Saturday, May 9, 2015

The quintessential Anzac Day experience

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 6.)
Drive east from Masterton toward the Wairarapa coast and you come across a charming country village called Tinui. It was here that my wife and I attended an Anzac Day service on the centenary of the Gallipoli landings.
The April 25 pilgrimage to Tinui has become an annual ritual for us, not because of any deep personal connection, but because in many ways it’s the quintessential Anzac Day experience.

It also has historical significance. The Rev Basil Ashcroft held a service in Tinui’s pretty little Anglican church (still in use) at 7.30am on August 25, 1916 in honour of seven young local men who had lost their lives at Gallipoli. It’s claimed to have been the first-ever Anzac Day commemoration.
So here we are in brilliant autumn sunshine, several hundred of us – the crowd gets bigger every year – filling the road outside the Tinui hall. Many others take up vantage points on a tree-shaded bank opposite.

A pipe band leads a small parade up the quiet country road from where the Tinui pub, now downsized to a café, used to stand at the turnoff to Castlepoint.
Local schoolchildren stand in front of the war memorial and recite the names of the 48 men from the surrounding district who died in the two world wars – 36 in World War I and 12 in the 1939-45 war.

Among those killed in the 1914-18 war were two lots of three men with the same surnames, which gives some insight into the devastating impact the war must have had on what was then an isolated farming community.
One of those named is Private J R (Jack) Dunn, who was sentenced to be shot at Gallipoli for falling asleep on sentry duty. By modern standards it seems unthinkable, but a different military ethos applied then. (To its credit, Australia refused to let its soldiers be executed by the British, but New Zealand deferred to its former colonial masters.)

Dunn was subsequently reprieved by British general Sir Ian Hamilton but died anyway in the bloody assault on Chunuk Bair only three days later. His body was never recovered.
Someone from the military always gives a speech at Tinui and this year it’s retired sergeant major Bob Davies, a Vietnam veteran who rose to become the New Zealand army’s top non-commissioned officer.

An imposing man of classic military bearing, Davies gives an authoritative account of New Zealand’s involvement in foreign conflicts. It’s not a political speech but in passing, he makes a significant point.
One of the reasons New Zealand had a disproportionately high casualty rate in World War II, Davies says, was that the defence forces had been run down after World War I and we were unprepared. I couldn’t help wondering whether we’re in a similar predicament today.

We sing the national anthem in Maori and English and listen to a Bible reading in which St Paul enjoined the Ephesians to put on the full armour of God so that when the day of evil came, they would be able to stand their ground.
“Stand firm then,” Paul wrote, “with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,  and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.”

Paul has always struck me as a bit of a prig, but he could string words together -- you have to give him that.
The stirring hymn How Great Thou Art follows, after which we recite the time-honoured words from Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen. Then we’re introduced to a song that’s new to me. Called Honour the Dead, it’s sung to the tune of Abide with Me and includes a verse honouring conscientious objectors – something that would have been inconceivable a generation ago.

I applaud the gesture of respect to the “conchies”, many of whom were men of great moral courage, but the words – written by the prolific New Zealand hymn writer Shirley Murray – are too hand-wringingly mawkish for my taste.
The crowd watches in solemn silence as wreaths are laid. Then the Last Post is played and right on cue, three vintage World War I aircraft from Sir Peter Jackson’s collection at Hood Aerodrome in Masterton come into view over a nearby hilltop and fly overhead.

All this is accompanied by the warbling of tuis in the trees above the road. It’s lump-in-the-throat stuff, and all the more so because of the idyllic setting. The men who left this peaceful valley in 1914 could have had little idea of the bloody maelstrom awaiting them.
Afterwards everyone gathers in the hall for a superb Kiwi morning tea (mince savouries, club sandwiches, asparagus rolls) prepared by the local Women’s Institute. Those feeling energetic can then climb to the top of nearby Mt Maunsell, where a small party led by the Rev Ashcroft installed an Anzac memorial cross in 1916. A cross still stands there, on a rocky outcrop high above the valley, though it’s not the original one.

They’re expecting a big crowd next year for Tinui’s 100th Anzac Day service. Needless to say, I intend to be there.

1 comment:

kassto said...

Karl, a lovely piece of writing. We have started going to Paekakariki's Anzac Day service – I was looking for something small enough for me and my kids so that you could actually get a sense of what was going on. In many ways it is similar to what you describe... the Paekak service also usually has someone from the US Embassy in attendance given the connection between the Kapiti Coast and the US Marines in WW2. In a similar way to your tui accompaniment, the sound of the waves crashing on the Paekak beach provided the backdrop to the poems, hymns, readings of the names of the dead. Good to be there. Thanks for this column.... Kathy