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.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


Vincent O’Malley: Why we need to open up about past Māori and Pākehā conflict
106234 2019-05-26 00:00:00Z History

Vincent O’Malley: Why we need to open up about pas…

by Sally Blundell

Calls are growing for us to take a more honest look at our past, particularly the wars over land and power that shaped the country.

Read more
Scott Morrison: How a 'doomed' PM stormed the country with one killer line
106291 2019-05-26 00:00:00Z World

Scott Morrison: How a 'doomed' PM stormed the coun…

by Bernard Lagan

As Australia’s tourism tsar 13 years ago, Scott Morrison oversaw the rollicking “So where the bloody hell are you?’’ ad campaign.

Read more
What you need to know about knee replacements
105774 2019-05-26 00:00:00Z Health

What you need to know about knee replacements

by Ruth Nichol

Replacement knee joints are giving thousands of Kiwis decades of service, but don’t rush to get one.

Read more
How a hit romcom took indigenous Aussie star Miranda Tapsell back to her roots
106072 2019-05-25 00:00:00Z Movies

How a hit romcom took indigenous Aussie star Miran…

by Russell Baillie

Miranda Tapsell tells Russell Baillie how she came up with Top End Wedding and why its Northern Territory setting means so much.

Read more
The link between cardiovascular health and dementia
105915 2019-05-25 00:00:00Z Health

The link between cardiovascular health and dementi…

by Nicky Pellegrino

New research into the brain has found that cardiovascular ill health is linked to cognitive decline and dementia.

Read more
Following the call of New Zealand's abandoned freezing works
106317 2019-05-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Following the call of New Zealand's abandoned free…

by John Summers

John Summers wonders if his abiding interest in New Zealand’s abandoned freezing works is actually a long farewell to his grandfather.

Read more
Tech Week: Time to celebrate Aotearoa’s own overlooked moonshot
106359 2019-05-25 00:00:00Z Tech

Tech Week: Time to celebrate Aotearoa’s own overlo…

by Peter Griffin

“We bow down to this idea of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos going to Mars, when here in our own country, we had the equivalent."

Read more
Kiwi composer John Rimmer: An instrumental figure
106331 2019-05-24 11:09:35Z Music

Kiwi composer John Rimmer: An instrumental figure

by Elizabeth Kerr

Contemporaries and students are paying tribute to composer John Rimmer and his musical legacy.

Read more