Remembering a century of wars

It’s Anzac Day in New Zealand – memorial day, A day when – with Australia – we remember the dead of all our wars. In a way it is a peculiar choice. Britain remembers their dead on 11 November – the anniversary of the Armistice in 1918. We remember ours on the day our forces stormed ashore on the coasts of Gallipoli, opening a disastrous eight-month campaign.

The reasons are entwined in the mythology of New Zealand’s nationalism. After the campaign ended in December 1915, grieving New Zealanders turned it into a triumph of national identity – a moment when we fought for our beloved Empire. It was an astonishing turn-around. The first celebrations of 1916 turned into tradition; afterwards, the day became more rallying point for military remembrance than Armistice Day. And so Anzac Day was born.

It has evolved since, shaped by the wars New Zealand got involved with through the twentieth century. As part of the British Empire, New Zealanders fought alongside others from Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa and allies such as the United States, from the Arctic ocean to the deserts of Africa, from the Pacific islands to the jungles of Borneo. Later, Kiwi forces were sent on peace-keeping duties to Ethiopia, the Balkans, Sinai and Timor among others. Today, there are Kiwi soldiers in Afghanistan.

More than half of New Zealand’s military casualties of all time occurred on the Western Front of 1916-18 – the soul-destroying conflict that defined the First World War. I wrote about that in my book Shattered Glory: The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front (Penguin 2010).

New Zealanders today would not be here were it not for the sacrifices of these brave men in 1914-18, and particularly 1939-45, a war that, for all its tragedy, had to be fought as the only way of saving the world from a new dark age. We will remember them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


13 thoughts on “Remembering a century of wars

  1. Matthew, I hope you don’t mind a Yank being the first to like this post and say, God Bless the Kiwis for their courage and gallantry in too damned many wars.

    1. Thank you! And your guys fought alongside ours in most of them. Weirdly, one of our generals was actually in command of a US unit on Green Island in 1944 which included Richard M. Nixon.

  2. Great post. Interesting to witness how history can turn into legend and become such a core part of national identity.

    I find it interesting that New Zealand casualties and veterans of the Boer War have never been commemorated to the same extent, if at all. That being despite them being the first New Zealand units to be sent overseas to fight for the Empire, despite their being no living veterans of either conflict and despite the first emergence of many themes that became a core part of the ‘ANZAC’ legend.

    Of course the Kiwi contribution to WW1 was on a much larger scale and the impact was much more significant than the Boer War, it just strikes me that we commemorate all actions from 1914 to present (including many comparatively minor conflicts) but not our first overseas deployment. What are your thoughts? At risk of simplifying it, could one reason be that it isn’t convenient to commemorate a conflict where to the layman we might have been… the baddies?

    1. I think the problem is that Gallipoli dominates the mind-set – it even overwhelms the Western Front in our popular memory, though the latter was vastly larger and more important. There’s certainly nothing I’ve seen to suggest that have collective guilt or second thoughts about joining the Boer War. At the time the conflict keyed directly into our sense of being Britain’s ‘greatest child’; the excitement of joining in with Mother England on a war dominated. Parliament stood and the members sang ‘God Save the Queen’ when the decision was taken to go – giving a flavour of the mood of the day. Very different to our modern mind. And it wasn’t much changed in 1914, though our guys learned the lesson rather quickly.

      1. Good point regarding Gallipoli dominating the mind-set to the extent where it seems more prominent than the Western Front. And of course the NZ involvement in the Sinai Palestine campaign is even lesser known, despite the adversary been the same that we faced at Gallipoli.

        The Australians commemorate (thanks in part to the 1987 film) the charge of their light-horse on Beersheba but the NZ Mounted Rifles are scarcely given attention by the media, publishers or popular culture. Hint hint…

        1. Good thought, but Terry Kinloch got there before me – two volumes on their adventures, 8 or 9 years back. Given the state of the market today, unfortunately, it will be a few years before publishers are prepared to look at the suject again. Good topic, for sure.

  3. On a much more personal note, I cannot thank you enough for your time and your personal contribution you made toward dad’s chapter in “Behind Enemy Lines”. I know you will understand from reading the manuscript exactly what ANZAC day means to me. I hope there are other family members of those whose accounts you also included in the book look on ANZAC day as a very personal and proud day. For all our dads, brothers, uncles and grandfathers who were lucky enough to return home and have the opportunity to recount those terrible years of torture, illness, starvation, persecution and fear, I salute you all. God Bless New Zealand.
    We will remeber them.

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