DINNER AND WAR

Last Welly morning. Impossible not to love this place, this pretty modest sensible calm safe place. Last night Teresa, her friends Bridgett and Safia, and I had the most delicious of dinners at a downtown restaurant called Charley Noble’s. Nice when every item ordered is exactly as tasty as desired, fish so fresh with crust all fatty, crispy and salty; peas straight from the garden, bacon, cream and shaved something enhanced; a liver pate with a bit of an odd sweet jam creamed onto tiny toasts; and a tall smooth dark dark beer. Every now and again it’s actually worth eating out. Afterward Safia drove us on a long circular drive around the bay and hills as the sun set and the friends talked about their lives here, free from the edge of fear and stress that accompanies every young woman in her work and play in most of the world’s urban areas.

I apologize for the adjective overloading in the previous paragraph but New Zealand inspires such excess. Which is strange because in some ways it is ordinary—just ordinary—good ordinary. It’s a Goldilocks kind of place where most things are ‘just right.’ So would I want to live here forever and ever. I’m not sure—maybe I’m too used to the high crimes and tawdry misdemeanors of home!

In a few hours we head for Ho Chi Minh City which has seen way more than its share of every kind of colonial, political, and personal crime—for a very long time perpetuated by us, us the US. But let me stay with a different war for a moment. I spent a few hours yesterday at the The Great War Exhibition, created by Sir Peter Jackson, housed within the National War Memorial Park, and commemorating the role played by New Zealand in the First World War. Here’s the on-line description:

Master film-maker, Sir Peter Jackson, with the support of ANZ, has recreated the global story of the First World War at The Great War Exhibition.   A stunning array of movie-like sets depict the war; scene by scene; year by year.   From the massive 10-tonne tank and 11-tonne gun to the 5,000 tiny hand-painted figurines which re-enact the battle of Chunuk Bair, the artefacts are rare and thought provoking.

But perhaps it is the hundreds of photographs from the era, which have been painstakingly colourised, that really melt away the last 100 years.

This is truly a world-class exhibition, acclaimed by international visitors and New Zealanders alike.   It shows the hardship and bravery of those who lived through this pivotal time in history – the horrors of war as well as the bravery and spirit which endured.

The visit was one of those things I’m always hoping will happen when I travel—an experience unexpected, engaging and enlightening. I’ve read a modest amount of WW1 history and literature (and walked the Sarajevo bridge where the archduke was killed) but as usual there’s so much I did not know. The Great War exhibit covers the war broadly but with such pertinent and vivid displays that somehow I ‘got’ some things maybe not quite understood before. Then there’s the narrowing focus onto the New Zealand and Australian Army Corps (ANZAC) and the weeks-long siege of Gallipoli in which Australians and New Zealanders played a large role, and finally to New Zealand’s own boys.

I took many photos…here are just a few, in an order I hope will make sense. The focus on the Australian/New Zealand ANZAC boys is at the end of the album.

The war goes on...

New Zealanders are proud of their role in The Great War…wish we could all be as proud of what happens in ‘peace.’

There’s a short film about the battle of Passchendaele.

New Zealand’s ‘blackest day’ at Passchendaele

12 October 1917

German pillbox on the Passchendaele battlefield (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-C-003343-F)

Ever since 1917, Passchendaele has been a byword for the horror of the Great War. In terms of lives lost in a single day, the failed attack on Bellevue Spur on 12 October was probably the greatest disaster in New Zealand’s history.

Eight days earlier, 320 New Zealanders died during the capture of Gravenstafel Spur, one of two spurs on the ridge above Passchendaele in Flanders, Belgium. Although this attack was successful, it had a tragic aftermath. The British High Command mistakenly concluded that the number of German casualties meant enemy resistance was faltering and resolved to make another push immediately.

An attack on 9 October by British and Australian troops was to open the way for II ANZAC Corps to capture Passchendaele on the 12th. The plan failed. Without proper preparation and in the face of strong German resistance, the 9 October attack collapsed with heavy casualties.

The New Zealanders nevertheless began their advance at 5.25 a.m. on the 12th. The preliminary artillery barrage had been largely ineffective because thick mud made it almost impossible to bring heavy guns forward, or to stabilise those that were in position. Exposed to raking German machine-gun fire from both the front and the flank, and unable to get through uncut barbed wire, the New Zealanders were pinned down in shell craters. Orders for another push at 3 p.m. were postponed and then cancelled.

