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
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.