by Annette Bainbridge

The olive tree is now ubiquitous in many New Zealand home gardens. Its drought friendly nature and lack of towering height make it a useful tree for small suburban gardens and its delicate foliage means that it does not block out sunlight from other trees and shrubs planted near it. The olive first came to prominence for kiwi home gardeners in the 1950s and 1960s, and it was strongly linked with the fashionable American Modernist movement and the glamorous landscapes of overseas locations such as California and the Riviera. It continued to rise in popularity in the 1980s, as New Zealand cuisine was introduced to the use of olive oil as something other than a cure for ear wax (kids, ask your grandparents about that one).

But I think there is another story of the olive tree in New Zealand gardens and it has nothing to do with fashionable cultural movements or popular trends from overseas. Instead, it is a story about loss and remembrance and unspoken emotions. I think it was the quiet promotion of the planting and propagation of olive trees by many returning veterans and grieving families that is the key to its post-war popularity in the home garden.

As early as 1941, this championing of the olive had begun to audiences back home in New Zealand. A Gisborne soldier wrote from Greece to his local newspaper

 “It is a pity the olive tree is not grown in New Zealand. It makes good shade and good firewood as well as the fruit: it grows in cold areas, and also in the valleys and along the coast, and is very beautiful. Olive groves provide one of the sights of Greece”.[1]

Despite the fact that this man focuses on the more practical reasons why New Zealand gardeners might like to grow this fairly novel tree, there is an underlying sense of admiration and emotional connection in his letter to the very idea of olive trees. So this is the story of how the men of New Zealand went off to a war in Mediterranean countries. They came back damaged and traumatised, but they, and perhaps their families, articulated and channelled that trauma into something living and positive, through the means of the humble olive tree. This tree spoke of their experiences when they could not.

Let us start this story with another soldier. It is 1941. He is driving an army truck along one of the rough, vertiginous roads of Greece and he is panicking. He, and his fellow New Zealanders, are in full retreat from the German army through difficult mountainous terrain. The Germans have overwhelming air superiority. He knows this because there is a Stuka dive bomber following him as he drives; and swerve, accelerate as much as he dares on this narrow road he cannot shake him. His situation is made worse by the knowledge of the cargo in the back of his truck. For this soldier is a member of the 1st Ammunition Company and his truck contains boxes of grenades and bullets, all highly explosive. Finally just as he is beginning to lose hope, at the side of the road some flat land appears, covered with grove upon grove of olive trees. He immediately swings on the steering wheel and drives his truck into the shelter of the trees. The stuka dive bombs him, but the trees deflect the blast and, though he is thrown from his truck unconscious, the family who own the grove are able to find him and nurse him back to health in time to be evacuated with the rest of his mates to Crete.

That soldier was my grandfather, Driver Thomas G. Falconer, and since I first heard this story as a teenager I have been intrigued by the fact that my very existence as his granddaughter was dependent upon him reaching the safety of an olive grove, at that exact moment, on that day long ago. Further examination of historical resources shows that my grandfather was not alone in his experience. For many New Zealand soldiers who fought in Syria, Greece, Crete and Italy, the olive tree came to have a resounding emotional symbolism. Some soldiers, like my grandfather, found literal shelter and protection beneath the olive boughs. For some, the trees reminded them of the strength and bravery of the people of those olive-growing nations who helped them. Gnarled, battered by time and winds, often growing in poor, rocky terrain, they somehow reflected the people themselves, who remained unbroken, unbowed and yet amazingly generous in the face of extreme violence and cruelty. Other soldiers made connections between the landscapes that they were fighting in and the landscapes of home and found points of similarity that enabled them to cope. As one anonymous soldier commented on camping in a particularly picturesque spot in Syria, “Yes, we have olive trees, and it’s sunny enough but it isn’t as good as Nelson”.[2]

For many New Zealand soldiers who came from what was still, in the 1940s, a predominantly Christian nation, olive trees had far deeper overtones. The link between these trees, and the bible stories with which most soldiers would have been familiar (if only from the occasional bit of Sunday school rather than regular church attendance) was a clear one. It is difficult to imagine that the story of the olive garden of Gethsemane within which Jesus somehow finds the mental and spiritual strength to face a tomorrow that he knows will bring pain, torture and death did not strike an emotional chord with some soldiers. The memoirs of kiwi veterans regularly mention side trips to the monastery at Gethsemane and photographs of the olive trees there were often sent home to family and friends. Lieutenant Colin Martyn of Cambridge, Waikato, wrote a letter to his parents, which they shared with the local newspaper, in which he mentioned

“We passed through the old city…to the Garden and Church of Gethsemane. The Garden has a huge old olive tree against which Christ was supposed to have wept”.[3]

Nor would New Zealand soldiers have been unaware of the links between the olive tree and concepts of peace and victory from a classical past. In the heat of fierce battles on the island of Crete those concepts must have been viewed with a wry irony.

