This story by Bruce Stevenson was awarded a Highly Commended” rating in the William Taylor Memorial Short Story competition for 2016. Bruce lives in Ohura.
“Godley’s F.u.b.a.r by Bruce Stevenson
I’m clutching an old Rimu board pulled from the firewood stash. Dense of heft and rough of surface, it gives me pause. Examining it, I realize this piece of sarking was pit sawn one hundred or more years ago. There is no sign of rot or borer. Gazing at uneven striations criss-crossing the face sides, I picture a lean young fella swinging on a six foot two man ripsaw. His stance is a bit weary, eyes reddened by Rimu dust. He is the poor buggar down in the pit who pulls sharp steel through a log suspended two feet above his head.
Intrigued, I decide to suss out what became of the crosscutters and pit sawyers from last century . Sadly, many of them died young, victims of the 1914-1918 war to end wars. Over 18,000 New Zealand servicemen perished at Gallipoli and the Western Front. I’m feeling emotional, as per usual when reflecting on our guys pissing away their lives at the behest of jumped up prats with absurd clipped vowels and plummy born to rule arrogance. To honour the bushmen who cut this special board, I feature it above an old sash window that has been repaired with red stained glass. Working the wood is difficult. Tears well and my vision is blurred.
As near as can be ascertained, the bushmen in question came from Stratford. Born in the early 1890’s and raised in the shadow of Taranaki Maunga-tapu, the McGowan brothers, Shaun and Liam, worked on the final stages of ringplain deforestation. The destruction of Taranaki’s podocarp forests was initially driven by fear of Ngati Ruanui bush warfare adept Riwha Titokowaru and subsequently by the ephemeral dairy industry mantra : “ One blade of grass is worth two standing trees”.
When bush work in ‘ the Naki ‘ tailed off, the brothers left Stratford and headed inland on the proposed rail line of road. They ended up west of Ohura at Huhatahi Coal Mine. This, the first underground coal mine in the recently accessible King Country was offering a piece rate of one shilling per hundred for mine props. Liam’s diary indicates they were operating a rudimentary pit mill: “Down in the pit today. Wet muddy and spitting sawdust, hand ripping Kahikatea for the mine and Rimu sarking for the cocky who is building a house on the flats above our access track. Our tent is still leaking. Rats have eaten most of the candles.”
Shaun and Liam worked their pit between 1912 and 1914. When the call to arms came, they had “had a gutsfull“ and joined up with alacrity.
The commander in chief of the ANZAC troops was Lt-Gen Sir Alexander Godley. He had come to New Zealand to assist in establishing armed forces to support the Empire. Godley occupied a station below his self- considered worth and avidly sought promotion, as this would enhance his social and financial standing. Tragically, this ignoble agenda led to the waste of many Kiwi lives. The thought of our guys suffering horrible deaths for the advancement of a social climbing war criminal ignites in me an incandescent rage.
Liam’s diary does not cover the tragedy of “Godley’s abattoir”, but guided by the McGowan’s laconic stoicism ,I can picture Bellevue Ridge near Passchendaele at dawn on October 12 1917. A bleak shell-pocked swamp. It has been raining for days. Allied cannon are bogged out of range, so there is no artillery support. Furthermore, the assembled Kiwi troops face cloying mud, copious barbed wire and German
fortifications featuring well positioned Spandau MG 08 heavy machine guns. And yet, inexplicably, there comes the order to advance.
Shaun and Liam, our two nuggety stalwarts, are thigh deep in typhoidal mud. They are gaunt, filthy and peer with contrived unconcern at a nineteen year old British lieutenant. This pale specimen of the Empire’s finest is shitting himself, but grimly clutches a Webley .455 caliber sidearm in one shaking hand and a whistle in the other. Liam addresses his brother: “Hell, we’ve swapped blood ,dust and dysentery for blood, mud and mustard gas”.
“Yep. Same incompetent leadership but heavier on the barbed wire. Gallipoli was real shit. This, however, is a classic F.u.b.a.r. as in fucked up beyond all recognition “.
“Bro when that little pommy twat blows his whistle we will be even further up shite creek.”
“Yep . Bloody Spandaus up there will have us in a cross fire. Definitely a bit of a F.u.b.a.r.”.
“I blame Godley.”
“Godley’s abattoir” is a term coined by Andrew Macdonald in his book Passchendaele; the anatomy of a disaster.
875 awesome young Kiwi dudes died assaulting Bellevue Ridge on 12 October 1917. 1200 were injured.