Lest we forget: A.N.Z.A.C. Day 2019


New Zealand graves at Polygon Wood, Belgium. R. GLENNIE

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon

My visit to Belgium last year had three aims. See some of its rich history, test drive some of their superb craft beer and chocolate and visit some of the more notable war graves and memorials to the madness that was World War 1.

Polygon Wood war cemetery was basking in sunshine when I visited it in September 2018. A beautiful clear autumn day in a peaceful wooded setting with nicely maintained grounds, a far sight from the horribly mangled place that it would have been at the end of 1918 with nary a tree in sight, shell holes half full of ground water with rotting human bodies, bits of uniform, guns, unexploded ordnance and other detritus. So toxic I imagine, that it would not have been fit for even the hardiest biological organism.

When I remember those famous words from Binyon this year and in years coming, I will also remember them for the German soldiers who were just following orders just like ours. I will remember them because those Germans probably no more wanted to be in the war than I suspect any of the others – looking for ways to legitimately “catch a blighty” (be wounded enough to be sent home)was common. With little or no understanding of the horrendous mental toll that living in trenches with inches deep mud, being shelled incessant whilst dreading the whistle that would send everyone over the top in far too many cases for the final time, those who had gone mad were dispatched by a gun shot.

I remember them because as Paul Ham, in his book Passchendaele: A requiem for a doomed youth makes clear, the disgruntlement with a stupid war where no progress seemed to be getting made, by the end of 1917, both the German and British civil populations loathed the war. A war where the youngest British soldier was just 13 and the oldest was 68; where the first British soldier to die, died just 200 metres from where the last British soldier died. The French had nearly mutinied after the blood bath at Verdun the previous year, causing their commanders to effectively withdraw the French military from the war for a year.

What is not so well known is what caused the Germans to suddenly surrender. It was rumoured that after more than a year effectively in dock, the German high seas fleet was finally ready to put to sea again. Except that there was a problem. When the fatal Battle of Jutland occurred in 1916, the German navy had not seen much action and there was some excitement about the prospect of finally fighting. Fast forward two very bloody years on the Western Front, a civil population sick of the huge losses, the nearly universal shortages of just about everything and no end in sight, the German navy had lost the will to fight. Mutiny set in at the naval bases and spread like wildfire. On 8 November 1918, the Kaiser abdicated. Three days later in a train carriage at Compiegne an Armistice was signed.

Nearly 100 years later I visited a museum at Zonnebeke where we could see a collection of defused shells and it was explained to us what their individual purpose was – each colour marking meant a different use. Some were gas shells that would explode and release poison gas. Some were made for piercing the concrete of bunkers and still more were made as incendiary or high explosive shells. The range of uses that were found was impressively depressing. German, British and French shells were all well represented among them.

As I wandered among the many graves – New Zealand, Canadian, Australian, French, German, British, Belgian, South African, Indian and those of others – I thought about where the consequences of World War 1 have taken us in the 100 years since. I thought about the social cost, the several quantum leaps our ability to kill each other has taken, and about how much (or how little) our politicians seem to have learnt from it. When they advocate for war, I think of the millions of young men sent to their deaths all for a war that history is by no means certain about the purpose of.

Those young men never had a voice, but my generation and future generations hopefully do. Binyon’s words are for them too. As a reminder.

A.N.Z.A.C. Day not a glorification of war


On Wednesday morning, thousands of people all over New Zealand gathered in the pre-dawn darkness to attend the Dawn Service, acknowledging the sacrifices made by the New Zealand Defence Force. They gathered to remember those that had gone to war and never came home, those that fought and came home bearing both physical and mental scars. They came to say thanks.

But they did not come to glorify war.

Across all of the ceremonies I have been to in Christchurch, not one struck me as vaguely promoting war or militarism. Not one failed to mention the horrendous loss of life and the effects on society that are felt from having lost so many people.

