In this year of the Rugby World Cup 2019, we think back on former teams and reflect on the loss of a former All Black Captain, Dave Gallaher, who was killed on October 4, 1917, 102 years ago.
The Passchendaele Society will, on October 12, commemorate the deaths of 18,277 New Zealanders killed in World War I.
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October 12 is chosen as it was the day in 1917 which saw 846 soldiers killed trying to execute a flawed attack plan in impossible conditions - the highest number of deaths of our people in one day in our recorded history.
World War II took 99,260 people to serve overseas in the NZ armed forces. That comprised some 9 per cent of the country's population at that time. As I write this, some 1,000,000 schoolchildren and others around the world are marching to protest the inaction of politicians to address climate change in a meaningful way. At the same time that climate change is causing such anxiety we seem to be sliding into a series of hot skirmishes with State versus non-State actors.
The world order which led to the clash of nations in World War I has changed so much that it is unrecognisable and we now face different, but just as meaningful and potentially more dangerous issues than we did in 1914.
Our soldiers fought and died for democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of association; civic tools of resistance that we must never take for granted.
Trade wars, civil wars, proxy wars, climate change, economic struggles abound. Mass migration from areas of tension cause tension in other areas. On March 15 this year, 51 of our people were killed in Christchurch while going about their lives. The people we are going to commemorate on October 12 fought for a better, safer place for their families to live. If we don't remember the events that shaped our history, we are destined to make the same mistakes over and over again.
When I was growing up, I learned that my maternal grandfather James MacGregor was killed at Passchendaele. It meant nothing to me until my mother died and we found two letters amongst her belongings.
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"A Belgium decoration was offered my battalion to one who had displayed the most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, and I had no hesitation in forwarding Sergeant James L. MacGregor's name as the most outstanding…" reads an extract from Lieutenant Colonel D.B. Blair's letter to my grandmother.
"Your son was in my Company, (15th North Auckland, 3rd A.I.R), from the time the 4th Brigade went to France up till the day I was wounded, and I can assure you that no man in my Company was more respected by all ranks than what your son was. At all times and under all circumstances he was cool and game and always ready to lend a helping hand to his mates'. – extract from Major James Evans' letter to my grandmother.
In 1919, the King of Belgium awarded 46 Croix de Guerre medals to the New Zealand Division for distribution as seen fit. One was awarded to an officer attached from the British Army, 44 were awarded to serving members of the Division and one was awarded posthumously to Lance Sergeant James L. MacGregor.
At age 40, I suddenly became aware of a whole different side of my own history and that led me to discover so much more of our collective history.
My grandmother, Jesse, was left with four boys under 10 to raise alone. She did a good job as they became reasonably successful in their own right. A doctor, a pilot, a station manager and a farmer.
All four served in World War II with one unfortunately being killed while serving as a RNZAF pilot in the Pacific. No wonder she was seen as being difficult, having lost a husband and son to war.
In 2003, I finally got the chance to go to Belgium to try and find my grandfather's grave. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website was out of action so I thought I'd just go to Tyne Cot Cemetery and find him there.
There are 40,000 soldiers' names recorded at Tyne Cot. Many graves are just inscribed
"A Soldier of The Great War Known Unto God". James wasn't there. Sitting at the entrance wondering what to do next a person said to me "there are 100 cemeteries within 5km of Tyne Cot containing the dead of many battles on the Somme. Good luck in your search". I didn't find James that day.
In 2005 I went back, armed with information and found his grave. He shares Nine Elms British Cemetery with 1555 Commonwealth and 37 German soldiers from World War I plus 22 British soldiers from World War II. His grave is 11m from Sergeant Dave Gallaher's and 18,250km from home.
• The Auckland War Memorial Museum's Hall of Memories will on Saturday, October 12 commemorate the 18,058 New Zealanders killed in World War I. Please be seated by 10.30am for the 11am ceremony. Wreaths will be laid by designated dignitaries and individuals may place a poppy on the catafalque at the conclusion of the ceremony.