My name is Lee Vandervis and as one of your DUNEDIN CITY COUNCIL elected Councillors I am honoured to address you on this ANZAC DAY MEMORIAL 2021, organised by the Brighton Club Incorporated. My thanks to Colin and Bob and all those others that have allowed us to mark this important ANZAC DAY event.
‘Lest We Forget’ seems to be a simple reminder to acknowledge our current freedoms and to acknowledge those New Zealanders that fought alongside the Australians in the First World War to protect our way of life.
‘Lest We Forget’ also contains the strong suggestion that we need to remember what happened then, to ensure that such horrific History never repeats.
ANZAC DAY was originally intended to honour the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who served in the Gallipoli Campaign, their first and disastrous engagement against the Turks in the First World War. At the time, George Orwell called the Great War ‘the War to end all Wars’ but less than a generation later the ‘Great War’ was followed by the Second World War.
ANZAC DAY has since come to commemorate all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served.”
My personal view is that we should also recognise the contributions and suffering of all those who served indirectly at home.
– The wives that kept the farms going while worrying about their husbands overseas.
– Those that slogged long hours in munitions factories, in uniform and supplies manufacture, and those that met the demand for wool and machines and raw materials.
There were heroic efforts at home as well with relatives taking in children whose parents were caught up in the war effort, and the children themselves who suffered dislocation and privation, some permanently, when parents never returned.
Heroism at home came in many forms, not least being the strength to carry on when faced with the War-torn fabric of fate, or the fateful news of a dear lost life.
There are many ways to lose a life: physically with sudden death, disability, or mentally with the erosion of the will to live, the loss of life’s joys, or not knowing what we are here for.
‘What are You here for?’ I ask. Not just, ‘What are you here at this Memorial Service for?” but what are you here on this earth for in general? What do you really value? What do really want? And what do you have to offer? are all important questions that should be asked.
The suggestion that ‘There are no great causes left to fight for’ given our unprecedented extended peacetime is a suggestion that I do not accept.
Our forbears fought for their beliefs, for their values and for their families.
I believe that we have daily opportunities to do the same on the battlefield of everyday life. As Jordan Peterson has said ‘Everybody’s Life is a tragedy’.
We all face hurdles some of which can be overcome.
If you have not already done so, I urge you to engage with your Grandparents or anyone who lived through either World War and try to get a sense of what it was really like for them. Many coped, and still cope by pushing the horrors of War experiences to the back of their mind. Yet valuable insights into the many varied experiences of War are most telling for us when coming from those we know.
Reliance on older memories may not be enough however, as remembering tends to focus on a limited slice of events, on what has not been blanked out as too awful… Or too shameful.
Of the thousands of books that have been written about War, two have stood out for me as particularly telling:
The first is ‘War and Peace’, a big volume by Leo Tolstoy which contrasts the expedient horrors of War and the indulgent fickleness of Peace, and both the heroic and the shameful excesses of people caught up in War and in Peace, as Western Europe fell to Napoleon, followed by Napoleon’s 1812 fateful drive to Moscow.
Tolstoy’s heroes, scoundrels and cowards are what they are, in War and in Peace, but it is in War where necessity brings individual characters into sharpest relief. Not all soldiers were heroes, few Generals were competent leave alone brilliant, and it was the character and motivations of individuals under fire that decided battle outcomes, rather than the strategising or the politicking of their leaders.
Tolstoy paints a picture of many different drivers for War, from protecting the fatherland and culture, to personal ambition, material gain or sometimes just despairing of Life.
We prefer to remember those idealists who were fighting for our freedom, but there were also those who were motivated by escape from boredom, wanting travel and wanting adventure, innate savagery, or simple personal gain.
It’s said that the History of Wars is always written by the winners, but on both sides there are always individual winners and losers. At the front-lines there are mostly losers.
Tolstoy describes the grinding boredom of marches and privations and digging trenches between the rare flurries of actual battle, and shows how front-line miseries are compounded by the plunder and ruination of ordinary people to feed the ravenous moving War machines.
