When the troop ship Oxfordshire hove into berth at Auckland on a Saturday in February 1919 - fully bedecked and carrying more than 1000 troops - thousands of well-wishers and families flocked to the waterfront.

Just over a century ago, the docks and surrounding streets on this heady summer's day were a riot of good cheer after years in the cold shadow of war.

These Great War survivors brought back with them a warm glow of optimism, of a future bathed in peace. Many also brought new wives and babies from their time in Europe.


Most troop arrivals were serenaded by patriotic bands and given fruit and cigarettes, tea and other light refreshments. There were sour moments, too, when the men generally couldn't get an alcoholic drink anywhere near the port.

Most servicemen weren't asked what they wanted in the way of reception but those that did generally said they'd rather there wasn't a fuss. One went so far as saying he didn't want to be made "a tin god of".

There followed more ships and more civic receptions at main port towns around the country.

Towns throughout the land cheered those who had returned from the Great War. Photo / File
Towns throughout the land cheered those who had returned from the Great War. Photo / File

The first large group of so-called Main Body men to return to New Zealand were given an impressive welcome when they arrived on the Hororata in March 1919.

Louis Giblin remembered: "The reception in Wellington was wonderful – different organisations, women's choruses. I think the pubs were closed. They were frightened – probably had reason to be, because these were all fit men."

Manufacturers and farmers wanted more labour, and the demand for domestic servants was still strong. Despite the 1918 influenza epidemic taking 7000 lives and World War I claiming 17,000, between 1870 and 1940 New Zealanders had the world's highest recorded life expectancy.

And on our young nation marched, for better or worse.

Today, our servicemen and women still answer the call, with several hundred current deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon, Mali, the Middle East, Timor-Leste and South Sudan among other regions.

Is the world a better place for those who come home, and those that don't? Are the sacrifices of a century ago, and continuing to this day, worth it? Are we better off now? The answer must be: Yes, mostly, and sometimes no.

Life expectancy is over 83 for an average female and almost 80 for the average male, although, at last count, our life expectancy ranking dipped to 16th in the world. The risk of many preventable diseases has been reduced.

But what would our Anzacs have made of the attacks on the Christchurch mosques, as well as the many conflicts which continue to tragically manifest around the globe? And what would they make of the police advice not to attend some Anzac services due to safety concerns?

We can only imagine. And today, of all days, is a good time to reflect on that.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.