Maunganui recommended McQuay be discharged as mentally unfit for service. But the army paper trail petered out and he continued to Gallipoli. It was the first of many bureaucratic failings that made McQuay’s war an unusually long one.

Precious few of his words and thoughts have survived, except the snippets of memory recorded by the news media when he was reunited with his mother in Sydney in 1928, having spent the previous decade languishing in Callan Park Hospital as the “unknown Anzac”. A public appeal for help in identifying the allegedly amnesiac soldier had prompted an avalanche of responses across Australia and New Zealand, driven by long-buried hopes that he might be the son or husband who had never come home.

Reflecting David Hastings’ combined expertise as a journalist and historian, Odyssey of the Unknown Anzac draws upon the traces McQuay left in newspapers, hospital and army archives in New Zealand and Australia, as well as the recollections of his family and community at home in Stratford. Its telling of one life story is supported by examination of World War I as experienced at home in New Zealand – the narrative shifts smoothly from one to the other where needed, bridging the inevitable gaps in McQuay’s record and giving the broader context that adds wider significance to his life and journey.

As the Great War sinks further below the horizon of living memory, Odyssey of the Unknown Anzac draws the reader’s thoughts towards aspects of the war experience – post-traumatic stress, disability and mental illness – that sit awkwardly with commemorative myths of returned heroes and the glorious dead.

Alexander Aitken watched uneasily as these twin myths appeared during the war itself; George McQuay, and thousands like him since, were already carrying the weight of the illusions and taboos that they generated. Both their stories ask us to think carefully about exactly what we choose to remember, or forget, when we “remember them”.

ODYSSEY OF THE UNKNOWN ANZAC, by David Hastings ($34.99); GALLIPOLI TO THE SOMME, by Alexander Aitken, edited by Alex Calder ($39.99); both Auckland University Press.

This article was first published in the April 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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