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Remembrance Day Service

Issue date: 
Sunday, 12 November 2000
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Last Sunday week I had the pleasure of farewelling this years All Blacks. They were setting out on what I suggested was a twofold pilgrimage. They were going to exact sweet revenge on the French, and in the course of that, their first game, played this morning our time (which they won, 39/26), were to compete for the Gallagher Cup, named after the captain of the great All Black Originals of 1905. The second part of their pilgrimage has taken them to Dave Gallagher's grave. He was one of the thousands who died in what has fairly been called the massacre at Passchendale. Then as you may have seen in the newspaper, they went on to some of the other places of hallowed memory where so many young men like themselves fought and died and are buried, some in the cemeteries, many in unknown places beneath what are now the green pastures and the rolling hills of Picardy, and Flanders' fields where the poppies grow.

It was what happened there in those terrible years that prompted Laurence Binyon to write those lines we all know so well, and some of his contemporaries to write angrily about the horror and the waste of it all, men like Wilfrid Owen, who was to die there too, and whose "Anthem for Doomed Youth" is a haunting indictment:

What passing bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells.

The indictment has not become less insistent, for the same theme is being taken up in contemporary writing, in books such as "The Redemption Trilogy" and "Birdsong", bringing alive to new generations how terrible, how barbaric, trench warfare was, how appallingly extravagant in human life wasted.

Before the game began, just a short time ago, on Armistice Day over there, in many parts of France the people will stand silent for two minutes, as we in New Zealand once did, for Armistice Day is of huge significance to the French. It meant that their nation was saved, as it was again in 1944. For us, though, the battles of the First World War meant something rather different. Beginning at Anzac Cove on Gallipoli, and then on to the agony of the Western Front, they meant the awakening of a real sense of nationhood. It is I think that fact that takes so many of us to the war cemeteries, and that causes our young people to gather in such increasing numbers on Anzac Day, here at home and around the world, and especially at Gallipoli, where they go in their thousands. For all of us, and for our cousins across the Tasman, Anzac Day is our most special day of commemoration, our most solemn time of remembrance. But Armistice day, Remembrance Day, must not be forgotten, indeed the graveyards in France and Belgium will ensure it is not. For this day has its own special memories; few families in this country were not affected by what happened in those places, and it has its own special and poignant message. For why is it, that the ending it brought about to what was proclaimed to be the war to end all war, did not end war at all?

Historians tell us of savage demands for reparation, of the failure to recognise the consequences of unnecessarily humiliating a proud people. But that is only a partial answer. We need to go deeper, we need to look into human nature itself. There is a very telling sentence in the preamble to the constitution of UNESCO: "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed." I am not sure whether the use of the masculine gender is a sign of the times, or was deliberate. The latter, perhaps. In any event, the defences of peace in human minds are pretty weak.

Remembrance Day, like Anzac Day, is a day to remember the terrible cost of war, and a day to honour those who paid the cost, but it needs to be more than that. To give it its fullest, most enduring, meaning, it must also be a day to commit ourselves, individually and as a nation, to the elimination of war, to that peace in our time that was the end vision of those who went to war.

I have, as I am sure many of you have, seen some of the graveyards in the north of France, the crosses row by row, the inscriptions "Known only to God", the walls with hundreds, thousands, of names of those who have no known grave. 13,000 young New Zealanders died on the Western Front, 35,000 were wounded: many, many more than at Gallipoli, although perhaps to greater purpose. I have had the privilege, too, of standing in the silent dark on the beach at Anzac Cove on Anzac Day, and then of travelling around that peninsula and seeing the graveyards and the memorials there. Two particularly stand out in memory. One is a sculpture of an actual event, when a Turkish soldier, waving a white handkerchief, climbed out of the trenches into no-man's land, picked up a grievously wounded English soldier who was lying there, carried him to the British lines, and laid him down gently within reach of his comrades.

The other bears the words of Kemal Ataturk, the victor at Gallipoli. What he said may well be familiar to you: "Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore, rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehemets to us, where they lie side by side in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosom and are at peace. After having lost their lives in this land, they have become our sons as well."

