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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ANZAC on the Western Front – the pilgrimage that changed my life

ANZAC Day often takes on a new significance for Aussies and Kiwis living in Europe, and for many, the time will arrive when the decision is made make a pilgrimage to Gallipoli.

Last year, I decided that for me, this would be the year.

ImageCaterpillar Valley Cemetery. Image copyright Charlotte Everett.

An unexpected turn of events came about, when – before I’d even had a chance to look at Gallipoli tour options – a friend happened to mention to me that she and her husband were going to spend ANZAC on the Western Front instead. The Western Front? I had to confess, I knew very little about it. I thought it was a bit odd that a Kiwi couple would choose to go there over Gallipoli. My friend explained: “Gallipoli was amazing. But from what I’ve heard, the Western Front is mind-blowing. It’s something else entirely.”

Curious, I decided to look into it. One thing that had stopped me attending the Gallipoli ANZAC services in the past was concern that the crowds would affect the overall experience for me. First Festival Travel were offering a Western Front tour that promised a sombre and unique experience away from such large crowds. I was also surprised and rather disappointed in myself to discover that I knew so little about the Western Front – the most heavily fought area of WW1. In just one day of battle on the Western Front, the number of ANZACs that died is equal to the number that died during the entire Gallipoli Campaign.

Having mentioned in cyberspace that I was thinking about doing the Western Front tour, a few other friends came forward to say that they’d been on the same tour in previous years. One was insistent that I do the tour. She was convinced that this was a trip that would change my life.

From the moment I booked the tour, my journey began.

First Festival staff encouraged investigating whether we had any family who had fought or died on the Western Front. When I mentioned to my 90-year-old grandmother over the phone that I had booked the tour, she was overcome with emotion. Her father (my great-grandfather), Peter Gill, had served almost 4 years on the Western Front with the NZ Expeditionary Force, as a horse-drawn field ambulance driver. He had survived, but from his wartime diary (which astonishingly my grandmother still had) it was clear from the horror he witnessed and experienced that he got to the point where he thought he would never make it home. My uncle transcribed his diary, and emailed it to me. It was a heart-wrenching read. Along with photos of both my great-grandfather during the war – and photos of the cup he had been awarded by Major-General Sir AHR Russell KCMG for having the best ambulance horse – I was already getting a deep sense of the significance of the Western Front.

Image My Great-Grandfather, Peter Gill.

Having booked the tour before knowing that it had any personal significance for me or my family, I was feeling incredibly grateful to now have a personal history to unravel. I certainly wasn’t expecting to then find anything more – but there was still the paternal side of my family to investigate.  I casually asked my Dad about the Western Front, not expecting any life-shattering discovery. He told me that his father’s eldest brother Bob had been a heavy gunner on the Western Front and had survived, but that was all he knew.  My own investigations kept running into dead ends. Until  a few days before my departure, when an English cousin recalled something his grandmother had mentioned to him almost 50 years ago. Bob wasn’t my grandfather’s eldest brother – he was my grandfather’s eldest SURVIVING brother. Granddad’s eldest brother, Jack, had been killed on the Western Front in WW1. Granddad had seemingly never mentioned him. Family in New Zealand weren’t even aware that Jack had existed. And as neither Jack nor Bob had any children, if this discovery had not been made now, their stories could have been lost forever. I was to be the first member of the family to visit the Western Front since the First World War. And I was determined to find Jack and pay my respects.

Upon arrival in Lille on the morning of 24 April, we boarded our coach to journey through the battlefields of the Somme region with our local guide, Mike. Mike took us through and to several major sites of importance for both Australians and New Zealanders; including Villers-Bretonneux, Lochnagar Crater, and Caterpillar Valley – where many NZ soldiers are buried. Mike was also able to shed some light on where some of the places were where my great-grandfather had been, so I was able to get a sense of standing very close to his own footsteps. Given that the countryside has changed so little, it was remarkable to look out over the fields and consider how different it would have been for my great-grandfather and his ANZAC comrades as they journeyed through these areas.

Mike also shared his own father’s recollections of life on the Western Front during WWI:

“I was cold. I was wet. I was hungry. I was thirsty. And I was frightened… And the German soldiers were feeling the exactly the same as I was, on the days that I was.”

Having checked into our accommodation in Ypres that evening, many of us headed down to the Menin Gate Memorial (to the missing) – the only place in the world where that Last Post Ceremony takes place every day of the year, at 8pm. It was incredibly overwhelming. The memorial itself is of staggering scale (think of other great arches you’ve seen around Europe); covered in names – and not all of the missing are named here. In fact, no New Zealanders are named here, as the decision was made for NZ soldiers to be remembered closer to where they fought and fell.

ANZAC Day, we attended the Dawn Service at Buttes New British Cemetery, Polygon Wood. Here, I was to lay a family wreath on behalf of my grandmother. We were led by candlelight through the woods, to a clearing in the cemetery, where the intimate ceremony took place. It was unlike any ANZAC service I had ever attended. Following the service, we were all invited to come and collect little crosses and place them on the graves of fallen ANZACs. It was then off to breakfast with the Australian and NZ consulates and dignitaries, before we spilt into separate Australian and NZ groups to attend our own services and events, coming together again to join the march through Ypres to the combined ANZAC service and Menin Gate.

