Cecil Malthus was born on 24 April 1890 in Timaru, a town in the South Island province of Canterbury, New Zealand. He was a scholarly young man. After attending Timaru Boys’ High School, Malthus studied English and French at Canterbury College, Christchurch, which was then a regional campus of the University of New Zealand. He attained a Bachelor of Arts degree and then completed a Master of Arts degree, graduating with first class honours in 1913. His sweetheart, Hazel Watters, also attended Canterbury College, studying Latin and English.
At the beginning of 1914, Malthus began teaching at Nelson Boys’ College. A few months later, the outbreak of war brought an abrupt end to his career as a teacher. In his book Anzac: A Retrospect, Malthus recalls taking a bush walk with some friends just days prior to the declaration of war on 5 August. The whole party believed war was imminent and all expected that they would enlist. Malthus recalled:
It was agreed that it was the urgent duty of every able-bodied man to consider the question of enlisting, and that seeing service gave us a thrill of pure joy, and indeed the feeling throughout New Zealand was mainly one of pleasurable excitement... Our task lay plain before us. Without a pang, without doubt or hesitation, we dropped the life that had absorbed us. No resolve or decision was involved. It just had to be that way. And so the great adventure began.
Malthus enlisted on 15 August 1914. As he had enlisted in Nelson, he was placed into the ranks of the local territorial unit, the 12th (Nelson) Regiment, one of four regiments that made up the Canterbury Infantry Battalion. From the formation of this battalion each of these original territorial regiments was henceforth referred to as a ‘company’.
On 16 August 1915, the 12th (Nelson) Company departed for Christchurch to join the rest of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion at the Addington Show Grounds and begin their training. Malthus described the camp:
In Christchurch five crowded weeks were spent in training and equipping our motley lot of volunteers, and a wonderful transformation was effected. Certainly the material was good. There were men of every trade and profession in the Dominion including many of the finest ability and personality who, impelled mainly no doubt by the spirit of adventure, served cheerfully in the ranks. It was a unique opportunity to see something of the world overseas, though patriotic motives were by no means lacking. The fact that all officers and NCOs were drawn from the existing Territorial Force greatly accelerated the work of preparation, and in an incredibly short space of time our ragged army felt itself to be an effective fighting force. I have never known finer comrades than in those early days, rough bushmen and men of all work as they largely were. There was hardly a man in our platoon with whom one could not be on terms of friendly good fellowship.
On 2 October, Malthus travelled with the 12th Nelson Company from the Christchurch port of Lyttelton aboard HMNZT Athenic to meet the rest of the Main Body, which was then gathering in Wellington. The ten transport ships departed New Zealand on 16 October. Malthus described the ship:
On the Athenic (at 12,000 tons the largest and fastest of the fleet) were crowded three companies of infantry from our battalion, together with two squadrons of mounteds - 1300 troops altogether, plus 350 horses. Our berths and mess room were down in the depths of the hold, reached by a roughly improvised wooden stairway, very steep. The bunks in three tiers, packed as close as they would go. (On subsequent trips with reinforcements the number of men and horses per ship was roughly halved.) Because of the overcrowding we were allowed ashore every evening, but for the first fortnight not a penny of pay was forthcoming, and most of us were broke. When we did get a dole at last it was just enough to cover a few drinks and a lot of cheerful talk in a hotel bar.
After he departed New Zealand, Malthus began writing to his sweetheart, Hazel. He continued to write to her throughout the war, describing, often in vivid detail, his life as a serviceman in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. She kept all his letters and they are now publicly available through the Christchurch City Libraries website.
On Sunday 18 October 1914, early in the voyage to Australia, Malthus wrote to Hazel from Athenic:
We left Wellington sure enough on Friday morning, and are steering apparently for Hobart. We don’t get there till about Wednesday, but I won’t finish this till we are nearing port. The time is passing very comfortably and lazily on the whole so far, although half the men are sick. The first day was glorious, but yesterday and today have been rather windy and rough. It is fine if you can get a sheltered corner on deck, but there are not many such, in proportion to the crowd of men, and sometimes one is driven down to the stuffy sleeping quarters for shelter. There are no seats, of course, on deck: you just have to sprawl, or else lean on the rails…
The fleet presents rather a fine sight. There are ten transports, steaming in two lines, one behind the other … You could never imagine how beautiful the sea is out here – such a deep, dark blue, with the white tops of the rollers just broken by the wind…
The men are much more jolly than I ever hoped to find them. I was horrified at first at the prospect of their company – low, foul-mouthed, thieving, immoral drunkards they seemed. But ‘there’s so much good in the worst of us’, and I find even the lowest of them brave and good natured and good soldiers.