The sculpture is a powerful recognition of our common humanity. Kemal Ataturk's words must be among the finest words of reconciliation ever uttered. And here, in that recognition, and in reconciliation, are two prerequisites of peace. Yet that image and those words seem to highlight the tragic conundrum of the human condition. As Pope John Paul put it in his new year message for the World Day of Peace, "Peace is a need deeply rooted in the heart of every man and woman." But how often does that need go unsatisfied. Despite all the achievements of human knowledge and understanding, man's inhumanity to man appears to diminish not at all. Two horrendous world wars, brutal civil wars in Spain and China, the terrors under Communism, apartheid, ongoing wars in Africa and Asia and the Middle East, the horrors of ethnic cleansing, and the greatest abomination of all, the Holocaust, will surely mark the 20th century, which has seen the greatest advances in science and technology ever, as also the bloodiest century ever. The League of Nations, the United Nations, international covenants, international courts, the pleas of religious and other leaders, the yearning of the world's peoples, make little difference. The bloodshed and the suffering go on; now not so much between nations, but within nations, between different ethnic or cultural or religious groups. National pride, political ambition, greed, envy, lust for power, still lead to violence or outright warfare. People who have been peaceful neighbours turn against each other, often I am sure without really knowing why, caught up in a maelstrom of vicious destructiveness, handing down a legacy of hatred and violence that can last for generations.

Several years ago I saw a play by Christopher Hampton, "The Savages", which contrasted the violence of 20th century Europeans with a primitive tribe, who could not comprehend why men would kill other men. The question implicit in the play was, 'who were the real savages?' The tribesmen had found that they could move unharmed in the jungle clothed in the skins of the wild animals, because, as they said: "Who seeing his own image, his own skin, could destroy his own kind?" No trouble to us.

Among all the hype at the dawn of the new millennium as it came across our television screens, the most compelling shots, I thought, were of the children, when they were asked of their hopes for the years ahead. They almost all spoke of peace. And the other day I was told of a child whose mother brought her to meet a cousin she had never seen before. In the room were two children sitting side by side. One was black and one was white. "Which one is my cousin?" the child said. Why do we lose the child's clarity of vision?

This year has been designated by the United Nations as International Year for the Culture of Peace. That word culture is an interesting choice. Perhaps we are to understand it in two of its meanings. It can mean a generally pervading set of values and beliefs, of attitudes and practices, or it can have the sense of 'cultivate,' 'nurture'. The second really leads to the first, and so this is a year in which we are all challenged to nurture in ourselves, and to inculcate in our communities, national and international, the attitudes, the practices, the ways of thinking and acting, that make for peace rather than conflict.

That is so easy to say, isn't it?; but mighty difficult to achieve. But surely we must begin with ourselves, our own actions and reactions, for peace begins from within the individual, and it finds expression in the ways we individuals behave towards each other, in the ideals we hold and the principles by which we live, in the works of love and compassion we do. Individual attitudes of course lead to community attitudes, and so can bring about the elimination within our communities of the causes of conflict: injustice, excessive social or economic inequality, envy, distrust, pride. We all have a part to play here, to speak out against these evils, to educate and persuade, and demonstrate in our own lives, where the path to peace lies, in fairness, and truth, and justice and what the Pope in his message called "solidarity": a recognition that humanity is one family, "a family in which the dignity and the rights of individuals - whatever their status, race or religion - are accepted as prior and superior to any kind of difference or distinction."

In this country we have our specific issues within these universal principles, issues such as the fulfilment of Treaty expectations, the breakdown of family life, violence, unemployment, a growing population of marginalised, alienated youth. As a nation we have our part to play in regional and international efforts to promote and maintain peace. We have a good record in this regard, which we are maintaining in many parts of the world, with East Timor the most significant, but we must not let up on our efforts. And to ensure that we do not, individuals must insist that we continue to accept our obligations as a member of the international community, as well as accept their personal obligation to contribute to the alleviation of poverty and ignorance, hunger and disease.

We live in a truly blest land, fortunate beyond the dreams of much of the human family, far more fortunate than most of us realise. That places upon us a very great responsibility.

On the Commonwealth War memorial at Kohima, in north east India, perhaps the westernmost point of the war with Japan, and no doubt in other places too, there are these words :

When you go home, tell them of us, and say,
For your tomorrow we gave our today.

On Remembrance Day, we can almost hear the voices of 30,000 New Zealanders reminding us of that. For that is the toll of our war dead, those whose names are inscribed on memorials in Asia and Europe and North Africa and the islands of the Pacific. And what they are saying to us is let your today, which is the tomorrow they were not to know, let it be full of promise, promise of peace and justice, a tomorrow free of bigotry and intolerance, of discrimination and denied opportunity, of all the evils that lead to dissension and then to conflict.

The fulfilment of that promise requires a commitment from each one of us, for peace is not simply the absence of war, but a state of mind and a way of life that begin by being entirely personal, here at home, within each one of us. On this day of so many solemn memories, of pride and gratitude for what others have given for us, the most fitting, the most worthy, honour we can offer in their memory is to pledge ourselves to the same cause for which they gave their all.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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