ANZAC Day 2013: remembering why we fought

Wright_MilitaryBookCoversIt’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.

Wright_Shattered Glory coverThe 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


13 thoughts on “ANZAC Day 2013: remembering why we fought

  1. My uncle was at Dunkirt (as well as El Alamein). He refused his medals. When I saw a movie about Dunkirk I cried all the way through it. And did the same with Gallipoli. Those awesome young men!

    1. It was a time when ordinary people found themselves called upon to do extraordinary things. And they did. Made the more remarkable because these young men were mostly civilians – not career soldiers.

  2. My father also was in Trieste – never spoke much about it. My grandfather, one of the oldest in the 20th Battalion at 44, was killed in the battle for Minqar Qaim in the Western Desert. On tracing his last days led me to become a war historian and writing three books on W.W.2. Somehow for me it was a way of keeping his memory alive, and from those early days in the 1980s Anzac Day somehow took on a new and special meaning.

    1. Virtually every New Zealand family has been touched, one way or another, by our war history – sometimes profoundly. And the experiences at Minqar Qaim were among the most dramatic in New Zealand’s history – not just militarily. Some of the files are still restricted; when I read them in 2002 I had to get permission from he Defence Department to do it. An astonishing day and night.

  3. Had to come back here and tell you that I just read a great article in “Archaeology” (April-May issue) about ANSAC, they all SO DESERVE to be honored.

  4. That’s a really stirring post. Well met, good sir! Military history is by far one of my favorite topics, particularly the area of aviation. A lot of great commonwealth aces fought in the desert over Libya. There’s some great stories from that part of the battle. I think I’m liking your ANZAC Day.

    1. Thank you. I wrote a lot of military history, upon a time – mostly out of print now and unlikely to be republished, though one never knows – Penguin has all the licenses. I found some incredible stories from an incredible time in our history – and one that shaped the world we know today..

      ANZAC day is probably more of a national day here than our ‘national’ day, Waitangi Day (which is divisive). One of the most moving ANZAC days I ever spent was in Belgium, where I stood under the Menin Gate on the edge of Ypres wih other NZers for the ceremonies. Site of our most lethal military campaign ever.

      1. How very cool It must have been a great honor to stand there on that day. I see you had a book on the RNZAF. That’s the stuff I always study. I think you Kiwis flew the Spitfire and Hawker Sea Fury. Two of my favorite aircraft.

        1. Wonderful planes! We have several Spits and a Sea Fury flying in our warbirds collection here – I’ve seen them at odd times in the air, a fantastic sight. The story of our aircraft was very much one of war exigencies and politics – the RNZAF didn’t get much Brit equipment until fairly late in the piece, though – initially we were using second-hand P-40’s, then Corsairs and (eventually) Mustangs. However, our pilots got hold of most of the stalwarts, though, via the Commonwealth Air Training Scheme that led to our guys flying as part of the RAF though most of the war. we flew Hurricanes and Spits in the Battle of Britain. Later we flew Wellingtons, Stirlings, Lancasters and Venturas over Europe. Some of our pilots, serving with the RN, flew Seafires and Sea Furies during the last phases, serving with the British Pacific Fleet.

          1. Yeah, you and the Aussies had P-40s and Hurricanes foisted upon you over Egypt quite a bit. Corsairs were great planes. A bit hot to handle. They earned the nickname “Ensign Eliminator” because of their strong tendency to ground loop on an unsuspecting Ensign. Interestingly, Corsairs were banned from US carriers until Brit pilots figured out how to land them safely. Corsairs went back to the US carriers after that. And then the early Seafires had terrible troubles. During the landings at Palermo, more Seafires were destroyed in landing “prangs” than by enemy action! By the time the BPF entered Asian waters, those issues were worked out, but Spitfires on a carrier wasn’t the smoothest venture by any means.

  5. Another great post! I’ve always felt differently towards the two world wars. The First World War seems so absolutely senseless, a war that never should’ve happened. I agree with you regarding the Second World War though, there may have been ways to prevent it but by 1939 there was no other way – it was a war that had to be fought as the world would’ve become a very dark place had fascism been allowed to continue unchecked.

    That is one reason why I hold the International Brigade in high regard, I think it incredible that people from all around the world collectively realized that fascism needed to be stopped and joined the Civil War in Spain to try and make a difference – despite not having the support of their political leaders who were still trying their best to appease fascism instead of confront it.

    1. Thanks – yes, it’s curious how the two wars were so different in terms of motive. But equally, I think one grew out of the other; the First World War blew away the old system – and the settlements created at the end of the struggle allowed a new one to arise. The problem was, as far as I can tell, that Germany hadn’t actually been defeated in the field; the fighting stopped when the government fell, not after a decisive battle that destroyed the integrity of the field army – and yet Germany was subjected to humiliating terms in 1919. There were plenty of former soldiers who felt robbed and were looking for scapegoats. Among them was a shell-shocked Austrian corporal with a Charlie Chaplin moustache. I don’t think Hitler ever created anything, but he certainly had an ability to whip up existing anger and then orchestrate it in a particularly nasty direction.

      The conclusion – sad though it is – being that an unnecessary war led to a necessary one. One variant on this view – which I think is pretty compelling – is that the two World Wars were effectively different acts of the same struggle, separated by a twenty year interregnum. Certainly in 1944-45 there was a view in London that, this time, Germany had to be not merely brought to terms – but crushed; I think it was Lord Vansittart who remarked that the real issue wasn’t so much getting rid of Hitler, as also eliminating the ‘Reich’ mentality that had driven Germany ever since Bismarck unified the place. An eighty-year cycle. It’s possible. Certainly food for thought.

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