John Alexander Lee was a writer and a soldier who served on the Western Front. After the war, this decorated veteran – and amputee – went on to become a prominent member of the New Zealand Labour Party and the Returned Services’ Association.
Lee’s upbringing in Dunedin and Southland with his mother and three siblings was defined by grinding poverty. He left school early, delving into petty crime and vagrancy, and landed himself in Mount Eden Prison for a series of offences.
Lee was a voracious reader, especially of socialist literature, and was reputed to have heard socialist orators through the bars of his cell window while in prison. This helped shape his future political views.
In March 1916, Lee enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, serving with distinction with the Wellington Infantry Regiment on the Western Front.
He received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for single-handedly capturing a German machine-gun position during the attack on Messines in 1917.
Adapting well to military life, Lee quickly established a circle of like-minded friends and discovered himself to be articulate and clever. He wrote regular items from the front for Clutha Mackenzie's periodical ‘Chronicles of the NZEF’:
We have been existing somewhere in that shadowy land of abandonment and misery over which we have gradually forced our way.
Often have I read of this weird land of desolation, but what I have read, in the light of what I have seen recently, fills me with a sense of the inefficacy of words. For the ruthlessness of man has made it appear a country wholly forsaken by nature.
Lee also bluntly described the horrendous conditions experienced by the New Zealanders holding the line near Polygon Wood, also known as Zonnebeke.
We were deep down in dugouts safe from the burst of the heaviest shell, crowded like vermin. And all around we could see evidence of the spendthrift folly of high command with men and their lives and their works.
For miles to the right or the left the country was fouled with the rotting dead, and the country in front and to the rear. Fragments of horses, mules, men – death was indeed a leveller – disabled tanks, equipment sinking in mud, helmets riddled with shrapnel.
There were boots, flesh, arms and legs protruding from the mud.
The Zonnebecke wood was a wood of barkless splinters. It was as if land and men and war material had been churned in some giant mixer and spread over land pitted with craters to hold the enriched mixture.
In March 1918, Lee was hit at Mailly-Maillet, and had his left arm amputated in hospital.
Returning to New Zealand, he became actively involved in the emerging Labour Party and the Returned Services’ Association, promoting the interests of returning soldiers.
He climbed quickly in Labour’s ranks, and served as a Member of Parliament for Auckland East during the 1920s and for Grey Lynn from 1931 to 1943.
From 1936 to 1939, Lee served as a Parliamentary Under-secretary with responsibility for Labour’s state housing scheme.
In 1940, he was controversially expelled from the Labour Party after harshly criticising its leadership. He set up a new opposition party but lost his seat at the 1943 election.
Lee devoted the rest of his life to writing and running his bookselling business.