Figure 1: Olive tree in Garden of Gethsemane, from  National Library Collection PAColl-0324

Photographs of olive trees were not the only thing that soldiers sent back as souvenirs. The family of Jack Turner in Mt. Albert in Auckland received olive seeds in the post from his leave in Jerusalem. When Jack went missing and the family were left in limbo as to his fate, they planted the seeds on the northern slope of Mt. Albert in remembrance of him. Transported to Silesia in what is now Poland, Jack was one of the thousands of POWs who were forced at the end of the war to endure death marches across Germany in the depths of winter as the Russians advanced. The olive trees his family planted were still there in 2020, but were threatened by attempts of the Auckland City Council to remove all exotic trees from the slopes. The family were devastated at this news and hoped that telling Jack’s story would allow the trees to be saved.

Captain R.V. Milne of New Plymouth was another soldier who sent his wife, back home in Taranaki, “a tin of olive tree seeds”.  In 1945, it was reported in the Auckland Star that “although none have come up in her own garden, her mother, Mrs W. Taylor, has succeeded in growing two of the seeds in a very warm and sheltered piece of her property”.[4]

It was not just olive trees seen from trips on leave to the Holy Land that had a spiritual or cultural impact for New Zealanders. The images of olive trees would be particularly ingrained in the mind of those soldiers who fought in Crete. The trees were everywhere and official war histories give some notion of the peculiarly dream-like intensity of the landscape, heightened by the lack of regular food and sleep that dogged the kiwis’ progress. The trees took on an almost religious significance, “a tangle of olive branches” being as “beautiful and complicated as a rood screen”.[5] Behind it all, for those soldiers from middle class backgrounds who had been exposed to the classics at school, the impression of a

 “pattern of life…unchanged and unbroken … since Minos was a King in Crete and Theseus slew the Minotaur … We were awed by the amount of living that had been done in one narrow island … awed and comforted”.[6]

More prosaically the trees simply offered shelter and a place to sit and eat and rest between marches.

For the brief time between their evacuation from Greece and arrival on Crete and the start of the German invasion, the New Zealanders could enjoy the Mediterranean landscape. These were days that Peter Llewellyn’s history of the 1st Ammunition Company describes as “blue and gold”.[7] Haddon Donald, D.S.O, M.C, concurred in describing how strangely surreal the interlude of peace was after the frightening chaos of the Greek evacuation and before the invasion of Crete.

“We stepped ashore at Suda Bay lucky to be alive…The sun was shining…the locals were friendly, the olive trees provided welcome shade, the oranges were ripe and juicy, and the wine was good”.  [8]

The New Zealand high command even used the olive trees to help organise the disposition of their units on Crete.

“The men were allocated in groups to mighty olive trees, each bearing a number, beneath whose gnarled trunks they sank down to sleep, or to watch the friendly stars as they twinkled through the branches”.[9]

The New Zealanders found some psychological relief in the shelter of these ancient trees with one soldier commenting

 “We slept under the stars, swam in the lake at Aghya and were restored to health and spirits. Nerves that were stretched to breaking point in Greece soon mended and the men became very fit”.[10]

But all too soon the olive groves of Crete became the front line in a new, devastating form of aerial warfare – airborne invasion.

The olive trees played a crucial role in the development of the battle for Crete. Lance Corporal Allan Robinson of the 6th New Zealand Field Ambulance described the reality of being under fire.

 “There’s nothing worse than to sit in your slit trench and hear the [bullets] going through the olive trees. Hear the bits of bark and everything come down on top of you, and to see the clouds of dust around the top of your slit trench as the bullets go round. To say that I was scared would be an understatement”.

Despite this terrifying experience, Lance Corporal Robinson would, within hours, owe his survival to the olive trees of Crete. He and other medical orderlies were taken prisoner by the Germans and marched forward to the New Zealand lines to act as (he claimed) human shields for the German soldiers following them.