In the second book, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, author E M Remarque describes German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental stresses during WW1, the horrors of trench warfare and also the separation from civilian life felt by many soldiers lucky enough to return home from the front. Extreme noise from shelling, bodies, horses and machines blown to bits in a sea of filthy trenches, the choking mustard gas and rats gorging on the victims, made for terror unimaginable for us.
Both books are anti-War masterpieces highlighting the complexities, tribalism and human failings that have made War such a transformative part of our human past.
My Dutch maternal Grandfather’s experience of both WW1 and WW2 was one of having to make extraordinary efforts almost every hour of most days just to survive and to keep his family and close community alive. His long investment in Social Capital – his wide range of friends and acquaintances with tradeable skills – were what saw most of them through both Wars.
My paternal Grandfather was a wealthy builder before WW2 whose first reaction to war being declared on Holland was to buy a whole trailer-load of his favourite Havana cigars, saying he did not want to sit out the war without a good supply. He was so miserable however under German Occupation that he smoked very few of them, and they were so hungry a few years into the war, that he traded the whole trailer-load of cigars on the black-market for a pan of fat.
‘Tulip-muncher’ comes from that time when there was no food and bitter tulip bulbs were all that kept many Dutch stomach walls apart. Audrey Hepburn was just one of many who survived starvation during the German invasion of Holland in WW 2 by eating tulip bulbs.
My father was an older teenager in Zeist in WW2 and his challenges apart from hunger were mostly psychological: He had to be hidden from the Germans to avoid being taken into battle, or to work in German munitions factories. To do this his father had built a large bookcase that could rotate if you ran against one side of it to hide somebody quickly in a space behind the bookcase.
Dawn raids by the Germans looking for hidden able-bodied males involved rushing upstairs and checking how many warm beds there were, and if there were more warm beds than females in the house, they would do an exhaustive search to find the hidden male. Consequently my father had to share a bed with one of his sisters for a good part of the war, and he had to stay out of sight. Staying out of sight, or at least staying in the background became a way of life for him, even after he escaped destroyed Europe and emigrated to New Zealand on his honeymoon with my mother.
Dad did not like talking about the War, but sometimes he let his guard down and gave us snippets: the taking turns pedalling a suspended bike with a light dynamo so that others could read at night, going into the woods with his sledge in winter to find fallen dry branches that they could burn to keep warm – and one night coming back with his English Teacher on his sledge. She had died of exposure while also trying to find firewood.
But my most surprising realisation from my forbears’ War experiences was that, despite the extreme physical privations, for many the War years in Holland have been remembered as the best years of their lives. They were years when people had to be real, when everybody in their Community looked out for each other, leaned heavily on each other, and did whatever they could for their common good. Their lives then had INTENSITY and PURPOSE.
It was only by working together and being committed to frustrating the Germans and outlasting the Occupation that they were able to survive.
United by a common enemy they found new strengths within themselves, new inventiveness and imagination to optimise what scarce resources they could muster.
We, all of us, have our challenges which we can confront and hopefully engage with others to overcome, or, too easily in peacetime, we can push these challenges into the background and pretend they are not important or don’t even exist.
My mother’s father once said, when no doubt we boys were being spoiled snots, that ‘it is a shame that we had never known war’.
My view is that we don’t have to experience War to learn lessons from it, that by remembering and realising what our forebears went through we can learn some of the lessons that War has taught.
Following our tribal history of thousands of years of almost continuous Warfare we now enjoy an unprecedented reduction in war and murder, with most people experiencing a longer period of peace than any of their forebears.
My suggestion for today’s ANZAC service, is that we use this occasion to reflect and learn from our collective past.
I hope that with the mechanisation of warfare and its increasing reliance on economic power, that future Wars will stay at the level of economic contest rather than revert to traditional tribal slaughter.
I believe that our growing personal awareness and technological advances will reduce want and insecurity to the extent that War will soon become a thing of the past.
‘Lest we forget’, – we must remember that we owe the best living conditions in human History to those that went before us.
Thank you for the opportunity of sharing my thoughts with you on this sombre commemorative ANZAC DAY.