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How the shock and grief of WWI reverberates through generations

It is true that war teaches us geography. The three-year commemorations of New Zealand’s involvement in World War I mean most of us can now discuss not only the location but the landscape of such faraway places as Gallipoli and Passchendaele. War also teaches us to spell – even if Le Quesnoy still sometimes makes it into print as “Le Kenwah”. Above all, though, war teaches us history.

On the 100th anniversary of the Armistice at 11am on November 11, 1918, the Last Post will be played to commemorate the end of the terrible conflict that killed 16 million people, arguably as a result of a monumental miscalculation by the German Kaiser. By the time the Germans realised the determination of the British, French and Russians to back their allies, it was too late.

More than 100,000 New Zealanders, from a nation of just over one million, answered the British Empire’s call to serve. The scale of the sacrifice was extraordinary. More than 40,000 were wounded. Over 18,000 New Zealanders died. As historian Michael King once so eloquently put it, those in the generations after WWI “did not need to be told that the angel of death had passed over the land; they had heard the beating of its wings”.

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New Zealand suffered far more proportionally in WWI than any other nation in the Empire. Yale University professor of history Jay Winter has put our losses into context. If today’s New Zealand population participated in WWI, there would be half a million Kiwi soldiers fighting, of whom 90,000 would be killed and 200,000 wounded.

The shock and grief of WWI caused tremors that have reverberated through the decades. It was by far the worst trauma Pākehā New Zealand had ever experienced. But although the legend of WWI helped create our unique identity, our sense of nationhood, at the same time there was an unspoken repression of the deep pain and loss felt by almost every New Zealand family.

In the past few years, we have remembered. There has been a spontaneous upwelling, a resurgence of respect for what the young nation endured.

The Listener has been proud to play its part in these commemorations and reflections. It’s not just that we remember, it’s how we remember that is important. For that reason, we have long championed the proposal to create a memorial museum in the old gendarmerie in Le Quesnoy. It will help us keep and create connections with not just the French, whose town was liberated in New Zealand’s proudest day in battle, but also all those in Europe, including modern Germany, who espouse the values we hold dear.

Many of us are still discovering our links to WWI. That includes my own family. We always knew about our family involvement in the Gallipoli campaign at the very beginning of the war because James Stirling told us decades later exactly what it was like going into a sinking ship. “Dark,” he said. The young surgeon, not yet fully trained, received his Distinguished Service Cross for, as one book described it, “courageously descending into the stoke-hole where the enemy shell had exploded and with the aid of candlelight amputating a stoker’s leg, which was badly fractured and jammed solidly amongst the mass of twisted iron and steel; the poor fellow like a bear in a trap. His position was so precarious and his suffering so great that the heroic young student went down into the very bowels of the ship, with thick smoke, acrid fumes and escaping steam all around him … not knowing the moment when the Meteor might take her final plunge.”

Surgeon Lieutenant James Stirling on board HMS Meteor in January 1915.

I knew, too, that there were great-uncles who had come home to New Zealand badly injured, one in a wheelchair. But it was only last week, talking to historian Chris Pugsley, that I finally learnt what happened to my great-uncle Alexander. We are his only living relatives and, as such, it feels like a special duty of the heart to inquire what happened to the young Kiwi soldier. Alexander was shot in the head on the morning of November 4, 1918, in the battle for Le Quesnoy, exactly one week before the end of WWI.

Pamela Stirling, editor

This article was first published in the November 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.