Remembrance, Rugby and Richie McCaw

A special article for Remembrance Day 2014.

It’s not every day as a journo that you attend a post-match press conference and a rugby player brings tears to your eyes. But that is essentially what happened to me on Saturday after the All Blacks played England at Twickenham.

As a Kiwi, I’ve grown up with remembrance. For as far back as I can remember, I’ve always attended services for ANZAC Day (25 April, the anniversary of the Gallipoli landings). It started with me marching in the ANZAC morning parades as a Pippin, Brownie and then a Girl Guide. As a city-dwelling university student, I attended the dawn services at Auckland War Memorial Museum. ANZAC Day was a day off – students would often have a big night on the 24th, but it didn’t matter what wretched state you were in early the next morning, you got up, you went to the dawn service, and you damn well paid your respects. In my group of friends at least, the one thing you would never dream of doing is treating ANZAC Day as a day for a lie-in to sleep off yet another holiday hangover.

Things were no different on moving to London. If anything, I’ve witnessed the ANZAC spirit taken even more seriously. It’s no small feat getting up for the ANZAC dawn service at Hyde Park Corner; it’s a bit more of a challenge than at home – it requires irregular night buses, a little more self-motivation (unlike at home where everyone in your flat would be going), and of course it’s not a day off – so you’ll be dragging yourself out for a strong coffee and brekkie afterwards, before making your bleary-eyed way into work. But you don’t complain. And no, you don’t think you deserve a medal. But there’s a sombre sense of completeness that you’ve done what little you can to briefly acknowledge someone else’s sacrifice.

But this isn’t about the ANZACs specifically. That just comes from me drawing on my own personal experience. This is about remembrance in a broader sense – why we Remember Them, and if we even understand what we’re remembering.

In this year, the centenary of the start of the First World War, a few friends and colleagues have been rather taken aback by my “fixation” on remembrance. I’ve been criticised from all angles – and some of the places the criticism has come from has been a surprise. Some believe it’s an interest that springs from coming from a military family of sorts. Others have said that I’ve become fixated on remembering the dead because my mother is dead. It really is quite astounding and shocking what people come out with.

And most surprising of all, is that most people don’t even bother asking me WHY – they’d rather just hold the opinion that I’m a little odd and morbid.

The truth is, contrary to the family I come from (who never really spoke about either war) and my participation in and attendance of commemorative services, I actually knew very little about either WW1 or WW2 until very recently. The interest has really sprung from a trip I took out to the WW1 battlefields of the Western Front with First Festival Travel a couple of years ago. It was an experience that changed my life and my opinion on remembrance forever; you can read about it here. But in a nutshell, I was somewhat ashamed to be forced to admit that actually I knew NOTHING. I had opinions on things I knew absolutely nothing about. In fact, even though I knew Gallipoli, I had no idea what the Western Front was, let alone its importance. I had no clue (if I am to be perfectly honest here) about why the First World War even started, or what it was we were fighting for. I was naive to the real numbers of those who fought, of those who fell, and of those many whose graves are unknown. I had no knowledge of the propaganda, of when and how conscription worked, and of who was making the decisions.

Is it important we know these things? Yes, it absolutely is. Because if we don’t know what or why we’re remembering – to be frank – remembrance becomes empty and devoid of any real meaning. If we’re just going through the motions, what is the point?

The truth is that many people have no idea about the “what’s” and “why’s” we’re remembering – and it is absolutely not their fault. I’m still scratching my head as to why I was taught about Gallipoli at school, but the Western Front was never even mentioned – even though more New Zealanders died at Passchendaele than at Gallipoli. This is just an example, but from what I’ve seen anywhere I go, there seems to be a general lack of awareness and understanding about the First World War. How can we expect people to truly understand remembrance – let alone learn lessons from that past to understand our future – if we don’t give them the knowledge to begin with?

Back to Saturday… pre kick-off, Twickenham Stadium. It’s the day before Remembrance Sunday and also the centenary year of the start of the First World War – a commemoration is taking place pre-match on the pitch, involving flags, music and the British Armed Forces – and it’s impressive. The Last Post sounds. Rather than being followed by a minute’s silence, however, 82,000 people burst into cheering and applause. I was absolutely horrified. But the fact that the majority of spectators thought it appropriate to applaud the Last Post is testament to a lack of understanding that they can absolutely not be blamed for.

At the post-match press conference, All Blacks Captain Richie McCaw was asked if given the proximity of this match to Remembrance Sunday, if it was extra emotional for the team to put the jersey on, thinking back to those others who have worn it – and no doubt alluding to the 13 All Blacks who died in the First World War specifically.

