On this day the people of New Zealand and Australia gather as they have since the first Anzac Day, to commemorate the fallen and honour those men and women who have served in all our wars.
This is the fourth year of the commemorations of the centenary of the Great War, New Zealand’s bloodiest war, with some 17,000 killed and another 41,000 wounded, and the origin of Anzac Day, so it is appropriate again to cast our minds back to this time 100 years ago. In April 1918 the climatic battle that would decide the outcome of the Great War was raging across northern France. Difficult though it may be for us in the 21st century to comprehend, New Zealand soldiers who first went into battle at Gallipoli on that April morning in 1915, were still fighting on the western front three years later. In the crisis of late March 1918 the New Zealand Division was called on to play a role that would help change the course of history.
Miraculously the NZ Division had recovered from the dreadful slaughter it had suffered at Passchendaele the previous October when in one morning 843 NZ soldiers were killed after being ordered to attack in the mud and rain against curtains of barbed wire and walls of machine guns. Despite this devastating blow, the NZ Division remained one of the elite formations of the British Army. When in March 1918 the German High Command launched its supreme effort to win the war, the offensive called Kaiserschlacht (the Kaiser’s battle) or Ludendorff’s Offensive, attacking with overwhelming numbers of troops and artillery, spearheaded by highly-trained storm troopers, the British 3rd and 5th Armies reeled back in retreat. In a matter of days the Germans had advanced nearly 100km. All the gains that had been won over months during the bloody attacks on the Somme of 1916 were lost, indeed now at stake was the war itself. As the German armies advanced on the strategic city of Amiens, the British high command turned to the New Zealanders and the Australians. Such was the reputation by then of these ANZAC troops, that when they moved up, along roads crowded with retreating British troops and French civilians, their very arrival stilled the panic. Military historian Glyn Harper in his book Dark Journey Passchendaele, the Somme and the NZ experience on the Western Front quotes from the diary of Lieutenant Kenneth Luke: ‘We met remnants of the British Divisions that had fought from the beginning of the terrible battle struggling along the road & everywhere our peaked hats were espied the anxious questions were asked ‘Are the ANZACs coming? And cheers and smiles met us everywhere.”
‘When asked why the French civilians had halted their flight from the Germans at Amiens, the answer attributed to a French general, no less, was:
They had learnt that the troops they had just passed were the New Zealanders moving in and so there was no need for them to move out & so the evacuation came to an end. Yes he [the French general said,] such was the reputation of the New Zealanders’.
The Anzacs would go on to meet the advancing Germans head on and stopped them. Amiens did not fall, the German offensive failed. The NZers making their reputation as, the British military historian John Keegan described them, ‘the best soldiers in the world in the 20th century’ would go on to play a key role in the fighting, right up until 11 November 1918 when the Great War finally came to an end.
I recall these events not out of chauvinistic pride, or to glorify war, that is not the New Zealand way, but to remember a part of our history almost completely forgotten and to remind ourselves again of the calibre and courage of those New Zealanders and the sacrifices made by them and the whole nation. One wonders why those events largely disappeared from collective memory. Perhaps Harper provides an answer when he writes: ‘Life for all New Zealanders could not turn back to 1914. Too much blood had been shed and too much pain, often borne in silence, endured. The shadow of death had fallen across the land and it would remain for some time to come.’ Perhaps another reason was because the First World War, supposedly the ‘war to end all wars’ was followed only 21 years later by the Second World War – when again New Zealand was called upon to make another great sacrifice.
And then, only narrowly avoided was a third world war in the 20th century, a nuclear war, 20 years or so after the second, avoided mainly because most of the world leaders and statesmen of that time– unlike the leaders of today – had experienced war at first hand and rightly fearing its consequences, they pulled back from the brink.
Those world leaders are no longer with us and today according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Science and Security Board we are closer to a third world war than we ever have been. Two weeks ago, the Doomsday Clock that symbol, maintained since 1947, representing the likelihood of a man-made global castastrophe was moved up to two minutes before midnight.
So as we gather once again in the darkness of this Autumn morning, as is our custom, to keep faith with the fallen, and to remember the sacrifices of our ancestors, I wonder if only those people could look forward 100 years and see us gathered here – and all across New Zealand, keeping vigil. I’m sure they would be comforted to know that they had not been forgotten. They would be even more comforted to know I am sure, if we people of the 21st century – in these dangerous times of spiralling international tensions, did not forget the lessons of 1914 and the chain of events that spun out of control – and could not be stopped – that led on to a catastrophe then and could lead on to an even greater catastrophe now.