The two-week journey to Albany included a stop in Hobart, where the soldiers took part in routine exercises. Athenic and the NZEF Main Body arrived in King George Sound on 28 October 1914. On 1 November, they departed with the Australian transports as the First Convoy, bound for Egypt.
Malthus wrote of the journey:
Our trip through the tropics was beautifully calm, A rowing boat could have come all the way from Albany. A number of us slept on deck, laying out our straw mattresses under the open sky. There was a swift dusk, then starry darkness. The stars were very high and far in the black tropical night. But there were heavy showers nearly every night, and it was amusing to see the sleepers awake and break for cover. Bathing arrangements were nil, but sometimes we got under a hose on deck, or got a fresh shower-bath in the rain.
As the weeks went by the monotony of the utterly unimaginative diet became a sore subject. Bread, stew and cheese were in plentiful supply, but the only two other items, butter and jam, were often lacking. This extreme limitation of diet became unbearable, so every man had to learn to hold his own at the gentle art of theft. My own efforts in the way of ‘salvage’ were always quietly successful.
In a letter to Hazel on 29 November, Malthus described the final stages of his journey onboard Athenic.
I am getting quite busy now, with scout lectures and extra parades, so I want to write my letters in good time, to make sure of them. I have undertaken to teach French or German, or both, to our company officers. I have not started yet, but it may take a good deal of time and trouble, with no book to work with. It may be well worth while, though, if I can put them under an obligation to me, and in any case I don’t grudge the trouble. I am only afraid that I will find them a bit ‘thick’, and that they will expect me to make it easier for them than is possible…
The Red Sea has kept well up to its reputation for sweltering heat. The last few days have been more trying than the tropics – a more oppressive heat. But today has been a perfect treat – dull, with a strong cool, delicious breeze, making quite a stir on the water… We slowed down as we neared Aden, and took a day longer than we expected to complete the run – eight days from Colombo. The place seemed very similar to Albany, expect that the harbor or bay is larger. We remained at anchor right out near the open sea, about five miles from the town, and got no shore leave whatever…. It was the more disappointing, as the town has a very strange and interesting appearance from the distance, and the few Arabs and negroes who came out in boats were very picturesque fellows. One could imagine the town as a queer mixture of East and West. The land is very flat, running back to lofty mountains and tablelands in the far distance, but just on either side of the entrance there are high jagged rocks or hills. The sand of the desert lay piled high against these rocks, but there were patches of green scrub out in the plain.
Athenic arrived at the Egyptian port of Alexandria on 3 December 1914. Malthus and the Canterbury Infantry Battalion disembarked here and travelled by train to Cairo. From there they marched to the newly formed Zeitoun Camp, seven kilometres outside of the city.
Life in Zeitoun Camp was routine, and the training was difficult in the extreme conditions of the desert:
Conditions at Zeitoun at first were rough, but by degrees the camp developed into a regular canvas town, and all reasonable comforts - showers, dining huts, canteens, cafes - were eventually provided. The floors of our bell tents had to be watered, as otherwise they were full of dusty and dirty, and they set as hard as concrete. However, we were always so exhausted that we had no trouble in sleeping on them with just a blanket.
The working days were certainly severe. The normal programme was a long march out into the sand dunes, a scorching sun, dry bread and biscuits for lunch (plus juicy oranges bought from the Arab vendors always hovering on our flanks), and hours spent in digging useless trenches or elaborately attacking an imaginary enemy. Then a weary struggle home to a comfortless camp, ravenous meal of stew, and so to bed.
The marches alone were up to 20 miles of heavy going … It was one of the mysteries of the army that whenever a company was on the march under difficult conditions, the leading files would consider that they were going at quite a deliberate pace, yet always the panting, cursing men at the rear would be travelling almost at the double.
A week after arriving in Alexandria, Malthus wrote to Hazel, telling her of the disappointment amongst the New Zealand forces when told that they would remain in Egypt rather than continue to the Western Front. He also described the daily routine of life in Zeitoun Camp, and recounted a visit to the ancient city of Cairo, which was nearby.
Malthus soon experienced a taste of battle when the New Zealanders were sent to defend the Suez Canal from a possible Ottoman attack. The Canterbury Infantry Battalion was stationed at Ismailia on Lake Timsah, about halfway down the Suez Canal. On 2 February, Malthus’ 9th Platoon and the 10th Platoon were sent to garrison an outpost at nearby Serapeum. In the early hours of the following morning, the Ottoman soldiers attacked the Canal. The posts at Toussum and Serapeum bore the brunt of the attack.
Malthus describes what it was like to be in the middle of this battle:
The volume of fire was greatest after sunrise, about seven o’clock, then after a couple of hours the enemy faded away. Those who tried to escape from their nearer trenches were mostly shot down.
We had only one man wounded, Bill Ham, of 10 Platoon, but the poor chap died next day. He was shot in the neck, and the spine was broken. There may have been some proud consolation for his people in the fact of his being the first New Zealand casualty in the war.