So, whilst we see plenty of coverage about our soldiers going away in the two world wars and fighting on foreign battlefields, I do not believe that there has been any effort to downplay the losses. This is irrespective of whether they happened on the sun baked slopes of Gallipoli, in the muddy hell of Passchendaele, the Somme, Verdun, Cambrai. It is irrespective of whether they died in the skies above Britain, at sea fighting the Germans or Japanese or in the Mediterranean theatre.

All of the ceremonies set an appropriate tone, sombre and respectful. The high losses suffered are shown in the number of war memorials all over New Zealand from little towns through to Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and so forth.

One concern I had was upon finding out decades ago that World War 1 was also the “Great War”. It did not bother me so much until I started to question what I was taught about the war and whether those teachings were honest. On the whole I think my education has been relatively honest about New Zealand’s involvement in the wars. When I saw the phrase “Great War” several years ago, I asked and it was explained to me that the name is not from any descriptor seeking to make the war look good or grand in any way, but a simple acknowledgement that the scale of the destruction in the countries affected had – until World War 2 – no parallel.

I am further assured by the words of General TIm Keating, Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, who said that the ongoing and increasing popularity of A.N.Z.A.C. Day is not related to any glorification. Rather those that were children 30-40 years ago and now have children themselves who lost grandfathers and uncles, great grandfathers and great uncles in the wars. They are now wanting to show their children what it means to go to an A.N.Z.A.C. Day Dawn Service, to listen to the stories shared and appreciate what past generations have done for the country.

Like a lot of boys when I was younger, I was fascinated by war stories and the battles fought. I played computer games and read magazines from the bookshop. I participated in mock infantry charges and watched documentaries on television, such as “The World at War”. Whilst it made me interested in the how and why of battles being fought, listening to the stories of the service personnel who were there, one realizes that sometimes the real war was about surviving the elements in whatever form one found them.

Then I saw Saving Private Ryan. Any jingoistic ideas I had about war and the reasons for war were splattered on the floor when I dropped a half litre bottle of coke that I had just opened. Aside from the sheer savagery portrayed in the movie it rammed home the futility, seeing how it had marked Ryan all these years later as a war veteran. The realism was so strong many veterans who had been in France on D-Day in 1944 could not watch because it brought back too many bad memories.

And when service personnel come home from war, a lot leave the services. They go into farming, or train as teachers, or lawyers, or doctors – something more constructive than killing people. But they never forget where they went and what the saw. And whilst bullet wounds generally heal, the mental scars are often more impervious.

Whilst I will be pro-military, it is not because of a revision of my thoughts on war. It is horrible, senseless and usually started for reasons that are questionable at best. It is because no sane country leaves itself unprotected in a day and age where future wars are going to be about geopolitics and resources. I will be pro-military because the New Zealand Defence Force is an honourable and professional outfit to be a part of, and – despite the investigation into the fight in Afghanistan – does not believe in nor participate in the use of torture.

One day the Defence Force may have to fight. Like all I hope it never comes and that future generations of soldiers will not find their names etched into the cold hard gravestones like their forebears. But I don’t think anyone of them will be going to war any more enthusiastically than any of their many predecessors.

 

A national holiday needed for ALL New Zealanders


Today is Waitangi Day. It is the day in 1840 on which Commodore James Hobson signed the Treaty of Waitangi with Maori chiefs. Te Tiriti O Waitangi was intended to give the British sovereignty over New Zealand, and the Governor the right to govern the country. The Maori view differed somewhat in that they had ceded the right to governance without giving up the right to manage their own affairs.

I cannot help but wonder what the non-English immigrant populations who have settled in New Zealand think of Te Tiriti O Waitangi, and of relations between Maori and non-Maori. Has any academic conducted formal kaupapa Maori research with leaders in Maoridom to see what the perceptions of their people are about the understanding New Zealand’s immigrant population has when it comes to the Treaty? Do they believe it should be kept separate from celebrating New Zealand’s overall identity?