 “So there’s the 19th Battalion there, there’s us, and here’s the Germans behind us. We were in the middle, and they were sniping through us. They were quite a way away. They could see that we were there. And they started firing straight through us. I was lucky again because these olive trees came to my aid. That’s why I love olives. I got in behind a decent-sized olive tree, and I was sheltering”.

The situation became even more desperate, and Robinson recalled thinking about what for many men must have been the most difficult concept in warfare to grasp and make sense of – the sheer randomness of death in battle.

 “Poor old Jack, he was killed. They were firing through the olives. Lucky Robinson, I got the big olive tree. Bits of bark flying around. Dante’s inferno had nothing on it. It was scary. I think we were past the scary stage then. We were just accepting it”.

Lance Corporal Robinson survived that day because of the large trunk of an olive tree; those who were closer to smaller trees were not so lucky.

Robinson’s description is terrifying, but sometimes, as is weirdly the case with war, situations could become unintentionally humorous. Soldier Claude Wickstead recalled that

Several of us were hiding out in an olive grove and a Dornier came around, dropped all his personnel bombs without very much harm and spotted us behind this olive tree. He then proceeded to fly around us and of course, as he proceeded, we proceeded around the tree and he expended all his ammunition and of course in the end the pilot of the bomber had no alternative but to wave to us and the pilot flapped his wings and they flew away. And we thought this is one time when we’ve got the German air force whacked! [11]

Figure 2: Wounded soldiers hiding in a ditch, Crete, during World War II, from PAColl-6677-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/32049920

A description of the action in the Battle of Crete that led to the awarding of a Victoria Cross to Sergeant Clive Hulme, also demonstrates the centrality of the olive tree to the way in which the fighting unfolded. Part of his commendation recorded how he dived for shelter behind an olive tree, only to be forced into hand to hand combat with a German sniper who had been hiding in its branches.

Sergeant Hulme had a strong link with the symbolism of the olive tree for other reasons that became clearer a year later, when the New Zealand newspapers published a moving letter that Hulme had sent to the parents of a young man who had been killed in action on Crete. In this letter he described the way in which he and another sergeant tried to give this man appropriate funeral rites both physically and spiritually.

“Sergeant Trewby M.M. and I carried him to a deep slit trench in a beautiful place under a huge olive tree. We both recited the Lord’s Prayer over the grave and covered him with his blanket and greatcoat. Mac was buried with a branch of an olive tree in his hands…”[12]

What is notable about this description is the assumption on Hulme’s part that the connection with the olive tree will be a healing, comforting element for the young man’s parents to know. It should be mentioned that as Hulme and Trewby were performing this final service there were still warplanes flying and strafing overhead. It is tempting to wonder if the calming nature of the olive tree burial was helpful to the two men still alive to witness it. They must at some point have wondered if this would be their fate too in the next couple of days.

Figure 3: Private W J Brown, 2nd Lieutenant C W Taylor and Corporal A J Spence, Crete, from Ref: PAColl-6677-4. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23188278

The image of the olive tree was obviously an important component of grieving for many families and friends back in New Zealand who had lost loved ones on Crete. Driver Thomas Devlin’s family wrote in his memorial notice

“Where alien skies eternally are blue/ beneath an aged, shell-torn olive tree and trampled flowers/ Tom sleeps…”[13]

It is obvious that the olive tree was the part of the Cretan landscape that still resonated with the men long after the battle was over. In 1949, a soldier calling himself simply, Phil, put this ‘in memoriam’ notice in a Gisborne newspaper

“Sacred to the memory of Hugh [Marshall] killed in action at Galatos, Crete … Among the olive trees a hero’s grave/ On Galatos Hill where rest the brave”.[14]

These memorial notices to two dead soldiers are typical of many. The images of trees and groves was, perhaps for many older members of families, a kinder scene of loss than the muddy trenches of the previous war and for the men who knew the reality of just how bad it had been, the olive tree was a easy way of representing experiences that it was possible they could not put into words.

One thing clearly remembered by New Zealand soldiers, especially those who had to hide to avoid capture on Crete after the surrender, is the generosity of the local people. Staff sergeant T. Moir 4th Field Regiment gives an instance that worried him and his compatriots so much that they sneaked away rather than endanger the villagers any more

‘On one occasion, when they discovered us, sleeping off the effects of several liberal draughts of wine taken during the heat of the day, under a grove of olive trees not very far from a village, we were plied with so much food and wine that after three days we managed to continue on our way only by sneaking off during the dead of night during a lull in hospitality. We carefully avoided villages during the next three days until our supply of food ran out.’ [15]

Many New Zealand soldiers had similar memories of the local people and their kindness in both the Greek and Italian campaigns.

