Some thoughts on ANZAC Day

This essay was republished in “Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2016” (Ed Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood, Auckland University Press, 2015).

A lot of money has been spent on commemoration, a lot of hype generated, mythology recycled, and there’s been a lot of criticism of the expenditure, the hype and the mythology on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. There have been calls by Maori and others for the dead of the New Zealand Wars to be mourned as well as the dead of foreign wars.

What does ANZAC really mean?

Grandfather Whana of Ngati Kere (Porangahau) and Ngati Hikarara (South Wairarapa) didn’t enlist for World War I. At that time enlistment was not a popular option for Maori so he was not one of the approximately 2227 Maori who did enlist. By 1914 he was 35 years old, a dairy farmer, and the father of four of his eventual nine children. He had responsibilities at home. We don’t know what his views were about the British Empire but as staunch Mormons who regularly hosted Mormon missionaries in their home in South Wairarapa both he and my grandmother were members of a congregation that drew their attention and allegiance more towards the USA than towards England.

On the other hand as a dairy farmer he would have known that he relied on a buoyant New Zealand economy for his livelihood and that depended heavily on continuing sales of primary produce into a stable British market.

Grandfather Fred of East Clive in Hawkes Bay did enlist. He was about the same age as Grandfather Whana and he was a first generation New Zealander born at Waipureku a.k.a. East Clive. His father was born in Cornwall and his mother in Devon. They came to New Zealand in 1872 as economic migrants and they were steadfastly British with an abiding loyalty to Mother England. That loyalty was shared by their many children, most of them born in New Zealand. At the start of the war Fred was a single man working as a bushman. He tried to enlist but was rejected because at 37 he was too old. Over two years later when the NZEF needed more recruits he was accepted, joined the Third Battalion of the NZ Rifle Brigade on the Western Front, was badly wounded at Passchendaele in October 1917, was invalided to London and after he recovered was sent on light duties to the NZ Rifle Brigade rear echelon at Brocton Camp in Staffordshire. There he remained for the rest of the war, met and married Grandmother Gertrude and eventually came back to New Zealand with his wife and daughter towards the end of 1919.

Grandfather Whana died young just a few years before World War II a victim of metabolic diseases brought on by the too rapid adoption of the European lifestyle and the European diet, especially sugar, flour and milk. Ironically it was the European diet that did for far more of our people than the European wars, and continues to do so to this day. The 1918 European influenza epidemic brought home from the war also did for many more Maori than the war itself. Grandfather Whana was involved in local efforts to treat the disease and to contain the epidemic.

My father didn’t enlist for World War II. A few of his wider whanau did but not many. Most of his whanau did not get caught up in the fervour of Sir Apirana Ngata’s drive to recruit and reinforce the 28th Maori Battalion. Our whanau was still not into other peoples’ wars. His best friend, my godfather, did enlist and served on Norfolk Island and then in Italy but in the Army Engineers not in the Maori Battalion. Twenty years on I broke the mould on my Maori side and served in the NZ Army for just over twenty years including active service in Borneo and in South Vietnam.

I march on ANZAC day. But I cringe at the myth making and hype surrounding ANZAC these days. I wonder about the tens of thousands who now turn out to dawn services across New Zealand and Australia. Are they there to mourn or are they there to bask in the hype and to celebrate the mythology fed to them by politicians and media. How many of them really know or fully understand why they are there. I march for simple and clear reasons.

I don’t march in remembrance of the dead of the New Zealand Wars for reasons I will explain later. However I do mourn the loss of land whether through war and confiscation or through questionable sale. But I’m not sure how we might memorialise that, or even if we should.

Grandfather Fred was like a great many men who went to war for New Zealand and Australia who were either born in Britain or were the children of British parents. He would have felt it his bounden duty to rise to the defence of the British Empire. His generation were becoming New Zealanders but still staunchly British. The evolutionary process of becoming New Zealanders actually took us a long time. We didn’t gain NZ citizenship until 1948, thirty years after World War I and three years after World War II. Up until then we were British subjects and from 1948 onwards until 1983 we were British subjects and NZ citizens. I remember as a child in the 1950s that most of my Pakeha schoolmates were still proud to be British subjects.

It is easy to look backwards 100 years after Gallipoli and decry the folly of going to the other side of the world to fight a war that in no way threatened New Zealand’s shores, in campaigns that senselessly slaughtered millions of young men; often badly conceived campaigns. But I see World War I through the perspective of Grandfather Fred and through the perspective of his times. He went out of duty and loyalty to England and to his British Empire. It was his war not someone else’s war. I honour him for that.

He may also have gone for the adventure and to visit the land of his forefathers. Having signed up for a bit of travel and adventure myself 45 years later I can understand that too.

Too many of today’s talking heads who comment about the relevance of ANZAC and the mythology of ANZAC are walking in their own comfortable shoes instead of in the boots of those World War I warriors. Not that I disagree with all of the commentary about ANZAC mythology but to be understood history has to be perceived through the eyes of its participants or observers, not just from the distance of 100 years and through the lens of modern ideology. I try to see World War I through the eyes of my grandfathers.

So in this second decade of the 21st Century what do I think of ANZAC?

I grew up with ANZAC. As a school cadet in the 1950s and early 1960s I was proud to be a uniformed member of catafalque parties at country memorials on ANZAC Day. When I was a teenager in uniform World War II was just ten years gone, the Korean War had just ended and the Malayan Emergency was still going. Grandfather Fred, veteran of World War I, died about that time well into his eighties. ANZAC Day was a funeral, not a celebration of anything except perhaps the lives of those who died. It was a mourning of the dead including the very recent dead by families, comrades and communities.

