Monday, April 20, 2015

Anzac Day - Gallipoli 2015

As New Zealanders prepare to remember Anzac Day where it has been argued the country's nationhood began it is easy to forget that a 100 years ago New Zealand was a very young country with many immigrants from Britain making up a good part of the population. I suppose for some then, was the question of how New Zealanders saw themselves, no doubt there was always an eye toward the 'home' countries of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and to a lesser extent Australia - the nearest neighbour. By then NZ had already become a place where equality was something naturally embraced - few would be elevated or lowered in opinion because of status. This was already a country hard at work building roads railways and breaking in farm land. It was only a few short decades since the country had seen land wars resulting in 'punishment' by Government troops carving out large sections of land belonging to 'rebel' Maori. A war of sorts already existed, it was one of people fitting together in a new land and continues today.

New Zealanders had already entered the fray in South Africa during the Boer War fighting with Britain where they were given an early reminder that NZ had already distanced itself from 'class' distinction. A NZ officer was little different than an enlisted man whereas the British brought with them a display showing that even in army life things were measured by rank and wealth, not by bravery and the smarts that tied in respect between the NZ fighters. Many of those fighters were the sons and grandsons of Fencibles - retired soldiers of the British Army offered pensions and land to come to NZ when the threat of civil war, Maori against the new immigrants, was on the boil. So among the 1st fighters a precedent of sorts was set, that continues in many families today - of younger nzers joining the armed services as had family members before them.

This was the case at the beginning of WW1 and would be into the future. Easily not considered in the breadth of war is that the NZers have, apart from the Land Wars of the 1860s always taken part in foreign wars, often under the belief they were fighting for their own freedom - nothing quite so inspirational for young men. Though on the beaches in Anzac Cove pinned down under Turkish gunfire the relative freedom created by being an invader of another country must surely have crossed the minds of many. But it was there, under a baptism of death whistling about puffing the sand and rock that many of the men would identify themselves with their fellows as distinctly NZers.  What some may have been unaware of was the fact that the NZ Native Contingent having sailed for the peninsula were distressed that they were not to take part in a 'European's' war other than behind the lines.

I have read some of the letters from their commanders and sponsors pointing out the 'shame' of the Native Contingent being told they were not to fight - when many had embraced the idea that it would stand them equally beside pakeha NZers for the first time in War. It was not the NZ Government's decision but rather that of the home countries, although as casualties mounted British leaders no longer distinguished who might fight and who might not, so the Maori Contingent were accorded the privilege to fight as New Zealanders first and foremost, even though they had joined the army often along tribal lines, some having overcome resistance to the idea of fighting for those they saw as enemies of their forefathers and land grabbers.

It may be too lightly touched upon in NZ history that the Maori (Native) Contingent fighting at Gallipoli also touched upon the emergence of the concept of Nationhood, because all the NZer's faced death together equally although in many breasts there may have been resentment of one type or the other, but by the time of the final shots ringing out on the British catastrophe that was Gallipoli all those men were equal that survived, just as all those perished were equal in death. As NZ remembers those who served in the Anzacs part of it is the underbelly of the beginning of NZ as it is today, signed in a document, a 'Treaty' no less in 1840, rather than drawing sides again over Treaty claims, opportunity, work or race - it's a time to remember all those men who fought as one. Fought, believing in freedom for one and all, fought for adventure and comradeship that was soon dulled by shadow of death in finding a numbing silence about war many brought home with them.

In one place I visit fairly frequently, named as a sacred place where many of my family are buried I have seen the names of fallen Maori from the WW1. In recent times I learnt that the graveyard was in fact a traditional burial place for local Maori who willingly gave permission for local Europeans (pakeha) to be buried alongside Maori, just as they had fought together many times, and their fathers and grandfathers in much earlier times against each other over the hills and gold. Some of the graves are marked as those killed at Gallipoli revealing a story that was not widely known, nor taught in the schools when I attended. It was also in relatively recent times that I began to learn the history of the Maori part of my family knowing that a number were joined along side my Pakeha relationships on those death swept beaches of Gallipoli a 100 years ago.

Part of what has been an interesting looking back at my family and the many who served in Wars. and those that still serve today, was an interest in collecting badges of the various regiments in which some of those men served. Whilst I have almost exclusively concentrated on WW1 one thing is clear the majority of badges hold the fern, many native bird, also traditional warrior or canoe, as it also true that whilst there was a 'Native' contingent many Maori joined other units as well. I'm not sure at this stage why the fern, bird, canoe and club feature prominently among the badges but a fair guess would be memory of the conflict between Maori and settler when tomahawk faced musket and cannon and sometimes won, where haka was performed and laments sung in the evenings as smoke thinned and birdsong could be heard again through the ferns and the watching bush.

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