Tuesday, 29 June 2010

It’s not a Patch on the real thing….

The following is the prize winning short essay written by Christian McSweeney-Novak which saw him attend the ANZAC remembrance ceremonies at Galipoli this year. Christian is the eldest son of old boy David Novak.

It’s not a Patch on the real thing….

Christian McSweeney-Novak, Yr13, Francis Douglas Memorial College

Harry Patch, the last British soldier to fight in the trenches in WW1 died last year. He was aged 111. His death and his legacy of pacifism got me thinking …. You see Patch chose not to share his wartime experiences with anyone until he reached the ripe old age of 100. He believed the war was simply ‘not worth it’ and that the bravado and pomp of ANZAC day was just glitzy glamour. The early morning marches along with the glistening of medals, made Harry Patch remember all too clearly the horrors he faced as a young man. Harry Patch’s death got me thinking about what we do on this side of the ditch on Anzac day; and of how the war affected my great grandfather who also fought in the `great war’.

For many New Zealanders, Anzac Day is a special time, and it is heartening in a country so young that we continue to pay tribute to those who have served and died on foreign fields. We are not mere antipodeans ignorant of world events. We know our history and we know how to commemorate it. We know about the Passchendale campaign that began on October 17, 1917 and how in just a few hours 1084 NZ soldiers died or were mortally wounded. Less than two week’s later the death toll had reached a staggering 3700. It was a military catastrophe that ranks as our darkest day.

Now that the last WW1 soldier has died, we have entered a period in our history where we glorify the deeds and acts that took place in World War One. Medals of forgotten soldiers are paraded and battles such as Gallipoli and Passchendale are held in high regard “as our boys did their best against all odds and served their country well”.
The endless tales of heroism and a public display of patriotism make every person young and old proud to be a New Zealander, and proud to be associated with our country’s greatest heroes.

Marching to the silent sound of feet on the pavement and the promise of toddy of rum afterwards, we gallantly and with much decorum commemorate Anzac Day. The RSA rooms are full, wreaths are laid at war memorials and poppies are sold and worn as a badge of honor. Woe betide you if you are mean-spirited and don’t wear one. The specially chosen leaders of our schools with the war veterans of old march through the streets of cities and small towns alike. It has become fashionable to talk of the heroics of one’s ancestors and to parade their medals as if they were the latest accessories on the catwalk. The News on the 25th of April broadcasts clips of those who attend the dawn parades and we proudly acknowledge the growing number of people who attend. However, for Harry Patch these celebrations symbolised a war that was simply ‘organized murder’.

New Zealand has been involved in many wars with many lives lost, but none have the status and even oddly the `appeal of Anzac day. It has become the trendy commemorative event of the 21st century, held up as a symbol of our nationhood; the pomp and splendor having as much appeal as the event itself. It is an all out ‘kiwi do’ – especially the bacon and eggs at the RSA afterwards.

Many New Zealanders describe Passchendale as “our finest hour”. For many New Zealanders that is their perception of The Great War. However, it only takes a little delving beneath the surface and to read the graphic first hand experiences of soldiers like Harry Patch to realize that this was nothing that a good RSA fry up could ever be a salve for.

For many of the young men like Harry Patch, who left in 1914 to fight, the thrill of adventure and comradeship was soon swamped by the fear and loathing of the front line. This was a war in which the elements were as cruel as the enemy and as callous as some of the commanders who gave orders from their safe bunkers. This is no more evident than the Gallipoli and Passcendale campaigns where from the very beginning nothing went to plan and thousands of men needlessly died. Do you believe for one moment Harry Patch would want to remember this? For Harry Patch the war brought anguish, despair, and permanent mental scars. As Siegfried Sassoon wrote; “I died in hell, they called it Passcendale”. It’s this ‘hell’ that we remember on ANZAC day. So let’s get it into perspective, do we really want to remember this hell?

The reality is that for many, war is just too painful to remember and an annual public outing is not appropriate – especially when you are solemnly grieving for those of a generation past or in what is now so often the case three generations past. My great grandfather fought and was wounded in Passchendale, and as a POW he received the British war and victory medals. But would I, like so many others march on Anzac day and wear his medals? I think not. For his story, like so many others is neither romantic, nostalgic, brave, nor particularly memorable. He did fight for his country, he did get wounded, he did get captured by the Germans at Passchendale, but the moral high ground is quickly forgotten. For him, like Harry Patch, war was a terrible experience, and not one family member of his generation would want to remember him for his war efforts. They only remember a bitter and broken man.

My great grandfather isn’t remembered for his talents and funny side. My great grandmother would remember him for his alcoholism and for his inability to communicate. His children, especially my grandfather, would remember him for his brutal beatings. His grandchildren would remember him for his distance and his bad temper.

My great grandfather, like Harry Patch, came back from war never to talk about it again. It was simply too painful and there is the old adage that `humility is the better part of valour.’ Oh how times have changed. He suffered post traumatic stress disorder and had a break down. He lost all his hair overnight and it never grew back. The war well and truly affected my great grandfather, both physically and emotionally. Harry Patch outlived every single soldier of his generation and survived into the new millennium. For a man like Harry Patch, it must have angered him to see the way Anzac day is now celebrated. If my great grandather was alive, he too would be saddened to see the way ANZAC services have changed.

World War One was a disgrace and should not be remembered in the way it is. We, like the romantic poets in the Georgian tradition dramatise and romanticize ‘our boys’ exploits’. Thousands of men died in World War One. Many however, died not facing the enemy in the eye, but were killed by disease, malnutrition, and due to the complete stupidity of their commanding officers. ANZAC day should be remembered in a humbler, quieter way; in a way more befitting of the human sacrifice that men like my great grandfather and Harry Patch gave to the war effort.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bravo Mr Novak.