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“It definitely has significance for our team,” Richie answered. “We always make sure we take a moment to understand why you put the poppy on the sleeve, and why people remember all those years ago. One of the things that always hits Kiwis – and especially our team – is when you say that during the First World War the population of our country was only a million, and 100,000 of that million then came to fight over here… and that puts a fair bit of reality around what you do. It adds a little bit of something extra to why you want to go and play well when you have the poppy on the sleeve. There’s no doubt that our boys understand that, and we make a point of remembering that. We’re all here living the way that we are because of what a lot of men did all those years ago. I think the great thing is that we have a chance to pay our respects, and go out and perform, and in that way too, pay our respects.”

Now to be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that Richie McCaw is extraordinary in his capacity to understand remembrance. But the reason his words touched me so much was because I was thinking, “Now here’s an ordinary guy, a rugby player, a typical Kiwi – who gets it”. The difference isn’t that Richie McCaw is a legendary All Black – the difference is that he makes “a point of remembering” and taking a moment to “understand why” you put the poppy on the sleeve, for example.

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Whether Richie McCaw’s point of reference comes from seeking understanding himself, or having it fostered within the team, I’m not sure. But it doesn’t really matter. The point is that if we want to understand the true meaning of remembrance, we have to seek the answers (and the questions) out for ourselves. And it’s something that I hope this Remembrance Day, you will make the effort to do. What remembrance absolutely is not, is glorifying an old war. What remembrance is, is understanding why we had to fight, why we remember those who had no choice but to fight, and crucially, what we must learn from it today.

Lest We Forget.

Written by Charlotte Everett. May be re-used with permission only.

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All Blacks “Remember Them” in London – WW100

New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team flew into London yesterday morning, and last night an intimate wreath-laying was conducted at Hyde Park Corner to remember the thirteen All Blacks who lost their lives in the First World War, as well as all soldiers who paid the ultimate price on the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Western Front.

Amidst jetlag and a hectic schedule having only just flown in from Chicago, current All Blacks Dane Coles, Charlie Faumuina, Luke Romano and Ben Smith attended and participated in the centenary commemorative ceremony, arranged by the New Zealand High Commission and New Zealand Defence. They were joined by New Zealand Rugby Chairman Brent Impey, as well as High Commissioner to New Zealand  HE the Rt Hon Sir Lockwood Smith, DA Brigadier Antony “Lofty” Hayward and a small number of New Zealanders and friends of New Zealand in England. I was also in attendance, as one of six representatives from the NZ Society UK committee.

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High Commissioner Sir Lockwood opened proceedings by welcoming everyone to the New Zealand Memorial at London’s Hyde Park Corner. He detailed the stories and brief biographies of several of the thirteen All Blacks who never made it home from the Great War, before listing the names of all thirteen. New Zealand Rugby Chairman Brent Impey then addressed the intimate gathering and personalised his remarks with the story of his own grandfather being wounded in the Battle of the Somme. Brigadier Hayward concluded spoken proceedings with a poem.

Following the wreath-laying and Last Post, London Maori Club Ngati Ranana led the gathering in Whakaaria Mai, and then performed the haka made famous by the All Blacks – Ka Mate.

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Rugby was played at various points during the First World War, including an ANZAC match on the island of Lemnos during a respite from Gallipoli. The soldiers were forced to play with a football in place of a rugby ball, with New Zealand thrashing their counterparts 13 tries to 1. New Zealand also won 40-0 in another game played against France in April 1917 for the Somme Cup. 60,000 watched the match in Paris.

The world champions are in London to face England at Twickenham this coming Saturday, 8 November. They will take to the field wearing specially developed remembrance poppies. Impey stated, “World War One took a massive toil on our nation and our All Blacks were a part of that story. Over the next four years, New Zealand Rugby will play a role in sharing rugby’s contribution to the period and it’s an honour to be in London to mark Kiwis contribution to the Allied efforts”.

The thirteen All Blacks who lost their lives in the First World War were Albert Downing, Henry Dewar, Frank Wilson, Robert Black, George Sellars, James Baird, Reginald Taylor, James McNeece, Dave Gallaher, “Jum” Turtill, Eric Harper, Ernest Dodd and Alex Ridland.

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Article by Charlotte Everett; may only be used with permission.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

Democracy vs Empire – what were NZ fighting for in the First World War?

