It’s been 107 years since the ANZACs landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula. On the first day, 16,000 Australians and New Zealanders tried to make it across that beach and up the hill – for many, those few seconds were their first experience of war.
By nightfall, 2000 were dead or severely wounded.
The reason I’m here today is that my great-grandfather survived the war, although only just.
He was just a teenager - a teenager - when he left his mother on the wharf in Wellington and sailed to Europe. He was on the western front, in France, as a stretcher-bearer.
I only knew him when I was very young, but I adored him. He was tall and willowy, a giant of a man, and he was the kindest and warmest man I’d ever met. All he did was smile. He had a lolly jar which I was allowed to take fistfuls of lollies from, and he did this thing with his teeth. I only realised what it was when I was older – he would push his false top teeth out a little and then pop them back in. And I was always enthralled. I didn’t know they were false, so I was always in awe of great-grandad because he had magic teeth that could move.
Later in life, after great grand-dad had long since passed from a stroke, I searched and found his military records. In France, he’d suffered horrific shell shock. It was trench warfare, of course, and not one of us can begin to imagine what he would have seen... Running back and forward from the trenches, bringing back the wounded and the dying, but one day a shell landed next to him. And according to his records, he was completely buried in soil and debris. Soldiers near him had to dig him out.
He was put on a train to one of the field hospitals in France where he spent a week suffering from shell shock; the tell-tale tremor, the confusion, the temporary loss of hearing and sometimes sight too. And then, within a week, they sent him back to the frontline, and he carried on doing his job as a stretcher-bearer. Can you imagine the first time he had to run out, stretcher in his hand, looking for the wounded? None of us can ever truly imagine what those brave but probably terrified men went through.
And we have to imagine, don't we? Because like so many of our great grandparents, they didn’t speak about the war. Great grandad never did. He never spoke about what he’d been through. Not a word.
Great grandad - his full name was Albert Victor Dixon - came back to Christchurch, married, and had seven children. His first-born, myrtle, was my much-loved grandmother. His last born, my great aunt, is still alive today.
My great grandad never owned a house. He never owned a car. He rode his bike from the working-class suburb of Spreydon in Christchurch to Templeton, on the outskirts of the city, where he worked as a butcher’s assistant.
I remember, sometimes on a Sunday when we would visit, he would have a half-gee of beer. It's such a memorable measurement of beer to me. A flagon. And he’d share a glass with whoever came to visit. He loved having his family around him. He loved his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren and despite never owning anything really, I know he believed he had a rich life.
Still, to this day, I can't believe he ever spoke about his time in France. The friends he lost. The kiwis who went up and over the edge of those trenches... For their country, and for their commonwealth.
I think of great-grandad sometimes when I think about how intolerant we’ve become today. How fragile. How quick we are to be offended, to feel victimised, to throw our arms in the air because of something that's forced us to feel outraged. Great-grandad was always so calm. He had his life and he had his health and he had his family, and that made him a happy man.
Today, there are people just like my great-grandad right now in Ukraine, Syria and Yemen, in a number of volatile conflict zones all fighting for their countries. I don’t know whether we’ve learnt a great deal as a human race in the decades that have followed the world wars, but I think the ANZACs – wherever they fought – left behind a legacy of courage and resilience.
And somewhere, in all the horror of war, they taught us the spirit of camaraderie. I think if the ANZACs were here today they’d tell us to just take a moment, and enjoy the public holiday that their sacrifices have gifted us.
And I also think they'd ask us, politely of course, to take a moment and spare a thought for those who've gone before us to fight for the freedom we have today. Lest we forget.