Remaking ANZAC Day

Every year on April 25, New Zealand (and Australia but I’m talking NZ here) marks ANZAC Day, which commemorates soldiers who fell in wars great and small. Particularly it remembers the horrific slaughter at Gallipoli in World War I, which is often seen as the moment where NZ became a nation.

It is always a contested event: the nationalism and militarism of the day are obvious, and there is a fundamental ambiguity over whether the solemn ceremonies deplore the violence, or strengthen the narrative that it was necessary. But each year, attempts to complicate the mythology of ANZAC day are met with furious resistance by a populace who simply want to remember their relatives from previous generations who died doing their best in a horrid distant war, and to pray that no such horror ever comes again. The talkback radio phones ring hot decrying the insensivity of protesters.

This year, two fresh threads in this critique have emerged that seem fruitful as ways to attack the nationalist and militarist mythmaking around the day but seem to have avoided this fierce backlash.

First, the idea of explicitly expanding ANZAC Day’s commemorations to include the wars within New Zealand (commonly known as the Māori Land Wars). The idea is covered beautifully by Toby Morris’s latest Pencilsword comic strip, “Lest We Forget“.

Second, a set of guerrilla sculptures erected around Wellington showing a soldier receiving Field Punishment Number 1, a brutal punishment meted out to pacifists who refused to fight. Public opinion is generally in agreement now that this is a blemish on our past. Protest group “Peace Action Wellington”, normally being tarred and feathered at this time of year for its protest actions, is this time being written about with something approaching admiration in the daily paper, and the comment section as I write is solidly in favour of the sculptures.

Great work on both accounts. I look forward to these threads being expanded further in years to come.

ANZAC DAY – Felix’s War Diary

Some excerpts from the War Diaries of my great-grandfather Felix Rooney. This is close to the start of his surviving diary – he did keep a diary of Egypt, Gallipoli and early time in France but it was destroyed in the attack that injured him and sent him to England to recover. The surviving diary begins when he arrives at Codford Camp in England after this recovery period (Codford hosts many ANZAC graves, and the locals mark 25 April with a dawn ceremony every year). He arrives in camp October 27, 1916, and is assessed as class B3 – he falls into a routine of drilling and marching as his health and fitness improve.

Tuesday 5 [December]
Up 6-30AM. Washed and breakfast 7-30. Parade 8AM. Inspected by the general. Dinner 12 noon. Medical inspection 1-30PM. Some of us put on guard. I expect to go into signalling section to-morrow. I met an old mate here, Mac Brosnan. He is sergeant instructor to the signallers. So I will be all right while I am here, but I hope that won’t be long. I would sooner be back in France than chased around here at drill. It is devilish cold here now. Keen frost, and the doors of the hut are kept open all day long. Fire must not be lit until 5PM. 17th Reinforcements back from leave to-night. Draft expected to leave Friday.

Wednesday 6
Another freezer of a morning. taken out on parade and transferred to signallers under my old mate Sergt Brosnan. On telephone work this afternoon. The company are out on the march to-night but I am exempt. Going out for a stroll and home again to bed.

Thursday 7
Up bright and early. There is no chance of laying in here. Cold and frosty. Out on signalling. I don’t think I will be going with the draft which leaves in a few days. If not I may have Christmas here. I am having a good time with these sigs here as I am the only one here who has been on active service and they don’t interfere with me. Out on station work this afternoon. Came on light shower of sleet and misty. Usual nightly shave and off to bed. Had a letter from old Lizzie.

Friday 8th
Up usual time and out to drill. Just before dinner I got orders to go with the draft to France to-night. Went down and passed the doctor and went on parade where Bill Massy and Joe Ward inspected us. Busy packing up now. We leave somewhere about mid-night.

Saturday 9th
We paraded last night at 11PM and moved off at mid-night. The train left at 1AM. Raining all the time. Arrived Shorncliff 7AM and marched to camp where we had breakfast and lunch. Left there and marched into Folkestone where we went aboard the “Princess Louise” and left about 2PM. Arriving Boulogne abut 4PM. After waiting about an hour in the rain with full packs up we moved off to a rest camp for the night. Got there 6-30PM and later had some tea. I am going to turn in soon, as we will most likely continue our journey to-morrow. Weary and wet to the skin I am off to sleep, that is if I can, as it is on the boards and they are hard, and my greatcoat is wet.

