Family trip honours Anzac ancestor

By Lin Ferguson

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REMEMBRANCE: Graeme Rhodes retraces Anzac steps on a Somme battlefield.
REMEMBRANCE: Graeme Rhodes retraces Anzac steps on a Somme battlefield.

A long-planned dream became a "magnificent" reality for 12 members of the Rhodes family in April.

Three generations headed off to the Somme in France for the 100-year anniversary of World War I.

The trip was to commemorate Philip Godfrey Rhodes, who had served on the battlefields of the Somme.

Five years ago his son Graeme Rhodes, a retired farmer of Rata, had told one of his grandsons he would take 12 of Philip's descendants to France to commemorate his service in World War I.

He said it was a marvellous day when the family flew out of Auckland on April 13, all wearing special white panama hats in honour of team Rhodes.

When they had all boarded the international flight, they looked around at each other and suddenly the air was charged with emotion, Graeme's wife Madeline Rhodes said.

"There we all were, and it was very exciting and quite emotional."

Sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters - the gang was all there, she said.

The family arrived in Paris the next day and spent three days as tourists, despite the chill, Graeme said.

"It was cold and bitter for the whole 10 days on the Somme even though it was spring. Coldest spring ever we were told."

The hired an eight-seater van and a camper van and headed down the east coast to Etaples, where Philip had first stayed at a training camp.

Graeme had Philip's small red-covered notebook with its carefully written notes on all the places he had been to, and the family did their best to follow that route, he said.

"We got to 21 of the 40 place names written in his book."

Graeme also has pieces of his dad's kit, including a German soldier's hat and tin mug.

"The soldier had fired at Philip at point-blank range," Graeme said.

Philip had told the family that while he had been crossing an open field with his crew, a German soldier had leapt up from behind a small shrub a few feet away, firing his Mauser rifle.

"Unbelievably, he missed. Philip, being a machinegun captain, wore a revolver; with no time to even draw, he fired through the bottom of his holster killing the German. Dad souvenired his hat and mug, which I still have in my possession," Graeme said.

They travelled to Messine, staying in bed and breakfasts along the way, from where the taste of the crusty French bread, buttery croissants and fruit preserves still linger. "Always delicious," Madeline said.

At Messine in the north they laid poppies at the statue of the unknown New Zealand soldier.

Graeme said the eeriest feeling for him was when he stood on the ground where the tanks first rolled in, which was the site of Philip's first battle.

"They are now beautifully kept green fields and vast open spaces. But it still felt quite remarkable and extraordinary."

At Le Quesnoy for the Anzac Day ceremony on Sunday April 24, it was bitterly cold with sleet and snow, Graeme said.

But the day before was memorial day. "We didn't go to the dinner held by the Anzac association, but the younger members of the family did."

And though September 15 is the official date of the the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, Graeme's failing health meant the date of the commemorative trip to France had to be changed to April. "But we all had the best time, a time our family will never forget, ever. I will always be pleased I took my whole family to France."

Back home this week in Rata, Graeme and Madeline say it's quiet but it's "good to be home".

- Wanganui Chronicle

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