Anzac's memory keeper

By Andrew Stone

Garrie Hutchinson's guide to the two great wars was written on behalf of families whose lost ones are buried far away. He tells Andrew Stone he also wants to reinstate New Zealand's place in the Australian concept of 'Anzac'

Garrie Hutchinson at the Tobruk War Cemetery in Libya, where 38 New Zealanders are buried. Photo / Supplied
Garrie Hutchinson at the Tobruk War Cemetery in Libya, where 38 New Zealanders are buried. Photo / Supplied

The gravestones stand in neat rows, divided by lush strips of clipped grass and attended by flowers. All that hints at the horror that left 1205 New Zealand men dead are words on a concrete memorial.

They read: "Here are recorded the names of officers and men of New Zealand who fell in the Battles of the Somme, September and October 1916 and whose graves are known only to God."

The memorial is in Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, in north-east France. A fern-leaf badge on a nearby obelisk, inscribed with the words "From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth" is a further reminder of the legions of young men sent to war on the Western Front almost a century ago who never returned home - but are not forgotten.

"That's what I wanted," explains author Garrie Hutchinson, whose book Pilgrimage, subheaded "A Traveller's Guide To New Zealanders In Two World Wars", is out today.

"I wanted to show that the young men and women who died in these conflicts are honoured. 'Lest we forget' means something to me."

Hutchinson's richly illustrated book is a guide to the cemeteries, memorials and museums of two world wars where 30,000 New Zealanders are buried. It includes condensed descriptions of the major conflicts, portraits of decorated soldiers and touching tributes to less familiar casualties of war.

Pilgrimage emerged from a similar account the Melbourne author wrote about the final resting places of thousands of Australian war dead.

Designed as an aid to travellers, the book lists GPS co-ordinates for cemeteries and memorials maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

If you are driving in Europe, it's a simple matter of entering the co-ordinates and following the GPS device on the dashboard.

And if you're at home, Google Earth will take you to solemn places such as Embarkation Pier, New Zealand's largest Gallipoli cemetery where 64 casualties are commemorated, or the Tobruk War Cemetery in Libya, which has 38 New Zealand graves from World War II.

The striking feature of all the cemeteries - where 29,981 New Zealanders are remembered - is the serenity which appears to embrace them. It is as though the violence of war has been banished but a sense of sacrifice remains captured in the dignified grace and proportion of walled cemeteries and carefully tended spaces.

Hutchinson, who has been to all the locations except two in Tunisia, says: "They are special places. Often several generations are involved in their care. Gardens are passed from father to son. When you get to some of these places and find a poppy on a grave or an entry in the visitors' book ... it is a good thing to find."

His advice to would-be pilgrims heading for, say, Gallipoli, is to avoid the big occasions and arrive when the Turkish peninsula is quieter.

"A lot of people will find the Anzac ceremonies incredibly moving but I find going by yourself or with a small group, getting out of the bus and walking up to Chanuk Bair can be meaningful and powerful.

"I understand why people might want to to be there on April 25, 2015 [the Anzac centenary] but not everyone can go then."

Six countries fund the War Graves Commission, which pays tribute to 1.7 million men and women from Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars.

Last year New Zealand gave the commission $2.5 million for its work, which is spread across 150 countries and 2500 cemeteries and plots. All have a careful symmetry - uniform headstones, a garden setting, a cross of sacrifice and a stone of remembrance.

So what's an Australian doing writing about that most sensitive of subjects, New Zealand's casualties of conflict?

"It got up my nose a lot that over here there's a view that Australians own Gallipoli," remarks Hutchinson from his home across the Tasman.

"We tend to forget there's an 'NZ' in Anzac, so that was part of the motivation. I had all this material and had come across all these stories that I wanted to do something with."

The book arrives just as New Zealand mourns the loss of three more soldiers from the war in Afghanistan. The return of their caskets on Thursday was sad but, unlike the casualties from the world wars, they were returned to their families. No New Zealand casualty came home from World War I.

"In Gallipoli they were almost buried where they fell," remarks Hutchinson. "On the Western Front hundreds died in single battles. Conditions were so grim their bodies were not recovered for three years."

The author has had his own skirmishes as a writer of military history. Five years ago he came under fire from Vietnam veterans when he worked for the Victorian Government and took a group of school pupils to Greece and Crete on a trip that invoked the "spirit of Anzac". The diggers resented the fact that a taxpayer-funded "draft dodger' was in charge of a defence-related trip.

