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Problems of 2 NZEF



One of our most difficult problems was the disposal of what may be called the marginally unfit man. There were always a number of men who, while officially fit for service in base camps, were one way or another of little use, or at best were more trouble than they were worth – and the ‘trouble’ referred to was not disciplinary trouble so much as troubles arising from various personal characteristics, which in the long run led to their being unemployable. A good number had some form of mental upset that made them cases for a psychiatrist. Some were in a perpetually depressed condition, and these speedily went from bad to worse once they were withdrawn from the field and sent to work at Maadi. Some men seemed always to be having minor illnesses. Some could be described as ‘burnt out’ or suffering from loss of nerve. There were a few who developed objectionable habits, of which chronic alcoholism was one. Some were just ‘plain useless’ and drifted round the camp from one low-category job to another. Some had landed back in Maadi on account of lack of heart for the field. All were officially still ‘fit for base employment’, and often it was difficult to determine how much of the trouble was due to malingering.

There was always a feeling in the Government in New Zealand that men should be sent back home as soon as they became unfit page 232 for service in the field; but we had to point out that there was work for many hundreds of men in base units, and that if Grade II men were not employed there, it would mean that so many more of Grade I would be wanted. We felt that we must make sure, however, that men were adequately employed and carrying out useful work, particularly as there was a tendency for men to slide rapidly down the slope from a good Grade II to a useless Grade IV. Special instructions on the subject were issued at intervals from July 1941 onwards. In the end we appointed a special ‘Employment Officer’ in Maadi to look after men who were marginal cases, and to ensure that the work they were doing was reasonable. It was laid down, for instance, that perpetual cookhouse fatigue was not satisfactory employment, but that some variety must be introduced. At the same time a special board was constituted to investigate doubtful cases, and to have power to authorise the return of men to New Zealand. The members included the Consultant Physician and a psychiatrist. The board was effective by the end of 1942. As an example of its work, in November 1942 141 men were placed on the New Zealand roll, the categories being:

Burnt out 58
Always sick 39
Subnormal 11
Lost nerve 15
Objectionable habits 1
Bad conduct 17
Total 141

Parties of this type were sent back every few months thereafter. The question of sending back bad-conduct men has already been discussed briefly on page 219.

The activities of this board helped to bring another point to a head. For some time we had not been satisfied with the terms used for medical grading. They were the ones used in New Zealand for the initial inspection of men when called up from civil life, where the main question to decide was whether or not a man was fit to go overseas. They were not necessarily applicable to medical boards held overseas to determine whether a man was ill enough to be sent back, or whether he was fit enough to be employed elsewhere than in the field. In considering a change, one point that weighed with us was that no matter what we said overseas about a man's medical state, he was automatically boarded again on arrival in New Zealand, an eminently sensible course of action. It seemed to us that we would not be causing any confusion if we used overseas a terminology that clearly defined the man's medical grading within the Expeditionary Force. All concerned were agreed page 233 that there should be a change; but it took some time to reach a form of grading that met with general acceptance. Our final decision, while it worked quite well, was not necessarily the perfect answer. We adopted a grading from ‘A’ to ‘E’ – ‘A’ being fit for service anywhere, ‘B’ fit for service anywhere, but with some small physical disability (loss of a finger joint, for instance), ‘C’ fit for service on the lines of communication, ‘D’ fit for service in Maadi Camp only, and ‘E’ unfit for any service in 2 NZEF. We considered that to make the change was within the GOC's powers, and so made it first and told Army Headquarters about it afterwards. We could almost hear the gasp in Egypt; but Army Headquarters raised no concrete objections and accepted our action without demur. The change was effective in April 1943.

At a later stage in 1943 it was agreed with New Zealand that primary producers who ceased to be grade ‘A’ should be returned to New Zealand forthwith; but this was the only exception to the rule that men stayed with the force for as long as they could perform useful work.

This is not the place, nor has the author the qualifications, to write at length about the characteristics of the average New Zealander; but there is one characteristic that was the cause of many of our troubles. Given a job to do of real importance – and the man himself reserved the right to decide whether the job was important or not – the average New Zealander would do it better than anyone. After all, we have the opinion of the enemy to support the claim that our men were among the best fighters on the Allied side. British officers, whether in the field or out of it, were unstinted in their praise of the work done by New Zealanders, no matter what it was, or what arm or service was involved. They tackled the job wholeheartedly, and brought to it an intelligence above the average.

But once the work was over and a man found himself with nothing to do, except possibly daily chores, he showed an impatience that was above the average also. The New Zealander had come overseas to beat the enemy as quickly as possible, to get on with the job and no nonsense, and to get back home just as fast as he could; so he did not appreciate any prolonged spell of waiting about. Unfortunately, in war there are bound to be spells of doing nothing. It is an old tale that war is merely long spells of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror. It appeared to us sometimes that the New Zealander did not stand up to the boredom as well as he did to the terror. Here was a case where the British Tommy had rather the better of it, as he is just as patient as the New Zealander is impatient, and, one job done, is content to wait page 234 until someone comes along and gives him another; but while the New Zealander is waiting for the next job, he is very prone to go looking for trouble.

There was another aspect of human nature that was the cause of some cynical comment at Headquarters, namely the way in which men walked cheerfully into trouble, matrimonial and otherwise, and then sat back and waited for the army to extricate them. It has already been mentioned on page 228 that husbands were never any help when it came to removing wives from remote villages or from hysterical relations, but were quite prepared to see the military authorities do their work for them. Undoubtedly the majority of the cases arose out of relations with women, legal or illegal, sometimes very complicated; but we had others involving financial matters. All had one thing in common – that the man had become involved in the case with his eyes open, but that as soon as things became awkward he had recourse to military authorities to get him out of his difficulties.

One must not be unfair about this. It has already been said—not very originally – that the army is a form of 100 per cent state socialism, so that presumably a man is within his rights in looking to Authority to extricate him from troubles even if of his own making. The only point that need be made here is that any headquarters similar to HQ 2 NZEF must expect to be faced with problems of this nature, and must be armed accordingly.

To finish on a lighter note, the beliefs of soldiers in the mass have been a source of wonder and entertainment ever since history was written, so that it is not surprising that we had a healthy crop. When the Minister of Defence visited us in 1943, he received the following complaints among others:

The Post Office staff looked carefully through the parcels and appropriated those that looked the most promising.

The National Patriotic Commissioner was making a good thing out of selling the stores that arrived from New Zealand for distribution to the troops.

Everyone in the Middle East travelled free on the railways except New Zealanders.

Everyone in the Western Desert was getting New Zealand meat except the New Zealanders.

It need hardly be said that there was not a word of truth in any of them.