Our memories of war

A guest post by Frances Denz

I expect that many of us have family stories of our father?s and grandfathers? experiences at war. Some are funny, some are horrendous, but all are worth keeping and telling.? Some may not be completely true, but the fact they are stored in the family memory means they have a meaning of their own. I thought it might be interesting if Whaleoil captured some of these stories.

My father was an unusual soldier. He was a Maori doctor in the British army and finished up as a major. He saw action in Italy and Egypt, and was on the war crimes tribunal at?Nuremberg as a pathologist.

These stories are in no particular order and come from his own experiences; some are from letters to my Mother and some he told me himself.??

He was the first doctor to administer penicillin to the troops in Africa to reduce the incidence of syphilis. Apparently, the doses required were minimal as penicillin was so new and there was no resistance to it. The soldiers lined up with their sleeve rolled up and a medic walked along the row jabbing them with the same needle. No hygiene worries here! After all, the penicillin killed all the bugs anyway.

He was sent into Italy and told me that he had to wait at a particular railway station for further orders. After some weeks on the station ?platform he decided to move out into the nearby village for several months. The locals made the most of having a doctor in their village, and he was kept very busy, although he had almost no equipment or medicines. He made use of local herbal remedies mixed with practical common sense. He really enjoyed that stay, even though the war swirled around him. He was quite disappointed when the British army remembered him and ordered him to move on.

He was on the first hospital ship that went into Naples with the invading army to provide medical care. His stories told of how each truck that left the ship with supplies had to have a soldier on the back with an axe to chop at the hands of thieves who tried to steal from the trucks as they wound their way through the battered streets of Naples. He believed it was better to wave an axe than shooting the usually very young raiders. A horrible choice.

Another of his stories was after the war when he was on the war crimes commission at Nurnburg. He had to agree with the identification of the bodies, and descriptions of what had happened to them. He had fun having the Germans on, as they tried to hide the identity of the bodies. By this stage he was quite fluent in German but pretended not to understand them, so he could make them look silly as they measured and weighed the bodies, and then? brought out his own tape measure and redid the measures and wrote them down. Dad had a bit of Billy T J in him and he made a theatrical production out of this, which the Germans just did not understand. Nor, in fact, did the British soldiers! He really enjoyed having them on. Somehow one doesn?t imagine the awe and seriousness of the tribunal being lightened up by comic genius. Not quite the way the story is framed nowadays.

While he was waiting for the slow progression of the Nuremberg trials he was taken hunting by the local mayor. This was German-style hunting with men in green knickerbockers and hunting horns and noisy dogs. They were after wild boars, but there were none to be seen. Dad?s only riding had been bareback as a child in the hills behind Russell with his mates, and riding in an old, battered German saddle with hounds barking and horns blaring, with men in knickerbockers through the Black forest, where there may or may not have been undetonated bombs etc, was a very new experience for Dad! They caught nothing but drank a lot of schnapps from silver and horn flasks and the Germans at least had a great time. Perhaps they were celebrating their freedom from war in their own unique way.

As I said at the beginning, these are not earth-shattering stories of war and sacrifice, but of humans trying to do their best to stay sane in difficult times.

Do you have stories to share?