The Unusual Silence | Voices New Zealand

For almost two years now I’ve been working on a commission for Voices New Zealand – a choral piece to commemorate the upcoming centenary of Armistice Day (11th November, 1918).

The landscape of the First World War has been a bleak place to inhabit. Reading accounts and correspondences from soldiers and contemplating the unbelievable scale of the conflict has changed my perspective on many things – not least the world we live in now. I’ve thought many times about the phrase ‘lest we forget’ and wondered what it means a hundred years later. What exactly do we need to remember?

In my search for text – I began with a collection of letters written by my dear friend Hamish’s grandfather – Thomas Alton Macalister.

T A Macalister
Thomas Alton Macalister – 6th Australasian Howitzer Battery (courtesy of Hamish Macalister)

Alton fought in Gallipoli and on the Western Front, and lived to return to New Zealand and start a family.

He sent many letters home to his loved ones, every single one of which they kept.

After his father died Hamish found his grandfather’s letters amongst his things and meticulously transcribed them. The title of this piece – ‘The Unusual Silence’ – comes from a letter written by Alton to his brother Eric, shortly after he was evacuated from Gallipoli:

“Well for about a month we had a suspicion that something was in the wing. We heard rumours of evacuation, owing to the winter being so severe there, and our suspicions were strengthened by an order which came through a few weeks before we left, stopping all fire, both artillery and infantry for 48 hours. Of course we can see now that this was merely a bluff to test the enemy and see how they would take the unusual silence on our part.”

The phrase ‘the unusual silence’ immediately captured my imagination.

As I read further, what surprised me most about Alton’s letters was the almost complete absence of any detail about combat or hardship. Instead, he talks factually and enthusiastically about happier things… the adventure of training, the wonder of travel, the beauty of places. Every now and then he permits himself a small moment of reflection, but he hurries to reassure his loved ones that he is safe and fortunate, even when he’s not. Yet even as he does this, he describes the war as ‘silent‘ and refers to how much more he wishes he could say about it.   

The depth of Alton’s silence, so stoically masked by the bright facade he maintained in order to protect his loved ones, really affected me. The more I thought of World War 1 as a silent war, the more silences I found.

There’s a practical silence because there are no field recordings – the technology didn’t exist. There’s a rational silence – an often-mentioned absence of reason for orders received from afar, or – in the face of its brutality – an absence of reason for the war itself. There are physical silences – the damage done to men’s ears by artillery fire, and the hysterical deafness caused by unimaginable sights and experiences. There are psychological silences – the many forms of denial and justification that were perpetuated in order to maintain the war’s momentum. There are strategic silences – censorship and secrecy – where letters home were either controlled, redacted or withheld. There are accidental silences – where vital information was obfuscated or misinterpreted in transit due to the logistical difficulties of communicating. There are emotional silences – where soldiers were unable to speak of what had happened to them and their loved ones were unable to ask, or indeed understand.

And finally, there is the genetic silence left by a lost generation of young men and their children not born.

Cantebury Mounted Rifles
Members of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles join those from the Canterbury Infantry Regiment on board H.M.N.Z. Transport No.4, Tahiti, and H.M.N.Z. Transport No.11, Athenic, at Lyttelton on 23 September 1914 (courtesy of Archives New Zealand)

As I searched for text that might capture something of these things, I read many accounts of the war by New Zealand soldiers (Ormond Burton’s ‘The Silent Division’), personal correspondences from soldiers to their families, works of fiction (Robin Hyde’s ‘Passport to Hell’), anthologies (the Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing), Archibald Baxter’s extraordinary memoir of his experiences as a conscientious objector (‘We Will Not Cease’).

Thanks to an introduction from Voices NZ, I also received invaluable assistance from Jo Brookbanks – Interpretations and Events Programmer at Auckland War Memorial Museum. With her extensive knowledge of the museum’s collection she instinctively brought things to me that I would never have otherwise found.

