Anzac Day

Absent without leave

Suffering and sacrifice take many forms for the survivors of war, both the soldiers and their descendants. As we commemorate Anzac Day, Allan Ramsay remembers his grandfather’s version of the Anzac story.

The handsome fellow in the picture is James Grose Harland, born 20 May 1891, died 8 January 1966. Looking at the smile, I’m thinking it was taken before he went off to WWI.

Field Punishment No 2 for a soldier meant being shackled in irons around your arms and legs. This was better than Field Punishment No 1, which meant being shackled in irons and attached to something immovable – usually without shelter from the weather and, so some versions have it , from enemy fire.

In 1914, Private James Grose Harland went to war all right – both in Gallipoli and France – and did both No 1 and No 2 field punishments for being Absent Without Leave. And, to make it really hurt, he also lost 86 days’ pay, but he probably still thought himself lucky. After being arrested drunk behind the lines in France by British MPs he was sentenced to be executed for desertion, or so the story goes.

But somebody was looking out for James Grose Harland and an officer from his Otago Regiment heard of the sentence and thought execution was a bit excessive. Whether or not that had something to do with his working on the officer’s Central Otago farm before the war is unclear.

Or maybe it had to do with colonial contempt for the unfairness of the British military system, with its rigid class divisions, tradition-throttled ways and its reputation for brutality towards rank and file soldiers. Perhaps the officer felt that if anyone on the Allies’ side of the trenches was going to shoot Kiwis then it was only right and proper that it should be his fellow colonials.

In any event, Private Harland wound up back in the hands of his countrymen and somewhere in that journey back to his mates the death sentence got lost. Or so our family legend has it.

How my Grandad got to be behind the lines when he should’ve been doing his bit up front could well be a great tale of evasion and disguise. Or possibly it was just a random collision between a wine cellar, a frightened soldier and impulsive decision-making. I have only the bare dates, places and punishments which are recorded in his military discharge papers.

I’m thinking that Grandad was permanently scared shitless. After having spent a couple of months having thousands of screaming Turks trying to kill him on the cliffs of Gallipoli and then being shipped to France to have many times that number of Germans also after his head, James Grose Harland most likely felt he needed, if not deserved, a long drink.

I wonder too – some 105 years later – if he ever felt ashamed or if he was ever shamed by his mates for his behaviour. I like to think that the infantry’s trench wisdom told them that “there but for the grace of God go I” and they closed protective ranks over my drunken grandad and his bad behaviour.

Or perhaps they were less forgiving and shunned him after giving him the odd clip around the ear. I prefer to think they understood the punishment was necessary but made it as bearable as possible. Or, if they added to his torment, well, frontline fighting in a WWI trench could do that to people.

Grandad’s military papers record that he was medically discharged with “melancholia”. Now it’s called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and it’s treated as a medical condition. Back then, it was called “shell shock” and often perceived as a euphemism for cowardice.

And so Grandad’s war didn’t stop with his discharge or the Armistice on 11th November 2018. As for so many other returned servicemen, it continued to blast its way on down through two generations, because he brought it, as well as the bottle, home to his wife and kids in Bluff, Southland and, in turn, to their kids too.

Besides his alcoholism, his fierce, trench-born communist beliefs rendered him almost unemployable on the local wharves. Inevitably, both pursuits devastated the family finances.

But he never managed to end the war. My mother told me of the nights he raged through the house wanting to drink the housekeeping money while my grandmother hid her and her three siblings behind a jammed bedroom door. Meals sometimes only arrived courtesy of the neighbours’ generosity.

Nevertheless, somehow he preserved some small room in his head for fatherhood and family. He loved poetry and the long verse yarns of the Australian, Banjo Patterson, in particular. I like to imagine this was part of some staunch partisan belief in the value of antipodean culture and story-telling, formed after his close call with a British firing squad.

He coached his children into rote learning poems and wrote his own verses, too, at a time when a southern man just did not do that sort of thing. His love for words has been his other, sober legacy.

He lived alone in a Bluff hotel room for some years before his death, drinking still. Among his pathetically meagre belongings found after he passed on were scraps of poems. One, which sadly I cannot find, describes the ships at anchor in Suvla Bay off the Gallipoli Peninsula bringing in more troops to face the machine guns.

I never knew James Grose Harland as a grandfather. And that is not a statement of loss. As a child, you don’t miss what you don’t know you’re supposed to miss. He visited his daughter, my mother, occasionally, and even a kid could see it was tense arrangement and something of a trial for both. On these visits he was always sober.

I remember him simply as a strange man who sometimes came to visit our house in rural Southland. He was always well dressed – a brown, pin-striped three-piece suit, a white shirt and dark tie, a brown fedora with a brown raincoat draped over his left arm. Always the dude.

He had dark hair, well cut and combed, deep brown eyes under seriously dark brows and a curiously brown skin. Not the Polynesian brown I was familiar with but something darker. It made him even stranger to me.

His left hand held a brown paper bag of sweets to keep me occupied elsewhere while he and my mother spoke of things well beyond my ken. I don’t recall him ever talking to me but I’m sure he did. And then he’d climb back on the white and green NZ Railways bus at the end of the road and be gone.

We will all have our family war stories and some are even true. But we need to remember that not all our heroes are heroic. This is what I think about on Anzac Day.

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