Paul Holmes on New Zealand

Paul Holmes is an award-winning Herald columnist

Paul Holmes: Old history? It was only yesterday

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We've had some stunning days lately in the Poukawa Valley, the cold of the morning surrendering to long, golden hours of perfect stillness under blue, cloudless skies. Breathtaking, really. Then, quite suddenly, late afternoon it gets very cold and you light fires.

Anzac Day dawned in one of the thickest fogs I've ever seen. I wondered how I could possibly drive through it to the Maraekakaho Hall where I had been invited to deliver the Anzac speech. I was also worried about finding Maraekakaho.

For your information, Maraekakaho is a village at the centre of a farming district about 30km southwest of Hastings. You drive on straight roads way out beyond the Gimblett Gravels towards the ranges. It is very pretty out there.

I figured I'd arrived when I saw a huge number of cars parked in the hall grounds and along the road. Paul Bevin met me. Paul was the organiser, very air force I should think, and he was a good man to have in charge because he knew about parades and commands and marching.

He introduced me to a very tall minister, the Rev Nolan Martin. Something clicked in my head. Then I remembered. Nolan had been our minister in the Haumoana Presbyterian Church in the mid-1950s when Dad insisted we get up and go with him. And here this good man was, upright as ever, still going strong, about to conduct our service at Maraekakaho.

I mowed the lawns at the church with Dad's Masport for 10 shillings a week. After a couple of months I went to a senior woman on the committee. "Mrs Lindsay," I said, "10 shillings is not enough". She replied in her broad Scottish accent, "Would a pound do it?" Not bad. A 100 per cent raise on my first negotiation.

But something incredible was happening at Maraekakaho. The people kept coming. Older people, middle-aged people, young couples with their children. There was one very medal-bedecked old man with two walking sticks. Obviously a World War II man, I figured.

It seemed that everyone from this district was coming along to pay tribute to this special day. Indeed, the hall was filled to overflowing. Windows were opened and fellows listened outside.

The fog had cleared and when you stood in the sun, you felt its wonderful warmth. There wasn't a hint of a wind.

But it was the number of young children that impressed me. They were respectful. They seemed to have a sense of the occasion, that this was something very special for Mum and Dad and for our country as well.

And I'd put some effort into my words. New Zealand sent 100,444 soldiers and nurses to serve in World War I. The casualty rate, deaths and wounded, was 60 per cent of that 100,000. Seventeen thousand never came home.

Here's something else I hadn't known. A further 1000 returned men died in the five years after the war ended, their bodies and spirits broken by the shells and the horror and seeming endlessness of it. But the Great War took the lives of just under 1 per cent of our people.

Gallipoli, the more you read about it, was carnage, a slaughterhouse, a monumental miscalculation of historic proportion. How those rough and ready boys survived on those cliffs for as long as they did beggars understanding. But I'm proud my great uncle Reuben followed Colonel Malone up Chunuk Bair in his successful but doomed assault.

They never found Reuben - they may have found bits of him, I don't know. My great grandmother got the telegram, the first of the three she received before the Armistice in 1918.

World War II. My Dad's war. We showed up in droves - 140,000 New Zealanders served overseas, 12,000 of them lost their lives.

God knows how many of the rest were damaged forever. When I was a kid I thought all that World War II stuff was ancient history. Interesting, but ancient history, all the same.

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, we'd snuggle up to Dad in front of the open fire on winter nights and listen to his lovely voice telling us stories of Alamein - the first battle the Allies ever won - and Tobruk and Cassino and the men he'd known and the German stretcher bearer who become his friend. Dad was a stretcher bearer. That's what he did for years on end.

His eyes saw the blown apart limbs and he picked up the wounded, took them to the field ambulance and he buried the dead.

But when my brother and I sat there enthralled, listening to those stories, our Dad had only been home from the war 10 years or so.

The horror was still fresh with him.

As I say, to us it was ancient history. It wasn't, of course. It was yesterday. All of that inhuman brutality and murder was yesterday. We're not that far from it. Perhaps we never will be.

After the service, all of us, some 400 people, marched behind the Hastings Pipe Band to the little cenotaph down on the corner. We placed our wreaths as so many people in this little country area gathered round in silence.

Two mates helped the old gentleman with the medals and the two sticks on to the cenotaph where he placed his poppy, bowed his head, and turned and came down again.

There wasn't a sound as we watched him. No little boy sniggered at the infirmity of the old soldier.

Nothing. Just the silence of human communion, as we respected the extraordinary effort of times past, the sacrifices made. And we marvelled at them all, those who served and those who fell, and thanked them all and held back our tears in the sun.

- NZ Herald

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