It’s ANZAC Day this week in New Zealand – 25 April, our equivalent of Memorial Day in the US or Armistice Day in Britain.
It’s iconoclastic. Most nations remember their military dead on days when a war ended – typically, for Commonwealth countries, 11 November, when the guns fell silent over the Western Front in 1918.
But not New Zealand and Australia. Here we remember our war dead on the day we began our first big overseas military campaign, the ground assault on Gallipoli that began on 25 April 1915.
The day is tied into our national identity. That wasn’t always the case. When the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) embarked on that campaign it was to do duty for Empire – for Britain, a country we called ‘home’ even though most of our young men had never been there.
I used to write histories of our twentieth century wars. In my final foray into that field, Shattered Glory (Penguin 2010), I explored the virtually spontaneous celebrations on 25 April 1916, the anniversary of the landings – at which time the Gallipoli campaign was turned, by sleight of hand, from an ignominious defeat (which it was) into a triumph of New Zealand’s contribution to Empire.
It became nationalist towards the end of the war, a spontaneous focus for grief flowing from the terrible death toll of the Western Front, New Zealand’s most lethal campaign of all time and the definition of what the First World War meant, socially and historically.
Of late, 25 April has become New Zealand’s de-facto national day – a moment to remember those who gave their lives – the young men who were never wearied by age.
To me it is also a day to ask a simple question. Why? Why did they go to war?
It is easy to suppose that young men were fooled by Boys’ Own images of war as glorious, a superior sports event that showered honour on soldiers, family and especially school.
I have found letters and diaries suggesting that this may have been true for the Boer War of 1899-1902, our first military campaign. But not the First World War. Not really. Most of the young Kiwis who went to fight even in 1914 knew what war entailed, even if they had yet to learn the true lethality of industrial age fire-power. That lesson had been driven home by 1916; and certainly most of their sons were cynical enough in 1939, when Europe again plunged into war and New Zealand’s young men flocked to sign up.
They did not go because it was glorious. They went because it was necessary.
We forget how close the world was, then, to a new dark age. In the 1930s democracy was but one of three competing systems, and it was on the back foot. In New Zealand of the day, the government of Michael Joseph Savage opposed fascism wherever it stood, even at risk of annoying a British government that felt appeasement was a cheaper option. But Savage was right. So was Winston Churchill, a politician, writer and historian who knew very well what both Nazi and Communist flavours of totalitarianism stood for. But such voices of warning were not heard until almost too late. And for a while in 1940-41, as Britain and her Comonwealth stood alone as the last main bastions of civilised western democracy outside the United States, things stood on a knife edge.
New Zealand’s part in that war took our fighting division from Greece to Crete to Egypt to the Western Desert to Syria, to Libya, Tripolitania, Tunisia, and finally Italy and – in the last hectic days of the struggle – Trieste. They did so under a remarkable commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, VC, DSO (3 bars), etc. (It is nearly a decade since Penguin published my biography of this incredible man; I still think it is one of my best books).
Other Kiwis fought with our navy, with the Royal Navy and with the Merchant Marine. Still others fought in the skies, with the RNZAF and RAF among other services. And we had a presence in the Pacific, where a New Zealander, Major-General Sir Harold Barrowclough, led forces that included a US contingent under Richard M. Nixon. Yes, that Richard M. Nixon.
All this was done not for glory, or rewards of heroism, but because it had to be done. Whatever it took. The alternatives – a world dominated by Nazi evil, fuelled by what Churchill called the ‘dark lights of perverted science’, were too horrible to contemplate. And we knew it.
Today we must remember those who died to make the world a better place, safe for democracy - who helped make the modern world what it is. Both here in New Zealand – and around the world.
Please join me in remembering them.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013