In New Zealand, the 25th of April, ANZAC day, has been a public holiday for many years, but in recent times has taken on renewed impetus. It is the date of the invasion of Gallipoli in WWI – a complete and utter disaster at which many NZ soldiers died. People of all ages gather at the various commemorative services, many of them timed to finish as the sun rises. The media devote hours of daytime television coverage in various forms.
I have been a bit sceptical frankly, about turning ANZAC Day into a media event. Somehow reducing the horror of war to prime time entertainment does not sit comfortably with my take on it. If you are that committed to remembering the fallen soldiers of past wars, just broadcast the iconic red poppy on the screen all day. Stare at that and think for as long as you like.
This ANZAC Day my level of participation has been taken to a new height. (I have been to services before, as a member of the Girls Brigade, probably 40+ years ago). Through the power of the internet, I was tracked down by a member of the RSA (Returned Services Association) who personalise their commemorative event by choosing one of the ‘names’ on their Roll of Honor and telling their personal war story. They happened to choose one of my ancestors, and I happen to have written a blog post about him a couple of years ago. It would be churlish to write about the importance of remembering people and then turn down the opportunity to do something about it.
In order to get to the dawn service, I got up at 4:15am, to drive across Auckland to Howick, where this particular branch of my family settled in colonial times and dutifully went forth and multiplied. Stockade Hill is the site of the former colonial stockade, and now has the war memorial obelisk, flag pole and trig point. We were blessed with a perfectly still Autumn morning, a brand new crescent moon setting behind the obelisk with Venus shining brightly as the sky went from black to the pink of dawn.
Watching the ‘services’ in action is always entertaining. Their ancient orders and instructions bellowed out as if everyone is either stupid or deaf, weird hats, staunch expressions. I did not appreciate until today that the ANZAC service follows the set procedure of a military funeral. Four guards stand at the corners of the obelisk facing outwards, guns pointing to the ground, hands folded, heads bowed. Without saying a word, it is respectful, serious, and sets the tone for the prayers and words that follow.
It seems particularly poignant this year, when we have the lunatics in charge of the asylum with their fingers poised on the big red buttons, to remember the people who fought wars so that we can live in peace. While I detest the seeming ‘commercialisation’ of ANZAC Day, I believe that we must remember the past and those who died giving us a future.
After the service I found my liaison man and introduced myself, and we agreed to meet at lunchtime. It was only 6:30am. A visit to a relative from the same branch of the family tree filled in the hours until then, as well as a visit to the graveyard where our common ancestors are buried. These are all my grandfather’s people and he is the only grandparent I knew. I miss my ‘old people’ – I suppose that is what happens as we age, until at some stage we are the old people.
I am early for lunch, but eventually the second service of the day up on Stockade Hill is finished and those who qualify for lunch arrive. There were two veterans of WW II at my table – supported by their families to enable them to attend. One due to turn 100 in November this year. Such a delicate year. No pressure, 99 is huge too, but 100 – that is very special. Everyone wants to have a party, and no one says it out loud but secretly they are just hoping that you make it. He did joke that he thought perhaps this would be his last ANZAC Day.
After lunch, served to 300+ people by the Air Training Corps – the same group who formed the guard of honour – lots of thank yous to the various volunteers that make the event possible. Then a second reading by the winner of the essay competition. Then me. The last post-lunch speaker. Not a great slot, frankly. When I got invited to speak (i.e. read out my blog post) in my head I thought maybe 20 or 30 people. 300! I guess it doesn’t make that much difference; you still hope to hold their attention, not make too many mistakes, and not babble incoherently. Mission accomplished I think. Just got an email that says:
Truth be told I feel humbled by the opportunity to participate, to share my babble of thoughts, to see the veterans with their medals and be part of a show of gratitude for what they went through. I would encourage everyone to make the effort to get to a Dawn Parade at least once in their lives. Sooner rather than later – the soldiers are not getting any younger. Nice to see veterans from other theatres of war as well; people who for whatever reason volunteered to risk their lives.
Someone asked the question this week whether if Australia goes to war to support America, will we go too? I hope not. I would not want my sons in any war zone ever. It is hard to believe that conscription would even work any more, frankly. Besides, a nuclear bomb does not require thousands of child soldiers in the trenches covered in foreign mud. If North Korea presses the button and the USA or anyone else shoots back, we are all in deep trouble.
To round off a perfect day, an early movie – ‘Their Finest’ – British film about making a film during WWII. Just a coincidence that we went today, but very apt. I cried. Highly recommended. I’ve been awake for 17 hours. Big day. Plenty to think about.
No one asked me about my EXTREMELY short hair. Yes, I think I can say I have hair again. Still an extreme cut, not yet a style. Perhaps they were just being polite. We all have our battles to fight.