All of those war memorials in cities, towns and villages were not erected to glorify war or to glorify sacrifice or to celebrate the defence of freedom and liberty, or to promote militarism. They were erected as substitute tombstones for the thousands of soldiers who lie buried in foreign lands, some in unmarked graves. Lacking graves and headstones and the ability to travel to where the dead lay they became the focus of mourning. ANZAC Day was not about celebrating a failed campaign in the Dardanelles, or the mythical founding of a nation or a celebration of democratic values or the gallantry of the ANZAC soldier. All of that is legend or mythology. ANZAC Day was a service for the dead. Its ritual was and is still the solemn ritual of a military funeral.

It was also and remains an annual reunion for those whose incredibly strong bonds of trust, brotherhood and comradeship were forged in war. Only the veteran knows the power and the strength of that bond. In that sense everyone else is an onlooker or a bystander.

That remains for me the meaning of ANZAC Day. I remember and honour the dead and the physically and psychologically wounded of all wars. I honour too all who fought in those wars especially those whanau and friends who have since faded away. Regardless of the strategic, political and economic necessity or futility of those wars I honour the casualties of the wars, both the dead and the living. I remember and honour Grandfather Fred.

I honour also Grandfather Whana’s and my father’s decisions not to fight other peoples’ wars. Their loyalties rightly lay elsewhere.

For me the debate about the necessity or futility of war, past, present and future is for every other week of the year. Raising that debate in ANZAC week even in response to the maddening hype and mythology is just as inappropriate as the hype and mythology itself. Like the tangihanga itself ANZAC week is a time for restraint and respect.

However in that larger debate I do decry the political and commercial appropriation of ANZAC for base motives that dishonour the dead. We should read the academic military historians to learn the unadorned facts about ANZAC. But their work does not seep into popular consciousness. Not many are interested. What does pass as fact is the work of popular historians who perpetuate and reinforce the propaganda and mythology of ANZAC and who along with politicians and the media distort reality and so shape false perceptions for the next generations.

So what about mourning say, the dead of the New Zealand Wars, as well as the dead of the more recent wars.

Well, down our way Grandfather Whana’s father and grandfather didn’t go to war to try to keep their lands. They didn’t have a strong enough military base. They lost their lands mostly but not always by reluctant sale. The New Zealand Wars like the later World Wars were other peoples’ wars. Indeed some of the tribes who did fight actually fought on the side of the settler government. And some of those were also the tribes who made the greatest contributions to the Maori Battalion of World War II. No doubt they had their reasons but it might not be profitable to mine that seam too deep.

Some forty years before the New Zealand Wars our rohe was infested by marauding hapu during the Musket Wars attempting to dispossess our many hapu of our lands. They initially succeeded but were eventually repulsed as we acquired muskets and as the missionaries intervened. No doubt some of my tipuna would not have been at all inclined to mourn the dead of those invading hapu in the New Zealand Wars. We don’t all share a common history.

So I’m a bit ambivalent about commemorating other tribes’ wars whatever side they fought on. But if those tribes want to set aside their own day of mourning that’s OK by me. Mourning the loss of land might be something we could have in common. It would be a bit like mourning the loss of lives in war I suppose. It sounds like a good idea but it’s a bit more complex than it sounds.

Should we really set aside a day to mourn what divided my two grandfathers, or seek instead to celebrate what joins us. Much modern day ANZAC belief lies in the myth that New Zealand came of age, or achieved nationhood on the World War I battlefields, especially Gallipoli. Of course it’s pure rubbish. Grandfather Whana’s people were here in this land for some 700 hundred years before Gallipoli. Grandfather Fred’s people were here for about 150 years before Gallipoli. We try to celebrate the joining of these two strands of migration on Waitangi Day, not very successfully because we are still divided over what Waitangi means to the nation as a whole. Grandfather Whana seems to be pulling in one direction and Grandfather Fred in another.

They never met but as men of the land I’m sure they would have found much in common. A shared love of the land perhaps; the farmer and the bushman. Neither of them was much interested in politics. Grandfather Fred like most of his generation didn’t much like Maori. He did change his attitude a bit after he acquired a Maori son-in-law and Maori mokopuna. Incidentally he didn’t much like Catholics either and didn’t ever approve of his Pakeha Catholic son-in-law. Those were his times. Grandfather Whana didn’t go to war but I’m sure he would have understood and honoured Grandfather Fred’s decision. He did after all name one of his daughters Lemnos Mudros after the island and its harbour from where the Gallipoli campaign was launched. It’s a mystery. I’ve no idea why but he did.

I’ve no idea either how we might celebrate the real birth of this nation formed primarily from twin strands of migration through a clash of cultures, a short period of armed conflict in some parts, a long period of inter-cultural political and economic turmoil in most parts, and an even longer aftermath through which we are still finding our way. Perhaps if we’re patient the answer will in time reveal itself. Perhaps it will be in finally cutting the ties to monarchy and all it represents and in the birth of a new republic. Our day of celebration of nationhood might lie not in the past but in the future.

In the meantime let ANZAC Day remain simply a mourning for our dead in the conflicts where a lot of us fought on the same side, for whatever reason.

Lest we forget.