Sunday 10th
Up, washed and shaved. Still raining. We are on the old bully beef now for tucker. Medicinal inspection 10AM. Raining of course. Fell in 3-30PM and marched off in the rain. Entrained 4-45 and reached Etaples Camp about 7PM. Were served out with rifles and bayonets. Had tea and blankets served out. Twelve men to a tent. Turned in and fairly comfortable only wet.

Monday 11th
Up at 6AM and oh but it is cold. Had a wash and breakfast. Another medical inspection. Alotted new tents. Still raining. Had a shave after tea. I suppose we will start drilling to-morrow. I hope we go up to the trenches soon and get amongst my mates again. This is a miserable time of the year to be here. Met a few old hands I knew. Turned in 9PM.

Felix returned to the trenches in late January.

From Felix’s War Diaries

For ANZAC day – here is ANZAC day from 1918, in my great-grandfather Felix Rooney’s war diaries. He was in Somme, in France.

Tuesday 23
Got up about 9.A.M. Started bagging rations. Left at 3 P.M. with stores and hot stew for the line. When near Courcelles we ran into some heavy shelling and we had to move some across the paddock. Fritz was shelling all around. I got some of our Coy when we got up, to unload the limbers and get the stew dished out. I went up to H’qrs and delivered the rum. All going all right but this is going to be a warm show. Our transport moved out of the wood we were in, down behind Louvencourt. There are plenty of troops around here, both British and French. Turned in 9.P.M.

Wednesday 24
Cold morning inclined to be drizzly. Just heard that after I left the boys last night, Fritz got on to them with some of his heavy shells. Young Sgt Higginbottom of Ch.Ch. got killed. He was only a boy and a good soldier. 12th Coy had four killed and a good few have been wounded. It is hard luck coming out of the front line and getting knocked about in the reserve trenches.

Thursday 25
Anzac Day. Got everything fixed up for the line. Very close and thundery. Heavy rain in afternoon. My storeman went up the line to-day with the rations.
Boys celebrating the anniversary of the ‘landing‘ to-night.

The soldier Felix reports as killed was Bruce Hickinbottom. His record in the NZ role of honour is here. He was 20 years old.

Oor Hoose, and ANZAC day.

And so it is.

A week in, and we’re sorted at last – the internets and phone lines were the last things to get connected up. Boxes are now stacked empty in the garage and the rooms themselves are full of stuff. It feels comfortable, already. I think we’ll come to love living here.

Here’s a funny thing, though. If you stand at the front door and look out, you see directly across the way the house where my mother grew up. We knew was there was a family place somewhere on the street, but we didn’t know it was so close until after making an offer. I’ve since learned that my great-grandfather Felix used to sit on the steps outside the front door there and watch the passers-by. It was a railways street so I expect he knew most everyone who passed. I like the idea that our new house was one of the ones he watched over in the late days of his life.

The last few ANZAC days I’ve excerpted from Felix’s war diaries. Here’s 29 September, 1918:

3.30am. Away went a very poor barrage and over we went. Took Welsh Ridge and four lines of trenches and hundreds of prisoners and village of Vacquerie. Got to our objective and consolidated. Casualties very light. Got a lot of officer prisoners and our boys have loads of souvenirs, glasses, [?], matches etc. A very successful stunt. Especially as it was pitch dark until we got up to our objective and Fritz had a lot of wire in front. The Boache seemed to me to surrender very easily. One of our Companies got too far ahead and lost two platoons. The Huns only took the fit men, dressing our wounded and leaving them until we came along.

The action at Welsh Ridge was near the end of hostilities, part of the “Hundred Days Offensive” that broke through the Western front. It was also an important experience for Felix. John H. Gray’s Quid Non Pro Patria: The Short Distinguished Military Life of Henry James Nicholas VC MM relies on Felix’s diaries for detail and colour, for Felix and VC-winner Henry Nicholas were in many of the same places. It includes some words from Felix’s daughter Mary (my grandmother’s sister) on something that happened at Welsh Ridge when he found a bugle:

He told us that during the battle he was pinned down and took shelter where he could. In so doing he found himself alongside the body of a German soldier. On his back was an unusual article covered in scrim. It was the bugle, so covered presumably to prevent reflection from its shiny surface.

He turned the body over and was struck by its youth and by its beauty. An olive-skinned young man of fine features, little more than a child. Killed he presumed by blast as he was unmarked.

Her father had said more than once over the years, that the sight of that dead boy encapsulated for him the futility of war, and picking up the bugle he had said, at least to himself – “I’ll take this and keep it for you.”

Felix kept the bugle, and every night thereafter he prayed for that young German.