It feels as though every word I read about World War One carried the same fundamental message, which was: Don’t forget how truly awful and inhuman the war was… and don’t allow it to happen again.

There were more than 38 million casualties of World War One – 17 million dead and 20 million wounded. I was only ever going to protest this in my piece, and lament the people who were in the midst of it. While Armistice Day is certainly something to celebrate, with the benefit of hindsight we know that the peace did not last long. We forgot to avoid war almost immediately. Just twenty one years later the Second World war claimed more than 60 million lives and injured tens of millions more. Between the first and second world wars, more than 60 other wars were fought. More than 150 wars have been fought since.

There are four movements in this piece and each of them use two texts alongside each other:

I. The Census

C S Alexander
Charles Stuart Alexander – 4th Waikato Mounted Rifles (courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum)

For ‘The Census’ I used an excerpt from one of the letters that Jo found for me at the museum, written by Charles Alexander to his cousin, Amy Reid, and sent from the Western Front on the 20th of December, 1917. The excerpt comes from this passage:

“Amy, did you ever wonder what it was like to face a German machine gun, to hear the bullets whistle round your ears and cut your clothes to pieces and to know that you have got to take that gun? ‘Tis a funny sensation. Did you ever wonder what it is like to hear a 12 inch shell come screaming at you and burst with a terrific roar just close at hand? Did you ever wonder what it is like to stand on the ground feeling as large as the side of a louse and about as helpless while about 20 Gotha planes fly overheard? Did you ever wonder what it feels like to be on a patrol crawling up to Fritz’s wire in front of his trench and for him to suddenly send up a brilliant flare or open out with a machine gun? Did you ever wonder what it is like to lie flat on the ground while machine gun bullets bite the dust just in front of your nose? ‘Tis a funny sensation. Did you ever wonder what it is like to push a bayonet into a man and pull it out again? ‘Tis a pleasant sensation. Did you ever wonder what it is like to sit in a dug-out writing letters while the guns are growling? Did you ever wonder what it is like to leave the battlefield and go to Paris for five days leave? To walk along the lovely boulevards and along the Seine to visit the Tomb of Napoleon. The Palace Gardens at Versailles. The Palais Royale. Notre Dame. Bois de Bologne. Or to stroll through the Tuileries Gardens? ‘Tis very, very pleasant indeed. But did you ever wonder what it must be like to come back and sit in the wet and mud looking at old Fritz? I used to wonder what it would be like to experience these things. I have learned that I do not wish to know any more about them.”

Paired with his letter is an excerpt from the Dominion, courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, calling for the compulsory registration of all men between the ages of 17 and 60 according to the National Registration Act.

War Census
(courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library)

II. The Frightful Monotony

‘The Frightful Monotony’ uses an excerpt from Ormond Burton’s 1936 account of New Zealanders at War, ‘The Silent Division.’

Ormand Burton 2
Ormond Edward Burton – Auckland Infantry Regiment (courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum)

Ormond was a teacher from Auckland who tended to the wounded and dying in Gallipoli and was later a stretcher bearer. When a friend of his was killed in 1917 he volunteered to take his place in the infantry, refused all leave, and was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery and the French Médaille d’Honneur.

Ormond fought in World War 1 because he believed that victory would create a new age of peace and freedom, yet he was later horrified by the crippling terms of the Treaty of Versailles. When World War 2 broke out he became a dedicated Pacifist, and later a priest. He was repeatedly arrested as a Conscientious Objector. What had been the point of the first war, he wondered, if not to forever rule out the possibility of a second?

Paired with Ormond’s description of the war is a single sentence from William Henry Callaghan of the Auckland Mounted Rifles who, upon witnessing the carnage at the front, said:

“If their mothers could see them, this war would end today.”

Ormond Burton
Reverend Ormond Burton speaks at a demonstration against the Vietnam War

III. The Glorious Sunset

I had originally planned to quote a military order alongside a description of battle in one of the movements of this piece.

To that end, I asked Jo if she could find any military orders in the museum’s collection.