In the afternoon, something very special was to happen from a personal perspective. Our local historian, an Otago boy – Martin, offered to take a couple of us out to pay our respects to our own. I was taken to the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing, where my great-uncle Jack was named. I had been sad to discover from a friend who had done a bit of research into Jack for me, that he had no known grave, but grateful to have the opportunity to visit Ploegsteert, and place a little memorial cross for him on behalf of the family. When I saw his name, I broke down. I was so sad for Jack, and for my family. Yet I left Ploegsteert with a sense of peace and closure having been able to pay tribute to his memory.

Image Visiting the Ploegsteert Memorial.

The next day was spent walking through the Messines area for a few hours, in the footsteps of the Kiwi soldiers – lead by our wonderful guide, Martin. The weather was horrendous, yet I doubt any of us would have wanted it any other way. We paid our respects to an unknown Kiwi soldier who had only been found and re-buried late last year. We then visited Tyne Cot – the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world – the scale of which was unimaginable. We also visited a German cemetery, which contrasted sharply with the look and style of the Commonwealth cemeteries.

The final visit for the day was to Essex Farm, famous for John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”. This cemetery was one that really got hold of me emotionally. Here, there is a grave belonging to a 15-year-old Irish boy – the second youngest of the fallen, that we know of. His family only found out he had enlisted when they were informed of his death. At Essex Farm there is also a Dressing Station, which gave me a deep sense of my great-grandfather and the sheer horror that his day-to-day life on the Western Front entailed.

Image My Great-Grandfather Peter Gill is standing between the two horses. His ambulance horse is the darker of the two.

Although almost a year has now passed, my experience on the Western Front is still sticking closely with me. I am still struggling to process it all. I feel immense gratitude to the people of France and Belgium, for the respect they continue to show to our fallen – not only in the way they care for our memorials and cemeteries, but also in their capacity to show friendship and compassion towards us, and in embracing our heritage – several towns, museums (and even a school!) are dedicated to all things New Zealand; all things Australia. Above all, I have left the Western Front with profound appreciation for life and humanity.

The Western Front has a lesson for all of us. If we choose to listen, we can greatly impact our future.

This article is adapted from my original article featured on NZNewsUK. First Festival Travel are very generously offering readers a discount on their Budget Coach Package for the same tour this year. Please contact me via email or via the NZNewsUK Facebook page for your discount code.

I’m back!

Woah… can’t believe I haven’t updated this for 5 months! Yes yes, I know I’m slack…

Truth be told, a lot has been happening – a lot of changes (including the sale of my house in NZ)! That’s right, I no longer have any “ties”! I’ve also been moving around a travelling a lot. But I won’t bore you with the details, and no more excuses – the site will be kept up to date with tour and writing stuff from now on.

If you’re a tourist who has been on one of my tours between January and now and you can’t see your photo – never fear, you can get a copy of it here on my Facebook page.

If you’re curious what I’ve been doing writing-wise, you’ll find a lot on NZNewsUK (including my recent interview with Katchafire!) – and you can see what I thought of the NZ Fringe shows I was fortunate enough to see on THEATREVIEW.

Big news!

So, some of you may be wondering why I bothered starting a blog if all I’m going to do is post photos of my tourists.

Well, a lot has been happening. And I’ve been frightfully busy and preoccupied with it all. And given that I always promise my tourists a souvenir photo, uploading those for them has been a priority.

That’s going to be my excuse, anyway 🙂

Now, my news…

Many who know me are aware that almost 8 months ago, I applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain (Settlement; Permanent Residency – whatever you want to call it) after 5 eventful years living here in London. Man, my life has done a complete 360 since I left New Zealand as a naive yet courageous young explorer!

Anyway, it was supposed to all be relatively straightforward, as I was applying via my UK Ancestry (British grandparent). Unfortunately I seemed to get caught up in a backlog and various other dramas. Missed my Grandmother’s 90th birthday; had to change my flights back to New Zealand 3 times. But the past is the past, and what’s important is that it’s happened… I’ve been granted Indefinite Leave to Remain! Yay! So I’m pretty much a proper Londoner now. Next, I hope to go for Dual Citizenship.

So, how am I celebrating? By getting on a plane of course!

One thing that this process has taught me is the importance of family and close friends. Big time. So tomorrow (yes, it all is a bit sudden!) I’m flying back to Auckland for a month. Even managed to get on the same flight as my Dad, who is in London for a couple of days for a meeting. I’ll get back in time for a good friend’s wedding, and to see other friends who are flying in from Sydney to coincide with the tail-end of the original dates I had booked (only now it’s the start of my trip)! It really couldn’t have worked out more perfectly. We’re even planning a second birthday party for my Grandmother while I’m there.

I’ll do my best to keep you all updated with this long overdue trip back to my homeland via this blog. Keep an eye on it for my various escapades, and photos of fun in the sun!

Wherever you are, I hope you’re having a wonderful start to 2013 – I’ve got a feeling this year is going to be a good one!