Hutchinson, who is 62, says it's true he opposed conscription and didn't sign up for the Vietnam ballot. He was part of a generation, he says, who believed the Vietnam war was illegitimate and conscripting young Australians unconscionable.

He protested and took off overseas, making himself liable for a two-year jail term. Prosecutions were abandoned when Gough Whitlam's Labor Party swept to power, meaning Hutchinson - he calls himself a "draft resister" - was off the hook when he returned.

Says Hutchinson: "It was cleared up. I shook hands with the general."

He sees no contradiction in a Vietnam opponent writing about the great conflicts of the 20th century and how they shaped the Tasman neighbours.

"I'm firmly in the Anzac tradition," he says.

"What happened in Vietnam was not part of the that tradition. It was aberration."

Whereas Australians had volunteered to fight fascism and Japanese imperialism in World War II, young men were sent to Vietnam when they were still too young to vote.

"They fought and died there for specious reasons," says Hutchinson.

He feels he belongs to a generation which is only now "rejoining the loop", seeing the modern digger as part of the great tradition of soldiers who fought and died in two world wars. He still cannot fathom the waste and loss of so many lives from the young Tasman countries. But having spent time in the "melancholy beauty" of so many cemeteries and memorials, learning a little about the soldiers whose names are etched in permanent headstones, he feels the sense of care he found offers some consolation to families who have never seen the final resting place of their relatives who went to war.

Patriotic deaths
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The countries in which the largest number of New Zealand war dead are commemorated are France (7778), Belgium (4711) and Turkey (2358), mainly from the 1914-1918 war; Egypt (2924), Greece (1148), Italy (2157) and New Caledonia (515) from the 1939-1945 war.

Brothers in Arms
It seems invidious to single out graves of individual soldiers from hundreds recorded in Garrie Hutchinson's book Pilgrimage but the names of siblings are a recurring and sorrowful element.

Trooper Bernard Guthrie Whishaw was 26 when he died from disease in October 1918. He is buried at the Cairo War Memorial Cemetery.

His brother Harry, twice wounded at Gallipoli, was killed in action in the Somme in July 1916. His name is recorded at the Cite Bonjean Military Cemetery in Armentieres, France. Their sister, Mabel, an army nurse, died serving at Featherston Camp in the influenza outbreak of 1918. It was the day before the war ended.

Jordah and Edith Thomas sent five sons to war. Three - Frank, Arthur and Harold - returned.

Trooper Alfred Thomas Edward Thomas died at Gallipoli, aged 26. His older brother, William, a Boer War veteran, was killed in action in February 1917 and is buried at Y Farm Military Cemetery in Bois-Grenier, France.

In Beersheba, in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire, Trooper William Henry Hawkins, 40, of the Auckland Mounted Rifles, is buried. A member of the Pitt St Methodist Choir, he was killed on October 31, 1917. His younger brother Joseph went from New Zealand to France a few weeks later. He was killed in October the following year and is buried with British soldiers at Marcoing on the Western Front.

Six Morpeth brothers from Waihi served in World War I. Thirty-three-year-old Allan died on the Western Front, killed most likely by German shellfire in October 1917. Moore, 23, was killed on April 25, the day of landing at Gallipoli in 1915. He is remembered on the Lone Pine Memorial. The other boys survived, though Nicoll, who was awarded the Military Cross, lost a leg and Tad was shot through his knee.

The Brittan family from Christchurch lost three sons in that same war.

Henry and Edward were killed at the battle at Hill 60 in Gallipoli in August 1915. Their brother Harold was cut down when Germans attacked the New Zealand Rifle Brigade trenches in the Somme, April 1918. More than 50 brigade members died that day and today lie in Euston Rd Cemetery in northern France.

Francis Brittan, who also served, survived and returned home to his grieving parents.

Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium is the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission memorial. It bears the names of almost 35,000 officers and men, including 1176 New Zealanders with no known grave. Nearly all died in the awful Passchendaele battles in 1917.

The memorial includes the names of three Newlove brothers from Takaka. They died within days of each other. Leonard, who at 41 was the oldest brother, was killed in action on October 4. He had married a month before he embarked. His younger brothers, Edwin, 32, and Leslie, 22, died during an attack on Bellvue Spur, eight days later on October 12.

There is a verse in Pilgrimage with words from New Zealand at the Front, 1917, by "M.R."

June 7, 1917

From out the smoky pall of battle strife

The Ridge looms grey, but with uncertain line,

And all its stricken fields are brown. No green remains,

Our dead lie thickly in the broken town-

All strangely still, and quiet, unheeding now,

The thunder of the conflict they have won.

- NZ Herald

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