When my son started Auckland Grammar in 2012, my father was a little bit pleased. He had first walked through the arches of Mountain Rd in 1937, and the 89-year-old now had a shared experience with the 13-year-old. There were stories to share, old classrooms to visit. Having rekindled the memories of his old school, my father was the returned serviceman old-boy wreath-bearer at that year's ANZAC Day service. Seeing that service, I realised this school took "Lest We Forget" seriously, never forgetting the 662 old boys and masters who didn't return from two World Wars. The elegant 1922 Gummer and Ford designed memorial on the front lawn holds all their names. World War I men around the base and the World War II fallen on the flanking walls. The man at the top of the graceful obelisk with his arms outstretched to the sky is appropriately a symbol for "the souls of all men".
This month, 100 years after the end of World War I , the school will publish a book with the family and military details of every World War I death. It's been a massive undertaking by two men passionate to see these mens' lives remembered as more than just a name on a memorial. Peter Stanes is a keen genealogist and the school archivist. He's also an old boy as are his sons. Andrew Connolly is not an old boy, but his son Fergus is. He's a surgeon by day and an ardent military historian in the other waking hours. As such, on walking past the memorial on many occasions with his father in law, former Headmaster Sir John Graham (1973-1993), he knew there was a story to be told about these men. A book was born.
Two of the men on the memorial (and now in the book) died as a result of the battle of Le Quesnoy on November 4, 1918. This northern French town holds special significance in the hearts of New Zealanders with its victorious outcome. It was liberated from German occupation with no loss of life to the local population in an almost medieval manner, by climbing a ladder over the ramparts. A solely New Zealand action one week before the war would end, this hard-fought battle would also claim the lives of 118 men that day and another 24 over the coming month from their injuries.
Devonport man Robert Kennedy was one of those men who died on the day. I found his grave at Ruesnes Cemetery about 10 minutes out of town. As I read the poem his parents had placed in the Auckland Star on the first anniversary of his death, at his graveside, I couldn't help but feel the tragic loss of such a young life. He'd been at the front for less than a month and died age 21. That's just a year older than my son. Knowing where he was positioned that day, some distance away, he was very unlucky.
Meanwhile Arthur Daw from Herne Bay was with 4th Battalion at the sharp end of proceedings in front of the walls, battling to get through to the inner ramparts. Having survived two-and-a-half years on the western front, he knew the war was in its death throes. Victory was around the corner. The horrors of the Somme he had written to his old headmaster about in 1917, were now in the past: "We've got our gear on and moved up to our front line to await the coming of the dawn – and I think to most it was the longest wait of our lives – it was in mine, wondering what the morrow would bring".
Daw was shot on November 4 outside the walls of Le Quesnoy. Evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station, he fought his own battle to survive. He lost it, two days later, dying of his injuries on November 6 1918, a day after he turned 25. As I laid a poppy on his grave at Caudry Cemetery and reflected upon how these two men were no longer just names to me, I thought how unlucky he was too. Lucky to have survived that long, and unlucky to die five days before the end of the war. Luck however on reflection probably has nothing to do with it. War is planned. It is horrible. And death is part of the plan. In World War I over 16 million were part of that plan. Lest We Forget.
• How New Zealand soldiers saved a French town in World War I
• War Memorial Museum marks French connection
• The liberation of Le Quesnoy: Sergeant Reginald Hird
• First man over the wall - How Kiwi soldiers rescued French town in WWI