She went away to search and returned with Order No. 20 – written on the 14th of September 1916, and issued to the 2nd New Zealand Brigade the following day, which marked the renewed allied offensive and third phase of the Battle of the Somme.

Order No. 20 - 2nd New Zealand Brigade - 14th September 1916
Order No. 20 – 2nd New Zealand Brigade – 14th September 1916

Another of the things that Jo Brookbanks found for me was a beautiful letter by Henry Thomas Norton of the Otago Infantry Regiment, to his wife Florence. This letter was written on the 9th of September, 1916:

“My lucky day. I was told this morning I was in for more promotion. I am sitting inside our tent writing, and you would be amazed at the enormous amount of traffic. Endless streams of motor lorries, almost touching each other, hundreds of horses and mules, tents being pitched, and the whole scene is full of energy and bustle. You would be surprised at how soon a canvas town can be erected. Last night I climbed the spire of a church and had a glorious view of the country, and in the distance saw a Cathedral. There was a glorious sunset. A great big, red ball of fire, nearly crimson, and it looked so beautiful from the top of the spire, and the moon was three quarters full and right overhead.”

Thomas Norton
From left to right: Florence Norton, L.G. Norton, Henry Thomas Norton and Jean Norton (courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum

As I looked further into these two documents, I discovered that Harry Norton was himself in the 2nd NZ Brigade as part of the Otago Regiment – and heartbroken to learn that Order No.20 was the order that sent him to his death. He was killed in action on the 15th of September, 1916.

In ‘The Glorious Sunset’ these orders are paired with his letter.

Harry Norton's Grave - Caterpillar Valley
The wooden marker of Harry Norton’s grave at Caterpillar Valley, France (courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum)

IV. The Unburied

This photograph of a road in Flanders (taken just one month before the Armistice) was found for me by Harry Rickit, Associate Pictorial Curator at Auckland Museum.

A Road In Flanders (October 1918) - Henry Bartholomew
A Road In Flanders (October 1918) – Henry Bartholomew (courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum)

It articulates everything I feel about the war. What resonates most is the line of soldiers trudging off towards the horizon in such vast numbers, the volume of bodies blurring together and disappearing into the distance. 

That sense of vanishing is what I most hoped to articulate in this piece.

In ‘The Unburied’, the telegram sent to Florence Norton to inform her of her husband’s death is paired with an excerpt from a poem by an anonymous New Zealand soldier, known only as M.R.:

And in the silences of the night, when winds are fair

And shot and shard have ceased their wild surprising

I hear a sound of music in the upper air

It is the beating of the wings of migrating birds

Wafting the souls of these unburied heroes into the skies

The poet would have been describing a landscape like this, littered with fallen men. The bodies would have lain in the open for some time as the dangerous conditions prevented their recovery. Sometimes ceasefires were called so that the dead and the wounded could be removed from No Man’s Land. Accounts of this – the immense volume of the dead, the groaning of those still living and wounded, the smell, the rats that feasted on their bodies during the night – are too upsetting to recount in detail here.

But even in the midst of this misery, M.R. was able to find something beautiful in the natural world – something hopeful and redemptive. This is a theme which arises in so much correspondence and writing about the war. It seems that humans as a species – despite our violence – hold on to beauty. That we need it in order to give meaning and context to life – especially to the worst things.

For all of the time and thought that went into this piece, I’ve come away feeling that it is impossible to do justice to this subject. Thinking about it has only deepened my sense of inadequacy in that regard.

As we commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day, it strikes me that, of all the silences related to war, peace is the rarest and deepest one of all.   

In Alton Macalister’s words, written to his sister as he waited in Europe to be sent home after the war ended:

“Well Isobel dear, let’s not be too impatient, but just wait until all the dark clouds have drifted away, there are still a few left after the stormy times we have been through – and then when the sun can shine all the day long, and men realise that violence is unnecessary, then! – well – guess I’ll be home.”

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