Today is April 25. A significant day. A day that is dedicated to remembering and honouring the New Zealand and Australian men and women who fought, and are still fighting, in conflicts around the world.
New Zealand has sent her men and women to fight in all corners of the world. We are a small country but we have never been shy at getting involved. None more so than 98 years ago when tens of thousands of men sailed away to fight in the first World War. No other country sent more as a proportion of its population. Too many never came home. They were buried in unmarked graves in places with strange sounding names and their grieving families mourned the loss of their fathers, brothers, sons and husbands all the more desperately because of the lack of a grave on New Zealand soil. War memorials sprung up in large and small towns and became symbolic graves for the men who didn’t come home. You will see them in the middle of small towns, in parks surrounded by trees and flowers, beside beaches, and in prominent civic squares. Some are elaborate and imposing, some quiet and unassuming and on April 25th each one becomes a place to gather and to remember.
Auckland’s War Memorial Museum is one of the most imposing. It was built after the war and opened in 1929. It stands surrounded by grass looking over the city and and the Hauraki Gulf beyond. It is visible from almost everywhere and instantly recognisable. At dawn on ANZAC Day, echoing similar gatherings around the country, thousands of people gather for a remembrance service as the sun rises over Rangitoto.
The War Memorial nearest to my home sits under a row of huge Norfolk Pine trees beside a long sandy beach. On any ordinary day of the year it is an attractive block of dark stone, roughly hewed and leaning gently towards the beach and ocean behind. This is a place where families come to picnic and swim, launch boats and walk dogs. The service here starts after dawn. First, there is music as the brass band leads the parade returned soldiers, the armed forces, schools, and service associations towards the War Memorial. The music stops and the final approach is made to the sound of a solitary drum. The service itself folows a familiar but moving order. As the hymns are sung, readings delivered and wreaths laid we stand under the trees in the sunshine and look past the beach to the islands beyond.
I remember a lady from last year. She arrived as the Last Post hung in the air. “Is it over?” she asked. She had dressed carefully. Her suit was expensive but there was a burn mark on the lapel where a poppy should be. The skin on her legs was dry and her lipstick was smudged and too pink. When the loud speaker invited the women’s RSA to lay their tribute, she turned to me and said that she was once a member, and there were tears in her eyes. She moved into the crowd and when I looked again she was gone. I looked for her again this morning but she wasn’t there. I hope that she made it on time.
ANZAC Day is a good day to be in New Zealand. There’s a pride in being a Kiwi that is palpable on ANZAC Day.
They shall not grow old
as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them.
(from the poem for the fallen by Laurence Binyon)
Categories: New Zealand