Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Archives cast light on lives of soldiers

Century on from first Anzac Day ceremonies, Ancestry website opens free for weekend.
Anzac soldiers march through London on April 25, 1916. Photo / National Library of Australia
Anzac soldiers march through London on April 25, 1916. Photo / National Library of Australia

A century ago, Kiwis gathered to remember the Gallipoli dead in the young nation's first shared outpouring of grief demanded by devastated families and returned soldiers.

On the other side of the globe, where the industrial-scale killing of World War I raged on, inaugural Anzac Day commemorations were also marked.

But as military archives being opened publicly this holiday weekend show, the experiences varied wildly for Kiwis depending on where they were based.

"The Knights of Gallipoli" - as Fleet St called the colonial troops - marched through London to Westminster Abbey, in stark contrast to the subdued tot of whisky in Western Front trenches and the exuberant day of boxing and beers for Anzacs under the Egyptian sun.

"Anzac Day very quickly became an event, both at home and overseas, and that has only just increased with time," said historian Ben Mercer of Ancestry as the paid online family-history site today announces that its vast military archive can be accessed free this holiday weekend.

The detailed archives document the harrowing tale of Gallipoli veteran Lance Corporal John Geange, who was propped up on pillows to watch a 2000-strong procession of war-worn Anzac brothers, including New Zealand's only Victoria Cross recipient of the ill-fated campaign, Corporal Cyril Bassett, parade through London.

A year earlier, the Trentham farmer was serving with the 6th Manawatu Mounted Rifles when he was blown up at Shrapnel Valley on the Turkish peninsula. Shell fragments tore through his chest, head, spine and legs, leaving him paralysed from the waist down.

When leaving the Westminster service, King George V noticed a prostrate Geange lying on an invalid carriage. The King stepped aside and shook the Kiwi trooper by the hand, offering a few words of sympathy before rejoining his wife, Queen Mary.

Permanently paralysed, 26-year-old Geange later sailed home, only to die of his horrific injuries on March 30, 1917, and be buried at St John's Anglican Cemetery at Trentham.

The London remembrance ceremony, referred to at the time as "The First Anniversary of the Landing at Gallipoli", would have been similar to those witnessed around New Zealand and Australia, Mr Mercer said.

But it was very different from the experience of Kiwi soldiers preparing for battle on the Western Front.

Private Alan Dougherty, of the Auckland Infantry Battalion, arrived in France earlier in April 1916.

His personal diaries don't recount any special Anzac commemorations.

Instead, the Auckland builder spent the day by testing his gas mask, range shooting, drill inspection and bayonet practice, Mr Mercer said.

"Later that day when the men sat down, their commanding officer broke out the Scotch and they had a drink to remember the men.

"Dougherty's battles were yet to come. The following day, he talks in his diary of seeing a German monoplane being shot down."

On July 8, 1916, Dougherty is blown up by a high-explosive shell. It smashed his right leg and blasted his foot and ended his war.

The troops stationed in Egypt on that first Anzac Day had a merrier time. Lance Sergeant William Henry Porter of Auckland Mounted Rifles had just arrived with reinforcements in Alexandria a few weeks earlier.

With the other Kiwis and Aussies, the 21-year-old Pukekohe farmer attended a morning service followed by the Last Post. But then they relaxed on a half-day holiday to watch boxing and join in rugby, egg-and-spoon races, and swimming competitions in the Suez Canal.

"It's very interesting to see how the Kiwis and Australians reverted back to how they like to celebrate things -- with sports and some drinks."

Porter survived the Sinai and Palestine campaigns, returned to his farm, and lived to the age of 98.

?Records can be accessed free of charge at www.ancestry.com.au/anzacday2016 from tomorrow until 2am on Tuesday.

- NZ Herald

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