Problems of 2 NZEF
We now come to the ‘Misfortunes’, beginning with compassionate leave. The army in wartime when away from the homeland is an example of 100 per cent state control, where Authority is responsible for looking after all the interests of the members of the community, including their domestic problems. In peacetime the church, the welfare organisations, the magistracy, the police are well aware of the amount of domestic trouble that exists; but to the staff of 2 NZEF it was a never-ending source of amazement, and a cause of much reflection on the frailties of human nature. As in so many things, an army staff is not necessarily the best-fitted body to handle these problems, and sometimes, at least in the early stages, we were doubtless clumsy.
Domestic difficulties generally reached Headquarters in the form of a request to be allowed to return to New Zealand so that the applicant could deal with his troubles on the spot; but occasionally we were merely asked to lend the weight of Headquarters to obtaining an answer from New Zealand to correspondence that had been unanswered, in the hope that the answer we obtained would bring consolation with it. The problems were not all matrimonial, though page 229 these were the majority. Illness of members of the family, death of a near relation, care of children, family quarrels, troubles with neighbours, business difficulties, disputes over wills – all these occurred from time to time; but none caused so much mental trouble as accusations about the behaviour of wives from well-meaning friends or neighbours, or distressing letters from the wives themselves.
We had a few cases in 1940 and 1941; and at the time tried to handle them ourselves by listening to what the man had to say, and then in consultation with regimental officers, or with someone who knew the man in New Zealand, deciding whether or not the case had been proved and justified sending the man back. This was a difficult task, and the tendency was to accept the tale and let the man go home; but as the tales became more complicated and the number of cases increased, we commenced as a first step sending the details to Army Headquarters and asking it to verify the facts, and to advise us what action to take. In the end we never made the decision ourselves, but sent all particulars back to New Zealand and left it to them, for after all people in New Zealand were in the best position to assess the degree of urgency in the cases. The scheme which we finally evolved in collaboration with Army Headquarters we regarded as one of our successes. Depending on circumstances, we communicated with New Zealand either by letter or cable. The Department of National Service then made the necessary inquiries, either with members of its own staff, or through local bodies, the Child Welfare Department, the Salvation Army and so on. Often the inquiries had to be made discreetly, especially in cases of alleged infidelity of wives. It was, moreover, undesirable that it should become widely known that officials had been calling at houses and asking awkward questions. In the early stages there were instances of clumsy handling of cases in New Zealand; but progressively the system worked more smoothly and, as far as we were concerned at the receiving end, produced reports which were convincing. We always accepted the New Zealand recommendation.
It is worth noting that in many cases the situation was nothing like as bad as had been represented to us – not that the applicant had knowingly made false statements, but that his correspondents had painted too gloomy a picture and that he had then been brooding over his problems and magnifying them in his mind. The ‘well-meaning’ have a lot to account for, together with the human weakness for putting the worst construction on events.
In the very early stages we used to let the men see the reports in full; but sometimes the reports included comments by witnesses or by the investigator that made men angry and indeed exacerbated the case, and in some cases led to bitter criticisms of the investigator page 230 being written back to New Zealand by the applicants. It is a difficult situation, for it is easy to start the belief that Headquarters is hiding something and that the full tale has not been told; but experience taught us that it was far better to take suitable extracts from the reports, sufficient to answer the man's doubts or queries, perhaps to send him the full conclusions, but not the full evidence. Names of investigators were always suppressed.
The scheme was issued as a Standing Instruction, one of the editions appearing in Appendix IX.
From time to time we were told that applicants had had civil law actions decided against them in New Zealand without having a chance to represent their own case, a common example being that men stated they had had maintenance orders made against them, but that they had a good defence. Whether or not such cases did occur was never clear to us overseas, and in fact we were not convinced; but at one point a suggestion was made by an eminent lawyer serving in 2 NZEF that the services of the Law Society in New Zealand should be invoked to produce a scheme by which the defence of men serving overseas would be ensured. As far as we knew no such scheme existed; but it is, of course, most desirable that the interests of men absent from their homeland should be safeguarded.
It will have been apparent from the preceding sections on marriages and compassionate leave that the military staffs at Headquarters found difficulty in competing with the problems created and were sometimes heavy-handed. We could have done with some skilled advice, or better still, would have been helped by leaving the initial investigation of the problem at our end to be handled by someone skilled in such tasks. Something of the nature of a ‘Family Welfare Office’ was wanted at Headquarters – a small branch staffed by one or two officers specially selected on account of their peacetime knowledge of dealing with family troubles. We could probably have found personnel from within the force; but alternatively it would have been worth while to get suitable personnel from New Zealand. This office would be a properly constituted branch of Headquarters, but would deal initially with the non-military problems that have filled so many pages in this volume, and would then advise the staff proper what action should be taken. We could have learned a lesson from the British service, where there was an amply staffed service to deal with domestic problems alone.