From 4th August 2014 to 11th November 2018 we are marking the centennary of the First World War and I have decided to review as many books about that period as I can – some old, some new, but all relevant. I have started with an old book on a group of combatants affected by war, but rarely discussed.
“On the fringe of Hell : New Zealanders and military discipline in the First World War” by Christopher Pugsley (Hodder & Stoughton, 1991) contains the stories and history of the men who found out that war wasn’t glorious; that they could not all be heroes ; and at the end of it, how almost everyone paid a bitter price. They were those who would become the “cowards”, the “traitors”, the “shell-shocked” and five of them would pay the ultimate penalty (in the days before shell shock became Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, two of the five New Zealand men executed in WWI deserted their units after being discharged from hospital after serious wounds).
Many of the men who left for war suffered brutality and cruelty not only at the hands of the enemy but from their own people. Many were punished by court martial for the following main reasons:
- Fear. Something we all feel, even the bravest men.
- Alcoholism and sexually transmitted diseases – scourges that were common in those times, often precipitated by loneliness while overseas.
So, these people finally have a voice in this book, and I feel it’s a subject that should be remembered and learnt from. Considering the subject, it is very readable.
– Darren Russell