Marek Townley: Young must carry on Anzacs' legacy

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New generations will never meet those brave ancestors.
Robert McBride was killed in action on November 25, 1941, leaving a wife and unborn son.
Robert McBride was killed in action on November 25, 1941, leaving a wife and unborn son.

Every day for 14 years, I walked past a framed photograph of a man who looked to be in his early to mid-20s, wearing a lopsided uniform and a straight face.

His name was Robert Ross Wilkie McBride and he was my great-grandfather. He was a lieutenant in the 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 2nd Echelon of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He served in the Western Desert campaign and was killed in action on November 25, 1941.

Robert McBride left behind a wife, Dora, who was pregnant with their son Barry - my grandfather.

It was 2013 when I first researched the great-grandfather I knew nothing about. I then realised that Robert McBride's story, though distinctly personal, was far from unique - and it made me wonder what I would have asked him, given the chance.

Would Robert McBride have accorded his actions all the virtue we give them now? Would he have thought himself courageous, selfless and heroic? Or merely doing his duty?

Would he have reckoned on becoming one of the 30,000 New Zealanders whose lives would be extinguished in World Wars I and II? Or might he have anticipated returning one day as a husband and father, to nurture a family?

What would Robert McBride think about the lives we enjoy today?

Like many young New Zealanders, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity of education and the stability of loving parents. I have the privilege to study at my university of choice, to develop my interests and make my own difference in the world. My plans don't include being shipped to a hostile land, to fight an unknown enemy and face danger, injury and death.

Our veterans gave up their freedom, families, the creature comforts and safety of home. They did so with no certainty they would return to be thanked.

Living in sandbagged trenches, wearing filthy, blood-stained clothes and fearing for the grave wounds of their friends must have left the Anzacs little else to occupy themselves with.

Anzac Day should mean far more than wearing a poppy and getting a day off school or work. It should mean commemorating the service and sacrifices of people like Robert McBride, and it's the smallest way we can pay gratitude to the servicemen and women who returned, and those who didn't. We also cannot forget to acknowledge those who continue to uphold Anzac values in the fire, police and ambulance services, armed forces and many others.

Preserving the tradition and meaning of this day becomes more important with every year. This responsibility lies with young people. We must not let the significance of their actions fade away.

Wars are waged by governments for many reasons, and fought by individuals with various motives. Just why Robert McBride went to war is another question I can't ask him. However, what matters is the character he displayed in doing so - and the lessons his actions have left.

Every solution should be considered, every effort made to prevent war and bloodshed. This has not always been the case. But our servicemen and women have taught us that there can be a bigger cause than our own lives; that some values are worth dying for; and that some human beings are possessed of qualities so admirable we should always remember them.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Marek Townley is in his first year studying law and political science at Victoria University, Wellington.

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