No sooner had the rifle fire ceased than the Turkish shrapnel began, and No.9 caught the first of it. I don’t mind saying that I was horribly frightened, and dug into the sand like a rabbit. Many of the pine trees beside us were felled by the shelling. The Turkish guns seem to be searching for ours, and soon their fire passed further along out front. Hardly a dozen shells burst over our little party, but unfortunately we lost our platoon sergeant, Billy Williams, who was wounded in the shoulder. Bill had all the Cockney’s gift for profanity, and on this occasion he excelled himself.
Malthus landed on Gallipoli with the 12th (Nelson) Company, Canterbury Infantry Battalion, late in the afternoon on 25 April 1915. His company helped capture and hold the position of Walker’s Ridge, and joined the 2nd Battalion AIF in reinforcing the line on 26-27 April. Malthus described the landing:
In the shallows we tumbled out knee-deep and scrambled ashore. Forming a rough line on the beach, we were led straight up the steep hill passing many dead and wounded, and stragglers in a terrible state of fatigue. Shrapnel was still whizzing through the bushes everywhere, but thanks to the steep slope we were not seriously exposed to it. Near the summit of this cliff like declivity (which was soon to be the site of the headquarters dug-outs) we halted and had time to take stock of the situation. It was sufficiently grim. Steady streams of reinforcements were still arriving in boats and barges of every size and description, but those pushing off again were equally loaded with wounded. Even the badly injured had to be tipped into the boats without their stretchers, which were indispensable ashore and anyhow would have taken the room of six men apiece in the crowded boats. Rows of other wounded were lined along the beach, dumped on a blanket or just on the bare earth or shingle.
On 6 May, a week after landing on the beaches of Gallipoli, Malthus moved down to Cape Helles to take part in the Second Battle of Krithia. This proved to be a costly attack with high casualties for very little gain. The New Zealanders’ assault on the Ottoman trenches guarding the village of Krithia began on 8 May. The men charged across open ground with no cover and were cut to pieces by Ottoman machine-guns. The Canterbury Battalion alone lost over 200 men. Malthus described the attack:
We spent a night (a cold one) cramped and crowded into a line of deserted trenches on an open moor. This was over near the Aegean shore, near Gully Ravine where the ground was higher and more desolate than the rest of Cape Helles... At early dawn a weary mass of humanity disentangled itself from the hateful trench and plodded about a mile up the creek bed (Krithia Nullah) which at one point was full of monstrous swollen corpses. Their uniforms were dusty blue and their faces looked black, but I think they must have been Turks, not Senegalese, as it seems all the French troops had been over on the right from the outset... We gathered that we must be approaching the danger zone, but were taken aback by the next order: ‘New Zealanders prepare to advance.’ Where on earth were the enemy and what were our objectives? Hastily we threw off our packs and piled them in heaps... It was only in the act of springing over the parapet that we were told of another line of British still lying a hundred yards ahead of us. We sprinted the distance all abreast, in fine style, and thanks to our smartness it was only in the last few yards that he enemy woke up and loosed his fire. The tragedy of it was that from the moment he remained awake, and we were left with the certainty, in our next advance, of having to face a living stream of lead. There seems to be no reason why our advance up to this point, and further, should not have been made peaceably the night before, when we could almost certainly have dug in without losing a man.
Later that day their advance continued. Malthus continued:
The first dash - I believe I was the first man of all our line - not only gave me a thrill of self importance but probably saved my life, for we had covered 50 yards or more before the hail of fire began. At any rate, the scouts had no casualties, but the other unfortunates, rising to follow our example, were met by a wall of fire and were cruelly slaughtered... Meanwhile we were racing ahead, For about 200 yards we sprinted, thinking oddly how beautiful the poppies and daisies were, then from sheer exhaustion we rushed to ground in a slight depression and lay there panting... Hugging the ground in frantic terror we began to dig blindly with our puny entrenching tools, but soon the four men nearest me were lying, one dead, two with broken legs, and the other badly wounded in the shoulder. A sledgehammer blow on the foot made me turn with a feeling of positive relief that I had met my fate, but it was a mere graze and hardly bled. Another bullet passed through my coat, and a third ripped along two feet of my rifle sling. The wounded man on my right got a bullet through the head that ended his troubles. And still without remission the air was full of hissing bullets and screaming shells.
Despite their losses, Malthus and the other survivors had to hang on and defend the front line for another three days before they were withdrawn. The New Zealand Infantry Brigade remained at Cape Helles until the night of 19 May when the New Zealanders were hastily sent back to reinforce the Anzac sector, which had been hit by a massive Ottoman attack earlier that day.
