A certain ‘public weariness’ about the continued commemorations of the centenary of the First World War was acknowledged by island politician and city councillor Mike Lee at Tuesday’s ANZAC Dawn Service.
It probably says much about public opinion and its place in public discourse in the world we are grappling to understand. A perception of ‘public weariness’ means the end of the razzmatazz that had so many political photo opportunities, such extravagant spending, such jolly jetting about.
In the moment at Tuesday’s service at the Waiheke War Memorial Hall – the moon a tiny sickle over the bulk of Stony Ridge, the hard glitter of pre-dawn stars wheeling overhead – the precision of the military ceremony to commemorate the full horror of the bloody Western Front was well present.
That it’s not squirting out, pre-packaged, from politicians whose fighting ability is limited to combative venom across the parliamentary debating chamber frees us for more honest personal responses.
Our more private kinship with the young men who abandoned the family farms to find themselves riding camels in Egypt and friends rotting in front line trenches is a real thing, renewed every year outside similar halls and cenotaphs in every township in the country and by the many still-treasured memorial projects like those at Ostend and Rocky Bay.
As Councillor Lee pointed out, 100 years ago this year, the original ANZACS who had fought at Gallipolli had been reinforced to become the New Zealand Division and had been on the Western Front for over a year. In September 1916 they had fought in the third offensive of the Battle of the Somme, 18,000 going into battle, more than 2100 killed.”
As the Battle of the Somme and the contemporaneous Battle of Verdun were fought to a standstill, over two million men British, French and German had been killed or wounded.
“Those men in the trenches still had years of fighting ahead of them – with no idea of when it would all end,” said Councillor Lee, whose grandfather, Sergeant John James Lee of the 1st battalion, 3rd NZ Rifle Brigade, sustained a ‘severe gunshot wound right shoulder’ on 6 May 1917 in the front line near Armentières, in Belgium. “One of the lucky ones who survived the war.”
The brigade would go on to win honours in the Battle of Messines, where, he said, it was moving to find a street sign Rue des Néo Zélandais – the ‘Street of the New Zealanders’ – and a monument on the hilltop they captured, that is dedicated to the soldiers au bout de la monde – ‘from the uttermost ends of the earth’.
“Far from forgotten, they would be even more comforted, I am certain, if we, their descendants, the people of the 21st century in these dangerous times of war and rumours of war, also did not forget the lessons of 1914 and the chain of events beginning in Sarajevo that spun out of control – could not be stopped – that led on to the catastrophe,” he said, quoting Siegfried Sassoon, whose poetry both described the horrors of the trenches, and satirised the patriotic pretensions of those who, in Sassoon’s view, were responsible for a jingoism-fuelled war. • Liz Waters
Have you forgotten yet?
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game …
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget. Siegfried Sassoon