Given the intensity of all these experiences then, it is not surprising that the olive was chosen as the official tree to represent the campaigns of Greece and Crete for the memorial to the 19th Battalion and Armoured Regiment Association which

“arranged with the City Council reserves department [in Christchurch] to have trees planted nearby to commemorate the places where the regiment served, including an Italian cypress, an olive and a Lebanon cedar”. [16]

Figure 4: German paratroops treated by New Zealanders, Crete: ‘The olive trees gave protection from the unchallenged and ever-active Luftwaffe’, from https://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/WH2-1Epi-fig-WH2-1Epi-k012b.html

The people of Crete themselves also chose it to be the way that they remembered the sacrifice of the New Zealanders for their freedom. The Whangarei RSA’s war memorial garden contains olive trees from Crete. Three olive trees outside the Montecillo Veterans Home in Dunedin are a poignant reminder of the struggles and sacrifices made by New Zealanders in Greece and Crete during World War 2.[17] Lower Hutt’s cretan olive tree was transplanted into a new ANZAC lawn in 2015. “The olive tree”, said the Greek Bishop of New Zealand at the new dedication ceremony, “is very holy to us”.[18] The olive tree was able to bear the weight of this symbolism because it already had such cultural resonance in Western civilisation, but I think for many veterans it was far more personal and visceral than that.

So this is the story so far, but I think this is a topic that deserves further exploration, even further publicity. For those of you who might have had fathers or grandparents who were war veterans, it would be interesting to hear from you. Do you know if there was a connection between these relatives and the arrival of the olive tree as a staple of New Zealand post-war gardening? Major-General Bill Gentry of the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade openly stated that when he arrived home in New Zealand he would plant an olive tree in his garden in order to remember.[19]  It would be fascinating to know if there is evidence that any veterans or their families also openly stated the same intention for the same reason.

Meanwhile, as ANZAC Day approaches, maybe the rest of us who have olive trees in our garden, or know a park where they grow, could go up those trees and give the branches or trunks a gentle pat to say … well done. It would be a way to remember those soldiers, the people of Greece, Crete and Italy who helped them, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, and the promise of peace that they all fought so hard for. For the olive tree, like the poppy, has become something more than just the sum of its parts, and its existence in our gardens, and in memorial parks, is one way of connecting New Zealand with a past that is fast moving beyond living memory.

Figure 5: “Orchard of olive (Olea europaea) trees in Crete”, photo taken by A. Poulos, published on Flickr (CC)

References


[1] Gisborne Herald, 26 June, 1941

[2] Nelson Evening Mail, 24 Aug 1942, p.3

[3] Waikato Independent, 17 March 1944, p.5

[4] Auckland Star, 18 April 1945, p.4

[5] Peter Llewellyn, Journey Towards Christmas: 1st Ammunition Company, 2nd NZEF (Wellington: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1949) p.108

[6] ibid, p. 107

[7] ibid, p. 106

[8] Haddon Donald, In Peace and War: A Civilian Soldier’s Story (Masterton: Fraser Books, 2005) p. 28

[9] https://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2Petr-c8.html

[10] P. Winter, Expendable, (New Zealand: Moana Press, 1989)

[11] https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/the-years-back-the-new-decade-1972/quotes

[12] Nelson Evening Mail, 16 June 1942, p. 4

[13] Evening Star, 21st May 1945, p. 4

[14] Gisborne Herald, 24 May 1949, p. 1

[15] http://tothosewhoserved.org/nz/army/nzarmy02/appendix7.html

[16] https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/19th-battalion-memorial

[17] https://www.odt.co.nz/lifestyle/magazine/good-oil-olive-trees

[18] https://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/73946942/lower-hutts-armistice-day-olive-tree-ceremony- marks-crete-and-kiwi-bonds

[19] Sally Mathieson, ed., Bill Gentry’s War (Palmerston North: The Dunmore Printing Company, 1996)

2 thoughts on “The Soldiers and the Olive Trees

  1. There is a memorial grove of olive trees planted near Blenheim in Marlborough. They make olive oil as a for the rsa there. Thank you for sharing this story.

    Liked by 1 person

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