Compassionate Leave

This article appeared in the April 1984 The Battalion Remembers booklet. 

Compassionate Leave - Nullified by a cruel stroke of fate

When I was first asked to contribute some personal impressions on the general topic of 'LEAVE', as we all experienced it in the various theatres of war, I accepted with keen anticipation, naively confident that the task would be a "Pushover"!

Immediately my mind flashed back over a time span of some 45 years. Once again I was back in Cairo - at the NZ Forces Club (33 Sharia Malika Farida) - strolling up Sharia El Burkhar where "Tiger Lil" told us what she and her mates did to our dads and uncles in the First World War! - sharing a luke-warm bottle of STELLA at the KURSAAL with Mo Ngarimu and Walton [Wananga] Haig - riding my first camel at the Pyramids in Mina - in fact, I found myself humming again that beloved "Oriori" "Sareeda Bint".

Across the canal to Palestine and Syria - happy memories of Sarafan Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In Syria - our base camp at ARSAAL north of Baalbek where the "MUKTAH" got his title. Weekend leave to Beirut and for luckier people like Meta Francis, Albert Wanoa, Sonny Noble and myself - three weeks at the exclusive "Cedars of Lebanon" Ski Resort, at Bisshare in the Lebanon Mountains above Tripoli. For a large number of us, the length and breadth of Italy - from Taranto to Trieste - from Rome and Napoli, to Florence and Venice - became as familiar as the terrain between Auckland and Paekakariki on the main trunk line. Camerino, the Battalion's temporary Base-Camp north of Florence, has very special significance for my wife and me.

But I've decided NOT to write about that kind of "LEAVE" where the aim was to "LET IT ALL HANG OUT - AND MAALEESH THE CONDYS!" Instead, I will tell you how FATE dealt with the destinies of two closely related families, who lived side by side, in a small village in the far north. The children in "FAMILY A" consisted of FOUR BOYS and THREE GIRLS, "FAMILY B" consisted of SIX BOYS and ONE GIRL.

These fourteen children grew up together in an environment where hunger and poverty was endemic. Day to day survival was largely a matter of sharing whatever resources the members were able to contribute to the common pool. They cared for each other in sickness and in health and in that day and time TUBERCULOSIS was not only rampant but was also regarded as terminal. Like many other similar Maori families throughout the land, these two groups of brothers joined up with the 28 NZ (Maori) Battalion and saw extensive action from the "BLITZ" in England in 1940 - to the final skirmish at Trieste in Northern Italy some six long, weary years later...

What happened to the menfolk of these two families?

The six members of "FAMILY B" [the Marsdens] all served with the Battalion throughout its campaigns in Greece, Crete, the Middle East and Italy. All were severely wounded, some as many as three separate times - two we invalided home from Libya and North Africa. The other four fought with the Battalion to the end. The amazing fact was that all six brothers though scarred and cut about, all got back home to their loved ones!

What of the four brothers of "FAMILY A" [the Fishers]? Three enlisted at the outbreak of the war, but one was rejected because of Tuberculosis ... from which he died in 1941. The youngest member Robin [Robert?], at that time was still at Primary School. He joined the Battalion at Minah as it was preparing for its "100 mile Route march" to Alexandria prior to embarking for Italy, some 3 years later. Of the two older brothers, Colin, was killed at Maleme Aerodrome in Crete and Harry (My Batman) died of wounds at Ruiwaisat ridge in July of 1942.

Robin the youngest fought with A Company from Taranto to Cassino. He, was wounded at Castelfrentano but rejoined the Company at Cassino.

It was at this time that a DIRECTIVE came down from Division, that all Units were to evacuate any soldiers who had lost two or more brothers in the field - particularly where that surviving member was the last male left in the family line. This Directive became known as "SURVIVORS COMPASSIONATE LEAVE". Robin who had lost two older brothers to enemy action and one to tuberculosis, was given a tearful farewell from Cassino by his mates of A Company. We all wished him the best of luck on his way back to New Zealand to his mother and sisters.

It wasn't until the next day that we, in the front line at Cassino, heard that the Jeep in which Robin was a passenger - was blown to pieces by a stray shell that had "Stonked" the Highway (the Mad Mile) some three miles behind the lines. With Robin's death, the male line of the family was extinguished for all time.

That my whole family should survive that great holocaust and return home to the love and warmth of family life, is a sacred gift for which I shall always be grateful. But this feeling turns to one of great sorrow, when one attempts to rationalize why fate or destiny should be so lacking in compassion in the case of the family from next door.

George J. Marsden

Submitted by mbadmin on