The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark
His late-century comment was “Never such innocence again.”
When I read these words in Jonathan Glover’s Humanity they struck me with some force. I had witnessed this “innocence” a few years earlier at a family reunion.
My mother had a large photo of a moustached man standing in military uniform between two flags. As a child I thought this picture was fascinating and I loved the uniform as my brothers and I used to play “war” in the gully out the back of our house. Mum told us that the photo was of her uncle Dick who had been killed in World War I.
Years later as an adult I attended a family reunion on my mother’s side. The event was held in Otorohanga and someone had gone to a lot of trouble meticulously researching the family tree. In the hall the reunion was held in there were documents on display going back centuries from my ancestors, birth certificates, death certificates, letters, photos, etc.
One letter gripped me when I found it. It was written by my great-uncle Dick and was sent from Egypt. I can’t remember the exact wording but the gist of it is still clear to me. The letter spoke of how he and the boys had arrived in Egypt and that they would be home in a few weeks; ‘they were simply waiting for Jerry [the Germans] to be man enough to let their boys face them.’ The impression conveyed was that they would have a quick bout, “Jerry” would be dispatched and they would all go home. There was a jolliness to the letter, it sounded like he was an about to have a friendly game of rugby. The real chilling part came next, he had written the letter to inform ‘the girls’ back home’ that he was moving from Egypt soon, they were going to the Dardanelles and from there ‘the war would be over in a few days.’
Of course we know the history. The New Zealand contingent did land in the Dardanelles at a place called Gallipoli and there my uncle Dick was killed in one of the worst military massacres in New Zealand’s history.
Interestingly I read a book recently on Gallipoli that contained an account from a survivor of a brief conversation he had with a Dick Sircombe, my great-uncle. As far as I know that is the last record we have of Dick; the book lists him as one of the many killed in action in its appendix.
This reality, seeing the innocent naivety that my great-uncle had had struck me quite strongly. It reinforced to me the need to never forget the mistakes our forefathers made.
This was driven home to me even more the other day in my year 12 Ethics class. We had shown the students the movie Saving Private Ryan and I saw the naivety once again. One student asked me, puzzled, “why is the US invading Germany?” It was said with a tone and demeanour that suggested he was wondering whether this was just another case of the US, yet again, sticking its nose in another country’s affairs.
When we came to the scene where one solider freezes and cannot kill a German solider nearby, the class denounced him as a “faggot” and a “wimp.” One wonders if they really understood what was going on.
Every time we commemorate the events of World War I we say “lest we forget,” it seems to me that we have already become a generation that has forgotten. To some this is not a personal event that effected their family in the way it effected mine but some boring facts of history one needs to learn to get NCEA and perhaps an exciting playstation game or cool movie.
MacDoctor sums up the same theme but in regard to how we treat our freedom,
A war such as the Second World War can bring us the coin of freedom, but we often spend it without regard to how precious it truly is. Typically, we trade that freedom a little bit at a time for a little comfort, a little peace and quiet, a little feeling of false security.
It is a sad day when we honour the people who gave their lives to protect us from tyranny by succumbing slowly to tyranny in our own land.
For our international readers, today is ANZAC day, a day on which Australia and New Zealand pause and remember those who died in service to our countries at Gallipoli, Turkey on 25 April 1915.