The troops eventually fell back to positions close to their start line. For badly wounded soldiers lying in the mud, the aftermath of the battle was a private hell; many died before rescuers could reach them. The toll was horrendous: 843 New Zealand soldiers were either dead or lying mortally wounded between the lines.

On 18 October, Canadian troops relieved II ANZAC Corps. In a series of well-prepared but costly attacks in atrocious conditions, they finally occupied the ruins of Passchendaele village on 6 November. The offensive had long since failed in its strategic purpose and the capture of Passchendaele no longer represented any significant gain.

I’ll skim over the other odds and ends of my day and end with Waltzing Matilda because we sang it up in Northome, Minnesota when I was a kid and I always loved it…and has significance for yesterday. While it is pure Australian, its later spin-off, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, is pure WW1 and Gallipoli and the ANZAC boys. Please read the lyrics and then listen to Liam Clancy sing it on YouTube.

Yesterday was overcast, generally that spring-warm that always carries a hint of chill, and not quite as windy as is apparently usual here. I walked to the museum, then on down to Teresa’s office, stopping on the way for new gray hiking pants at Kathmandu (the store) for hiking the streets of Kathmandu (the city). Then home to tuck in for my last night here in Teresa’s friendly down-under lodgings. The world is a good, if somewhat tragic place. I’m left with the ever-present quandary of whether to feel hopeful because of the human spirit that drives kids through acres of mud to fight for something they’ve been led to believe is critical to the good of their home and loved ones—or hopeless because we keep producing ‘leaders’ who for personal glory and gain convince the world’s worker-minions-youth that ‘thou shalt kill to preserve my this or that.’

Teresa and I watched the first episode of The Vietnam War night before last; I wanted her to have just that first bit of background before our trip. Now I will remind her constantly over the next months to watch the rest. No American should be left with any illusions about the depths (and body counts) to which our ‘leaders’ will go when ego is involved.

Cheers.

***

Waltzing Matilda

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,

He sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled

You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

He sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled,
you’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Waltzing Matilda is a song about an Australian Hobo
I guess you’d call him. He wanders through the bush
land of Australia and he takes all his meagre belongings
wrapped up in an old blanket which is strung across his
shoulders with an old piece of twine and this is called his swag.
Hence the name swagman. Now affectionately or otherwise
he refers to his swag as Matilda, its like his only companion
as he wanders through the bush tracks he finds himself talking
to it as if its a real person. (Google)

On to Gallipoli

“And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”
When I was a young man I carried me pack
And I lived the free life of the rover
From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in 1915 my country said: Son,
It’s time to stop rambling, there’s work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war

And the band played Waltzing Matilda
When the ship pulled away from the quay
And amid all the tears, flag waving and cheers
We sailed off for Gallipoli

It well I remember that terrible day
When our blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell they call Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk, he was ready, he primed himself well
He rained us with bullets, and he showered us with shell
And in five minutes flat, we were all blown to hell
He nearly blew us back home to Australia

And the band played Waltzing Matilda
When we stopped to bury our slain
Well we buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then it started all over again

Oh those that were living just tried to survive
In that mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
While around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head
And when I awoke in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead
I never knew there was worse things than dying

Oh no more I’ll go Waltzing Matilda
All around the green bush far and near
For to hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs
No more waltzing Matilda for me

They collected the wounded, the crippled, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind and the insane
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And when the ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thank Christ there was no one there waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity

And the Band played Waltzing Matilda
When they carried us down the gangway
Oh nobody cheered, they just stood there and stared
Then they turned all their faces away

Now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Renewing their dreams of past glories
I see the old men all tired, stiff and worn
Those weary old heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question

And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men still answer the call
But year after year, their numbers get fewer
Someday, no one will march there at all

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong
So who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?

 

Writer(s): Eric Bogle

***

If you hang out just a short while in NZ you can almost believe the world is just kind of going along normally.

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One Comment on “DINNER AND WAR

  1. I am not sure what to say and be believed. This is perhaps one of the most interesting things you have written, I will have to read it several more times. You set a real mood, both for the feel of Wellington, New Zealand, and the feel of the first world war as explained by this exhibit and memorial to their fallen. I am just so happy that you share your adventures and insights with us. I look forward to Vietnam.

    Like

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