Anzac Day

Today is Anzac Day, in Australia and New Zealand.   It commemorates the landing of the New Zealand and Australian troops at Gallipoli in World War I.  Although the effort to take the Dardanelles was ultimately unsuccessful, the Anzac troops demonstrated great courage and tenacity, and the ordeal the troops underwent in this campaign has a vast meaning to the peoples of New Zealand and Australia.

At the beginning of the war the New Zealand and Australian citizen armies, illustrating the robust humor of both nations,  engaged in self-mockery best illustrated by this poem:

We are the ANZAC Army

The A.N.Z.A.C.

We cannot shoot, we don’t salute

What bloody good are we ?

And when we get to Ber – Lin

The Kaiser, he will say

Hoch, Hoch, Mein Gott !

What a bloody odd lot

to get six bob a day.

By the end of World War I no one was laughing at the Anzacs.  At the end of the war a quarter of the military age male population of New Zealand had been killed or wounded and Australia paid a similarly high price.  Widely regarded as among the elite shock troops of the Allies, they had fought with distinction throughout the war, and added to their reputation during World War II.   American veterans I have spoken to who have fought beside Australian and New Zealand units have uniformly told me that they could choose no better troops to have on their flank in a battle.

Don the kiwi, a friend of mine, has allowed me to share with our readers some of the experiences of his family in World War I.  Out of a population of less than a million, New Zealand had 18,000 soldiers and sailors killed in World War I, which would be the equivalent of over five million US dead in a war today.  10 percent of the New Zealand population served in World War I, which would be the equivalent of 30 million Americans serving in a war.

I have several relatives who were involved in WW1, which always spurs my interest in the various conflicts around the world that our little group of islands deep in the South Pacific were voluntarily and influentially involved in.

My maternal grandfather, Don Piper, born in Cornwall in 1890, emigrated to NZ in 1910. He volunteered in the army at the outbreak of war in 1914, and was in the first wave of landings on Gallipoli peninsular. He survived the whole period of that phase of the war and hated the defeat they suffered. He spent the next year or two in the trenches in France, and after being wounded was repatriated – after a period of convalescence in England – to NZ. He entered the army as a private, and came home a 2nd Lieutenant.

During this time, he met his future brother in law, my great uncle Eustace Nicholson who was also on Gallipoli. He also survived this mayhem, and continued his service in action on the Western front – then a Sergeant Major, and on leave in England, met his future wife – a Parissienne who was working as an au pair in England. After the war, he left NZ, went back to England, sought her out, and married her in Paris, then came back to NZ. I have very fond memories of my dear Aunt Jeanne – during my high school days I would visit her and practice my French with her.


My dad’s oldest brother, Uncle George, also served in WW 1. He missed Gallipoli, but served for a couple of years in the trenches in France. In 1917 he was gassed, and returned to NZ as an invalid, having only one lung – the gas having destroyed the other. He was sent to a convalescent home just out of Auckland to fully recover.

Uncle Hori (as we called him – the Maori name for George) was a real character, always had a twinkle in his eye, and was a great man for the ladies. Within three days of arriving at the convalescent home, he seduced the matron of the establishment. Not bad for one lung and in poor health. He continued to play rugby football in Rotorua until 1926, when he married Aunty May (Mabel Smith) and moved to Auckland where he lived for most of his life, dying back in Rotorua at a retirement home at the ripe old age of 96. Amazing.

Interestingly, my grandfather’s younger brother, Nigel Piper who remained in England, was a foundation member of the Royal Flying Corps, and flew fighters – such as they were – in WW 1. He accounted for a few German planes in combat and was shot down on one occasion, and was a guest of the German Luftwaffe, who wined and dined him in a French Chateau, and was not kept under guard. He decided one night to walk away, and walked, virtually unchallenged back to allied lines. He was a personal friend of Frank Whittle – the british jet engine designer , and until he was around 80, lectured at the RAF training academy on Aeronautical Thermodynamics. He died at the ripe old age of 101 years.

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain; As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, To the end, to the end, they remain.

Laurence Binyon

Published in: on April 25, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (10)  


  1. Rommel, who met them in Libya, regarded the New Zealanders as the best troops he had ever seen. The Australians he thought would be Hell to command, but worth it for their courage and spirit.

    • True on both counts from what I have observed Fabio!

  2. Talked with a marine at Quantico who was on a training exercise in the desert of Australia with an Aussie unit. They apparently kicked out butts. for a MARINE to confess that it had to be an impressive kicking. For Marines never retreat, they have advanced rapidly to the rear on a couple of occasions. chuckle Good post.

    • That is a miracle Dennis! I have never met any Marine who believed that any other fighting force was better than the Corps!

