Like many of you, I imagine, the centenary of the invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli by the Anzacs including the New Zealand Expeditionary Force has piqued my interest in my own personal ancestral connection to this distant conflict. None of my ancestors were at Gallipoli itself, but I had three ancestors who joined the armed forces for World War I.
My paternal great grandfather, Charles Selby (mistakenly recorded as Selba) Bagshaw was posted as a sapper in the NZ Wireless Squad in 1916 and when on to fight in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and France until the conclusions of hostilities on 11 November 1918. Our family story is that he was gassed in France; certainly on his return to Aotearoa New Zealand in 1919 he was hospitalised for a time at Rawene where he met my great-grandmother, a charming young nurse, Maki Rangimakehu Hall.
My maternal great-grandfather, George Eric Williamson, marched out of Dunedin on October 19 1916 as infantry with the 22nd reinforcements of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He was 16 years old at the time, though the personnel form has an “apparent age” of 20 years old. He seems to have gone directly to France. Whilst there he contracted a serious bacterial infection that temporarily deafened him, so within eight months he was medically discharged. When he returned to Dunedin he married Olive Grant and joined the NZ Police; he was the policeman in Green Island, Dunedin for many years.
My other paternal great grandfather, Erueti Pōnui Bidois, joined the territorials, the 4th Waikato Mounted Rifles during World War I. He was posted to the Māori Reinforcements in July 1918, but never left the country, being put on Leave Without Pay in August 1918. He put his year of birth as 1898; two years earlier than his actual birth in 1900. In that same year that he was discharged, at an actual 18 years old he married a 16 years old Ataraira Kereru Edwards and they ran the family farm in Okauia, near Matamata.
I have been surprisingly comfortable with most of the efforts made in Aotearoa New Zealand this year to remember the men like my ancestors who fought in World War I. I didn’t expect to be; as an anti-war activist I tend to identify myself as against nationalism. Yet there has been an even-handed attempt to ground the commemorations in real memories of real people. The Māori Television coverage looks to be an absolutely outstanding day that will honour the dead, reflect on the troubling motivations for World War I, critique the cost of our commitment to the British empire at that time, and (most excitingly) remember the peacemakers who refused to join the war effort in Waikato-Tainui. Ngā Rā o Hune/The Days of June and Sam Neill’s The Tides of Blood will be the must-sees in this line up. Similarly, Peter Jackson’s Great War exhibition in Wellington look incredible, and I was heartened by his own statement that “It’s not an anti-war museum, it’s certainly not a glorifying war museum. It is just showing the reality”.
We honour our ancestors when we face their reality of World War I. However one group in our society has stuck out for spinning themselves away from that grounded reality to use the centenary Anzac Day as vehicle for their own warmongering and intrusive intelligence gathering: the National-led government. The cynical deployment of troops to Iraq has come on the back of rhetoric and a misuse of our ancestors’ memory. John Key’s notoriously screaming “get some guts” in Parliament and the ham-fisted attempts to link their decision to the Anzacs was topped off with Tony Abbott scraping the bottom of barrel this week, calling the deployed soldiers “splendid sons of Anzac.”
On Native Affairs last Monday, Dr Paul Buchanan, not a known pacifist, stated that the only substantive justification for the deployment of troops to Iraq at this time is a humanitarian effort; that is to say, ISIS will commit a genocide unless we and others stand in their way. Yet this is the one justification we’ve heard the least about and it would be the most dishonest justification as it has never entered the thinking of our government. We are deploying because our lords and masters, the USA, Australia, Canada and the UK are deploying. It is, as Key stated, the price of being in the club.
To link that cynical decision making with our World War I ancestors is an insult to their memory. It would be more proper to call the Iraq deployment “the bastard child of Churchill, Asquith and Kitchener,” the three architects on the British War Council of the failed Gallipoli invasion. This government has built up, to an unreasonable level, the idea that ISIS pose a threat to Aotearoa New Zealand. They’ve thrown everyone at this in the media this week: Kitteridge for the intelligence agencies; the Ministry of Defence; their patsies on blogs and in the media. Yet confidence in this decision remains very low amongst the voting public.
I will give the National-led government this though: sending troops to Iraq is like World War I in that we are getting our country into a conflict whose beginnings are murky, whose goals are unachievable and prone to shifting, and whose potential outcomes we are ill-prepared for as a country.
The jarring jingoism of John, Gerry and the rest has no place on this journey to Anzac Day. My whānau and family have lived with the outcomes of the horrors of World War I since the return of the three men above. We love them, but we also know that they came back different and damaged. When we attend the service at Huria Marae on Saturday, it is for grief, it is for honour, it is to remember. And how sad it is that memory has passed our National-led government by.
[The header image is “Flowerlands – Red & White Poppies” from motaen.com]