But at the same time, who has talked to all of the many ethnic groups living in New Zealand, be they Chinese or Colombian, Fijian or Somali, Iranian or Serbian. What do they think of the Treaty of Waitangi? What do they actually know about the history behind it? Do they feel a need for a day where they can celebrate their sense of belonging in New Zealand.

On A.N.Z.A.C. Day many more people show a much greater degree of respect towards New Zealand as a nation. We turn up in our thousands to dawn services. The great/grandchildren of war vets wear their great/grandparents medals. New Zealand schools spend time and effort coming up to each A.N.Z.A.C. Day learning about the day and our military history. Media devote columns and air time to documenting new discoveries about our war time past.

Some people say A.N.Z.A.C. Day is a more New Zealand day. Certainly it is one of general unity. With one or two exceptions from peace activists who should have known better than to do so, it is protest free. But in the same sense that Waitangi Day is primarily about the Treaty, which has little real significance to those of ethnic groups not from New Zealand, how much do non-New Zealanders relate to A.N.Z.A.C. Day?

This is why I support New Zealand Dominion Day (26 September)becoming a day that all New Zealanders can come together on and celebrate our nation, our way of life. There are 364 other days of the year when Treaty politics can be debated, where iwi can debate the ins and outs of wrapping up the remainder of the grievance settlements. But a day when all New Zealanders, tangata whenua or not,come to celebrate being one of the brightest prospects in the international community is not that day.

So let us enjoy Waitangi Day tomorrow. I hope the ceremonies at the Marae go well . But let us remember Waitangi Day is not about ALL New Zealanders. And that there are other days on the calendar which CAN be.

A depiction of the Treaty of Waitangi being signed 06 February 1840.

What is the meaning of A.N.Z.A.C. Day?


On A.N.Z.A.C. Day at a memorial service, a man and his 12 year old son had an angry exchange with peace activists. The activists were . In doing so it seems to have triggered a debate about the true meaning of the day when New Zealanders and Australians come together to commemorate their past in war.

There is no doubt that the interpretation of what A.N.Z.A.C. Day means differs considerably from one to the next, from person to person; from group to group. The accuracy of what people think as opposed to what its stated purpose is, is even more diverse. According to the Returned Services Association (R.S.A.), the meaning of A.N.Z.A.C. Day is to acknowledge the past sacrifices made; to understand that war is not nice and to make sure that what happened in past wars is not forgotten, and the horrors never repeated again.

My own interpretation of A.N.Z.A.C. Day is the similar to that of the R.S.A. There is nothing about it that tries to glorify war. Do the veterans that are still alive think that it was fun and that they enjoyed themselves? Hardly. Normally when you talk to them about comrades that they lost and  the mental scars it inflicted on them . When they hear The Last Post and the three volleys that often follow, for many of them it is quite a painful moment tearing up at the memory of all those whose funerals on foreign battlefields that they attended.

This contradicts activist groups such as Peace Action Network who frown upon nations having a military for defence. For them there is no need for an armed military capable of protecting a nations sovereignty. Peace Action Network  and their fellow organizations have 364 other days of the year in which they can protest. They can protest (peacefully!)when dignitaries come to visit New Zealand from other countries. They can write letters, e-mails, create/sign petitions, organize debates and so forth.

It is true that I have some sympathy for their work. The amount of expenditure going on in terms of individual nations defence against perceived and real threats is quite staggering, and some arms programmes such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a totally unneeded venture. The destabilization of nations in order to pursue the obtaining of raw materials is often carried out in order to justify defence expenditure that would otherwise have been cut.

But on A.N.Z.A.C Day I solemnly believe the day to belong to the people who have served in the New Zealand Defence Force in the past and not come home; the people who served and came home, but possibly have painful memories or were wounded. And finally it is for those that current serve in the armed forces, irrespective of rank.

But it is not for Peace Action Network and like organizations.

Lest we forget


They shall not grow old; as we that are left grow old

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn

At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember themP1030455