On 11 July 1915, Malthus was hospitalised on Lemnos suffering from enteric dysentery, brought on by the extremely poor hygiene conditions and lack of adequate rations on the peninsula. He convalesced for a month and returned to his company on 9 August, in time to participate in the Sari Bair Offensive. The previous day, the ranks of the Canterbury Battalion had been hit hard on the slopes of Rhododendron Ridge as they attempted to make their way up to Chunuk Bair. Malthus survived the battle and was promoted to the rank of lance corporal.
By the start of September, however, his health had deteriorated. On 2 September he was admitted to hospital suffering scarlet fever and pneumonia. He returned to the Anzac sector on 21 October, but by the time of the evacuation had developed yellow jaundice. He was hospitalised in Alexandria on 29 December.
When the New Zealand Division was formed in Egypt in early 1916, Malthus was assigned to the 12th Platoon, 12th (Nelson) Company, 1st Battalion, The Canterbury Infantry Regiment, and promoted to the rank of sergeant. He moved to the Armentières sector on the Western Front in April 1916, before fighting in the final stages of the battle of the Somme at Flers-Courcelette. The 1st Canterbury Battalion went into action on 15 September and experienced several days of hard fighting around the village of Flers.
Malthus wrote to Hazel on 11 September 1916, just before going into action in the battle of Flers-Courcelette.
If I am knocked out, don’t worry about it, dear. It is a good life and a good death here. But I feel sure I am going to be lucky again and will get a commission if I come through this time. Thank you for all your goodness, dear. You have been a great help to me all through.
Listen to his description of the battle:
On 25 September Malthus was hit by a grenade, which shattered his right foot and injured his jaw and both hands. He was invalided to England, where he had to undergo a partial amputation of his foot. He was sent to Brockenhurst, No.1 New Zealand General Hospital to recuperate, but the injury to his foot made him no longer physically fit for active service. By the end of 1916 a medical board confirmed this assessment and declared that he should be discharged. In March 1917 Malthus was sent back to New Zealand on Marama.
Malthus was discharged from the NZEF on 5 April 1917. Soon after returning to New Zealand, he married his sweetheart Hazel in her hometown of Ashburton on 18 December 1918. They raised five children together.
During the war, Hazel had continued her studies at Canterbury College and graduated with the Masters of Arts degree with honours in Latin and English. She had received a number of letters from Malthus during the war, which gave her an elevated insight into what her husband had gone through. Many returned servicemen refused to speak to their wives or children, preferring the company of their former comrades within the confines of the Returned Services Association clubrooms. The openness between the couple may have contributed to the long and rewarding life that they shared together, which was marked by both professional success and personal happiness.
His war service behind him, Malthus returned to pursuing his academic career. In 1920 he received a Canterbury College travelling scholarship to continue his studies in French and Literature at Paris University. After this he took a position as Professor of Modern Languages at the University of Tasmania, before returning to Christchurch to become Professor of Modern Languages at the University of Canterbury, a position he held between 1933 and 1955. In 1965 Malthus published Anzac: a Retrospect, an account of his time at Gallipoli based on his letters and diaries. It was acknowledged by many of his former comrades as one of the best accounts of the New Zealand experience of Gallipoli. The companion work, Armèntieres and the Somme, remained unpublished until 2002, when Reed Books put it into print with the assistance of New Zealand military historian Christopher Pugsley.
In this book, Malthus’ final thoughts on the battle of the Somme, the action that left him permanently wounded, are worth recounting:
A last word on the Somme, which will surely always rank as one of the most dreadful battles in history. Grim and bloody it was, beyond all description. I hated the blood and mire of it, and yet, and yet... I feel I must defend the conception of it and the outcome of it, which have been so bitterly criticised by so many. I fail to see that the plan and method of attack, at that date, could have been much different. If all the generals on both sides failed to devise anything more efficient, it answers nothing to say they were all equally stupid. Surely it should rather be said they were all equally the victims of circumstance. They had to fight a war of attrition because there was no other choice. And who won the war of attrition? Perhaps nobody, yet it was the attrition that won the war.
Malthus died in Christchurch on 25 July 1976, aged 86.
Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga: 18805, MALTHUS, Cecil, 6/291
Christchurch City Libraries, Cecil Malthus: World War I papers, viewed 1 August 2014, <http://christchurchcitylibraries.com/Heritage/Digitised/WarsAndConflicts/WorldWarI/Malthus/Thumbnails/>
Ferguson, D 1921, The History of the Canterbury Regiment, NZEF, 1914-1919, Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Auckland
Malthus, C 1965, Anzac: A Retrospect, Whitcombe & Tombs, Christchurch
Malthus, C 2000, Armentières and the Somme, Reed, Auckland
National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
New Zealand Electronic Text Centre 2014, New Zealand in the First World War 1914–1918, viewed 20 September 2014, <http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-corpus-WH1.html>