[Unedited interview with John A. Lee about the Western Front during World War I].
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Tim Evans-Freke interviews John A. Lee about World War I, near the 50th anniversary of the start of the war. Lee reads largely from a script and occasionally recites poetry.
John A. Lee reports the numbers of casualties of the allies of World War I who were killed and injured concentrating on the New Zealanders. He pays tribute to the New Zealand troops from both War War I and World War II. He says it was a great honour to march with these men.
He describes how New Zealand troops were perceived by the English and quotes John Masefield. He mentions the Germans and no-man's-land and how during the dark of night the enemy could sneak across and throw a bomb into the trenches without being seen. He says that New Zealanders had a talent in no-man's-land and talks about the utter exhaustion of these men in the 400 mile trench.
He talks about trench warfare and an Auckland party which came back with prisoners and wounded. He mentions trench-feet and lice ridden conditions in the trenches. The closer together the trenches the more brutal the battles. They were low lying. The Germans had been emptying their trenches into the low lying ones and flooding them making them a cesspool and disease ridden. He talks about the New Zealand Division because it contained his mates and it was the one he served in.
Ploegsteert Woods (Plug Street Wood) in Messines and his recollections of this. He tells of occupying a trench here. In front of Messines he says he saw his first German and he waved at him. He describes Messines when it was still a town, even at the risk of a snipers bullet, when sneaking a look from the trenches. He tells of marching through this empty town.
The New Zealand division lived on Hill 63 (Red Lodge and Hyde Park corner) and Lee describes this and the shelling by the Germans. It was one of the deadliest stretches of road. He talks about the German airmen attacking the balloons above Hill 63.
In amongst it all the soldiers still were able to play 'two-up'. He describes some men winning thousands of francs in the game.
Lee says he saw sights in the sky of Messines that no man had seen before. He describes British planes dropping something inflammable on German balloons and thousands of eyes on the ground watching a German airman trying to shoot a British observer in a parachute. Another night they watched three British airman fall from their planes. He describes the start of air-bombing at Neuve-Eglise and the Spring Offensive.
He talks about the soldiers being sentimental and the items they took from a mate's body if he died, to return to New Zealand. He describes the way the men prepared for the battle of Messines, writing letters home, singing all their marching songs loudly, drinking the estaminets dry if they had a few francs. Later, they sung other songs of home and prepared their equipment, putting photos of a girl, mother or sister in their breast pocket.
Officers dressed as soldiers so they couldn't be picked off by snipers.
He recalls the night as they prepared for the attack on Messines. No smoking was ordered but soldiers still dared to. The Germans had expected them for weeks ad dropped the odd gas shell, which meant they had to wear gas masks as they marched with heavy equipment, making it difficult to see where they were going. They see a tank being hit by a shell and its crew grilled.
He describes waiting in the trenches for zero hour at Messines. Ten thousand guns were waiting for dawn. The countdown begins. At one minute to go the air is thick with German gunfire and then up and over. He was in the second wave of men. He describes the fire hitting the ground as thick as rainfall. Machine guns cut at the men but there is no time to count wounded and dead. German prisoners run towards them, calling out their surrender.
Once they took a German trench or pillbox, the Germans began to shell it in counter-bombardment, which took a terrible toll. The cost to New Zealand was heavy.
He moves on to describe the Passchendaele offensive. He says he fears people will say he is exaggerating if he describes it truthfully. In the advance they were waist deep in mud and going against uncut wire. He recounts the official history of the offensive.
Finally he recounts how the German army broke through in the Somme again in early 1918. The New Zealand division was taking part in a rugby tournament and learnt the British line had been broken. He describes in detail how the New Zealanders marched to the area near Mailly-Maillet and filled the gap, driving the Germans back.
He tells of a tribute paid by the French military to the New Zealand Division. The local French people stopped fleeing once they knew the New Zealanders were there. He repeats John Masefield's poetic description of the New Zealand Division as "the finest body of young men ever brought together in modern times."
Reference number 246669
Media type AUDIO
Collection Sound Collection
Interviews (Sound recordings)
Evans-Freke, Tim, Interviewer
Lee, John A. (John Alexander), 1891-1982, Interviewee
New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (estab. 1962, closed 1975)
Date 03 Aug 1964