Keeping in Step…

It seems odd now to recall just how unfashionable it was, only 20-odd years ago, to attend Anzac services, or even wear poppies.

I can remember being called a militarist by a wife of a chief reporter at my first job because I wore a poppy. The old pissheads could rely on the welfare state, same as everyone else, was her comment.

I told her I thought those guys needed, and deserved, a bit more than that.

I used to attend the Dawn Service at the Domain when I lived in Auckland. Very uncool (we’re talking mid-late 1980s). It was a pretty small crowd, and very few people my age.

The Auckland Domain, and the museum itself, are well suited to the occasion, especially on fine, cool, still mornings. The Museum itself, on the hill, stands like a blockhouse defending the past.

The sound of the Last Post, as the dawn came up over the Museum, never failed to get the emotions going. Hairs on the back of the neck stuff, and tears to the eye as you thought of young blokes going in at the same time years before, and getting blown to bits.

I attended a few parades in Wellington after I moved here, but it was inevitably, and in an intangible way, more political, which took something away from the sacred aspect of it all.

Earlier Anzac experiences were less intense. I was in the Scouts as a kid, and we went in the morning parade up the main street in Waiuku. The first time I did it I was in the rear right corner, with the District Commissioner and a couple of other leaders behind me.

My trouble was I couldn’t march to save my life. You’d have thought it was pretty basic stuff – just put one foot in front of the other more or less in time with the music.

Forget it. I’d manage a few steps in step, then start thinking of something else and I’d go out of time. And I’d have the District Commissioner muttering ‘keep in step, boy, keep in step.’

The next year they shoved me in the middle of the column.

(An aside: if my marching is bad, imagine my dancing. On second thoughts, don’t.)

It used to bring me up quickly when we got to the Cenotaph. Seeing these blokes I knew mostly as middle aged or elderly men around town, standing there with rows of medals made me look at them in a new light.

Especially when it was a couple of teachers from the school. The deputy head we knew about – he had scars on his legs from his wounds. The headmaster as well – he was a deceptively quiet chap, but if you stepped out of line he could freeze you with a look and a couple of words. Apparently he’d been in the commandos.

Other old guys I vaguely knew…. I’d look at them and wonder what they’d been through.

Like a lot of young blokes I got right into the history of the world wars, especially World War II. More the air war than other stuff, but I picked up quite a bit about the land war, and the prisoners of war and espionage stories.

The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky,
accounts of the Battle of Britain like The Sky Suspended…. all fascinating stuff.

Stories like The White Rabbit were particularly moving. The story of a British agent, Wing Commander Tommy Yeo-Thomas, is pretty grim stuff. He was living in France when war broke out – he was an accountant in a design firm – and too old for regular fighting, but volunteered for special services.

A lot of his work was getting the Resistance ready to help when the Invasion came. He was caught a few months before the invasion – he volunteered to go back after a friend of his was captured, and was going to try to organise a rescue. The Germans knew who he was by then, and he knew they knew, and knew he was going back to almost certain capture, torture, and death. He still insisted on going.

They caught him, of course. The story of his torture by the Gestapo is particularly horrific and inspiring at the same time. He never talked.

At one point he was thrown in a small window-less dungeon. Too dark to see, damp, and with only a broken chair for furniture. One meal a day – a very watery soup. The Germans would take him out from time to time for more beatings, and by this time he had an infected knee.

He kept going by doing calisthenics. After a while he learned he could talk to men in the cells above him. One night he dreamt of a calendar turning pages until June 6. He told one of the men who was calling him he was convinced the Invasion would be on or around that day.

He was woken on June 6 by the sound of men in the other cells singing the French national anthem, while the guards ran up and down the corridors trying to stop them. A voice called through the grille to him that his friends had landed.

He ended up in Buchenwald, then when the Germans moved the camp, he managed – despite having been beaten and tortured, and despite dysentery – to escape. He got back to the Allied lines.

It’s a story I often think of on Anzac Day, and on June 6.

Something else I think of is a bloke I met just after I left school. I worked with a mate and a couple of others at Port Waikato. One of the older locals used to come down to the surf clubhouse for a few drinks. We got to know him fairly well, he was a fairly easy-going, jokey sort. One night when it emerged he’d been through the war in North Africa and Italy we started asking him about it.

The joking stopped. He really turned on us. Said “If you boys are ever asked to go, don’t. No-one has the right to ask another human being to go through that.” He had tears in his eyes. The fact we were about the same age he’d been when he was called up may have had something to do with it.

I also dipped into Keith Sinclair’s A Destiny Apart. Some thought provoking stuff in there about Gallipoli and the significance, in general, of World War I for New Zealand.

A couple of things stand out: yes, (as Chris Trotter’s column in yesterday’s Dominion Post points out) young New Zealanders went over to defend British Imperialism.

Yet Sinclair points out one of the key lessons of the war was that we weren’t just little Brits. New Zealand had already begun to evolve different ways of doing things. For all the talk of Empire by the politicians, what New Zealanders brought back was an emerging difference.

A theme of the troop’s diaries and letters home is a lack of respect for British officers. The feeling was they expected respect as of right, rather than having to earn it.

(This was still a theme in the Second World War: when Montgomery took over the 8th Army before El Alemain and was doing the rounds of the troops he was told the New Zealanders were not big on saluting, but they would probably wave.

Montgomery just waved back. He had them onside from then on. )

Initially the reports back from Gallipoli were positive, but there was a row when the casualty lists started to arrive. Only the officers were being listed.

There was a public outcry and after that all were listed.

As they say every year at this time, We Will Remember Them.

2 thoughts on “Keeping in Step…

  1. Yes, great post. The people who followed orders and fought and died should always be honoured even if sometimes the people who concealed the truth or lied to them in order to send them to war should perhaps have been tried and convicted of crimes against humanity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s