Tuesday, April 28, 2015

After Anzac Day

I don't know who wrote the speech delivered by John Key at Gallipoli on Saturday, but they did a superb job. Steadily focused on what happened there 100 years ago, recognising that it was an invasion ending in defeat, thanking the Turks for their generous friendship. Carefully avoiding the foolish, false cliches that have persisted in surfacing all too often in recent weeks, such as the claim that the First World War was about "fighting for our freedom". And above all, stressing that:
"while this was a place of courage and heroism and duty, it was also a place of fear and waste and loss ... a place of unspeakable suffering on both sides of the fighting." 

I didn't go to the parade through Wellington last Friday. To me it seemed too much like boys' obsessive war games - look, real uniforms and trucks! (Or at least meticulous recreations of them.) I saw it as far too likely to conjure up the jaunty enthusiasm of those early weeks, when men were waved off to war by oblivious crowds convinced they would be triumphing home by Christmas. 

But it's always more complicated than it seems, and that certainly wasn't true for everyone watching last Friday, any more than it mulst have been back in 1915. A friend who was there told me what she saw: a middle aged woman with tears in her eyes as the young volunteers marched past in their stiff, scratchy khaki. "My great-uncle was only eighteen," she was saying. "He must have looked just like that."

Harvey was born in 1934. He grew up convinced that he, too, would have to go off overseas, like the two waves of men before him, to fight and quite possibly die at his country's bidding - if not in battle, then in the long aftermath of war, as his apparently strong stepfather had done at the age of 59. From the few stories Dick had told him, he knew only too well what a shambles war usually was. When Suez erupted, he thought, "this is it." But he was lucky, he lived out his 76 years in peace. 

When the commemoration came at 10 am on Saturday on the radio, I thought of the mothers. Unlike me, they lost their sons - and sometimes their daughters - alongside so many others, and supposedly for good cause. But I don't think that would have made it any less searing a loss. 

       August 1914

       What in our lives is burnt
       In the fire of this?
       The heart's dear granary?
       The much we shall miss?

       Three lives hath one life –
       Iron, honey, gold.
       The gold, the honey gone –
        Left is the hard and cold.

        Iron are our lives
        Molten right through our youth.
        A burnt space through ripe fields,
        A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

                Isaac Rosenberg, 1890-1918