On Thursday 16 October, the NZ-UK Link Foundation held their Inaugural Annual Lecture at the University of London’s Senate House, and I was privileged enough to attend. This year’s lecture was given by Sir Hew Strachan, one of Britain’s leading military and First World War historians, and entitled: ‘Democracy or empire? Reflections on the British imperial experience of the First World War’.

The event was run in association with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS), and part of Imperial War Museum’s Centenary Programme Partnership. A number of honoured guests were in attendance, including the New Zealand High Commissioner, Sir Lockwood Smith.

It was an incredibly thought-provoking lecture that still has my mind ticking over – but I will attempt to convey what I took from the evening.

Sir Hew opened by addressing the questions:

Why did we fight?

Was it for British values and the rights of small nations – or rather for the British right to run its empire?

He went on to quote two very different men on the British side of the war – one, John A. Lee, a civilian-turned-soldier (and later, a politician) from Dunedin in New Zealand’s South Island – and the other, King George V.

The stark difference of perspective illuminates the dilemma of military service for Commonwealth citizens in the army in 1914. Men are given citizenship and the care of the State – and in return, they have the reciprocal duty to protect the State at war. The understanding of “democracy” was very different in 1914 – in truth, there really wasn’t one as far as the British Empire was concerned. Approximately 40% of British men did not have the right to vote in 1914, and as far as the empire was concerned, Britain was controlling the rights of a multitude of small nations far from home.  George V called on his subjects to defend democracy – but the understanding of democracy at the time was simply one of civic and military duty. For civilian volunteers in uniform such as Lee, it was a loss of liberty – whereas from the perspective of George V, it was in defence of liberty.

How far could the British Empire of 1914 be described as a democratic institution? Canada, Australia and New Zealand were important to the empire, because they were members of it voluntarily, rather than by force. Moreover, they were tied to Britain by colonial migrants and a shared culture. By contrast, other parts of the empire – such as West Africa – were perceived by Britain as uncivilized, yet their men were fighting to prove to Britain that they are citizens, not mere subjects, and equal to citizens of British ancestral descent.

Ultimately, the involvement of the wider empire in the First World War focussed mostly on Canada, Australia and New Zealand because these three nations were considered as equal partners, even if other members of the empire were not. It’s important to note however that the three nations were not free to choose whether or not to enter the war (that order came from London) – but they were free to decide how they would fight that war.

New Zealand joined the Great War on 31 July 1914. In contrast to Britain, New Zealand was rather more ahead in terms of the modern definition of democracy. More adult men, including Maori, certainly had the right to vote – and indeed, women had been given the right to vote in New Zealand since 1893. Furthermore, New Zealand held a wartime election; by contrast Britain chose not to and essentially ruled during wartime without a parliamentary mandate.

The major point where New Zealand followed Britain’s lead and differed from Canada and Australia was the introduction of conscription in 1916. By this time, the voluntary system of enlistment had come to represent inequality, and compulsory service had come to represent equality of sacrifice. Conscription ensured that 20% of all eligible New Zealand males were sent to war, versus only 13.5% of eligible males from Australia and Canada.

Sir Hew’s lecture was concluded with a Question and Answer session. One guest in attendance raised the question of the Gallipoli campaign as the “birth of nations”, as far as the ANZACs are concerned. Sir Lockwood Smith commented in response by saying that in New Zealand, the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840 is seen more as “the day of our nationhood, whereas ANZAC Day is undoubtedly New Zealand’s most sacred day”.  He went on to say, “But it is growing. I see so many young people out on ANZAC Day wearing their Great-Grandfather’s medals – and it’s the same in Australia. It’s getting bigger. Gallipoli and ANZAC Day are what make us [Australia and New Zealand] unique in our national identity.”

Sir Hew responded to Sir Lockwood’s remarks by commenting on the vast difference between those ANZACs returning home to Australia in contrast to New Zealand. He suggested that many returning to Australia in the 1920s saw ANZAC Day as a day to party (similar to how returning British soldiers saw Armistice Day), whereas in New Zealand ANZAC Day was held as a sacred day, with pubs closed and sombre observance. He further remarked that it’s interesting to see ANZAC Day held with such reverence in New Zealand despite the fact that more New Zealand soldiers died at Passchendaele on the Western Front than at Gallipoli.

The evening was concluded with a drinks reception sponsored by the New Zealand High Commission.

NZ-UK Link put on a captivating and highly interesting evening, and I look forward to attending their lectures in future. Attendance is free and open to anyone, but registration essential – so I hope that you will join us at future events.

Article by Charlotte Everett. May only be re-used with permission.