  3. BTW, today is also Liberation Day in Italy. It may not seem much to you, but to us it makes a huge difference that hundreds of thousands of our young men stood up on the right side against appalling odds, and that many of our cities – Naples, Florence, Genoa, Turin, and above all Milan – were freed by our own fighters before the Allies ever got there. Freedom is best loved and longest kept when it is fought for, rather than given by default.

    • I was unaware of Libertation Day Fabio, but I will remember it next year. I also recall that the Italian Army during World War II fought a clean war and protected Jews. I believe they called anti-Semitism “The German Disease”. I hope you had an enjoyable celebration my friend.

      • “A clean war…” I wish I could agree. While the Italians did not commit anything like the systematic monstrosities of our “allies”, there were plenty of war crimes in occupied Yugoslavia (and I mean terrible things such as babies being used for target practice). This was the result of decades of mutual hatred that had begun when the Habsburgs started deliberately favouring the Slavs in Istria and Dalmatia against the Italians, and become a major European problem when the settlement of 1919-1922 left both Italians and Yugoslavs fiercely dissatisfied. This is forgotten now, but from 1919 to 1940 it was universally felt that the East Adriatic was one of the likeliest flashpoints in Europe. And then there is the issue of Ethiopia, which overlaps WWII, and in which Graziani – one of the worst human beings who ever lived – had committed so many brutalities that even Mussolini decided that he was being counterproductive and sent the gentlemanly and heroic Duke of Aosta to mend matters – and when the war began the Duke ended up paying for everyone, winding up in a British prisoners’ camp in spite of a well-fought defence against overwhelming odds, and dying in 1942 while Graziani lived and betrayed and murdered further. And speaking of Mussolini, it is absolutely true that the Italian record on the Jews is good, give or take a few loathsome creatures that crawled out from under stones after the “Race Laws” of 1938; but that is no thanks to Mussolini. The diary of his lover Claretta Petacci, recently published after decades of legal wrangling, shows that he was himself a Jew-hater from the start, even as he presented a smiling face to Italian Jews, and that he was delighted to have the opportunity to finally pass the Race Laws when his alliance with Hitler became close.

      • “there were plenty of war crimes in occupied Yugoslavia”

        By all sides Fabio. In order to have a clean war it is good to have two sides willing to do so. The Balkans and clean wars have normally been strangers to each other. Ethiopia of course was prior to World War II, but I would note that in Spain the Italian Army had a better record of observing the rules of war than either the Nationalists or the Republicans. Other than a few good quips that he threw out, “It is not impossible to govern Italians, merely useless.”, I can think of little positive to say about the man who did not make the trains run on time.

  4. Yes, Yugoslavia was Hell. But Italy threw itself into that Hell with gusto, and I don’t mean only the blackshirt divisions, but proud and otherwise respected units such as the Alpini. In contemporary Yugoslav descriptions of these things, there is a curious, almost hurt tone of disappointment: “How could Italy, civilized Italy, act like this?” While the Italians were purely and simply angry at the Yugoslavs for what they regarded as their theft of Italian land, the Yugoslav – or at least Serb and Croat – attitude to Italy was more complex. While on the one hand they were jealous of what had long been the Italian provinces of Istria and Dalmatia, on the other hand Italy, much more than Austria, had long been to these frontier peoples the very antithesis of Turkish misrule and barbarism. Serbo-Croat is full of Italian loan words, and both Serbs and Croats (I am purposely excluding the Slovenes, who had always been part of the Austrian area and had little to do with Italy except through the harbour of Trieste) had inherited an idealized, admiring idea of Italy. During the long centuries when it was the only free Christian country in the Turkish Balkans, Montenegro had always applied to Venice for a token Governor, as a sign of their connection with the civilized West, even though the actual power in the country was always the hereditary prince-bishop. The horrors of WWII wiped out this idealized picture (at any rate, the ferocity and intensity of Italian conflicts have always been underrated by outsiders) and then Tito buried the problem in the inimitable Communist style. To give an idea, his partisans only occupied the city of Trieste for one month, but in that month 2.5% of the city’s population somehow managed to wind up dead in local caves (foibe). What happened to the Italians in the rest of Istria and in Dalmatia, apart from the 300,000 who fled, is best not asked. But Italy had asked for it by the way it fought the war in Yugoslavia. The war in Spain, or for that matter in Russia, was not comparable; Italians had no tradition of hostility to Spain and Russia, and in fact found themselves quite at home in the former country. One of Italy’s greatest heroes in WWII, Giorgio Perlasca, who single-handedly saved between three and five thousand Hungarian Jews, managed it because he could convincingly pass for a Spaniard.

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