Oh, the rains
One to kill on impact
The other a creeping barrage of droplets
But is it water at all
For water is triumphant
Roaring like a crowd
Not the final blow or slow sinking feeling
Not the thick, crumby sludge it tows
Now it is the ship floater
A salty brine of widow’s tear
A disease that hides and lingers
Upon soldier’s breath
A watery, bitter aftertaste
Oh, the rains
George W. Lambert’s painting – Anzac, the landing, depicts the fateful attack of the Gallipoli Peninsula, on the 25th of April 1915. Australian troops scramble up the orange hillside, and through the scrubby undergrowth. Their small figures dwarfed by the hugeness of the landscape around. It is scenes like these which have defined Anzac Day for us as New Zealanders and Australians. But 100 years ago, New Zealand’s battle was far from over. And just as George W. Lambert’s scenes of Anzac depict a time of struggle, and change, the late war works of New Zealand’s own artists show an equally similar theme. For 1918, the final year of World War One, was to prove itself as one of the most costly, influential, important, and significant years in New Zealand’s history as a nation.
Years of bitter stalemate on the Western Front brought 1918 to be a break in this deadlock. It was new tactics, and new war. After moving into the gloomy, melancholy winter of Ypres in November 1917 the New Zealand division struck a much-appreciated change of scene, when they were relieved in February 1918. However, with the collapse of the Eastern Front, Germany’s full weight would soon be felt – a major German offensive was on the horizon. It was called Operation Michael, and it burst into being on the 21st of March 1918. In the eyes of previous years of stalemate, it captured expansive swathes of territory. Soon after, the New Zealand Division was called up to the shattered broken landscape of the old Somme battlefield to cover the advance. 100 years to this day their fight ensued. And by its end the New Zealand Battalion had 2400 casualties and over 500 deaths. Operation Michael, took 300 square kilometres for some 500,000 casualties on both sides. A high price to pay.
But the tides of war soon turned. New Zealand saw action in The Battle of Bapaume, The Second Marne, Havrincourt, Canal Du Nord, Hindenburg line, Selle and Sambre, and perhaps, the most famous victory for New Zealand troops was not one of great scale, but one of great meaning. Instead of shelling the walled town of Le Quesnoy, the New Zealand Division scaled its ramparts and forced the occupying Germans to surrender. This action saved the lives of the town’s civilian’s and was to be New Zealand’s last significant action of the war. Days later, on the 11th of November 1918, the war was over.
For soldiers like my great-grandfather, Horace McCormick, it was the end of the fighting for them – the end of a long, difficult fight. First serving with the territorials, he was then part of the Samoan Advance Party in 1914 before arriving at Gallipoli for the Battle of Chunuk Bair. After the December evacuation he was sent to France to fight on the Western Front.
Here he remained for 936 days, fighting in battles such as the Somme, Passchendaele, and those that ensued in 1918, arriving back in New Zealand on March 24,1919. I can only begin to imagine his experiences, surviving the war unwounded from start to end. However, for my great-great grandfather Stephen Harris from Picton, this was not to be.
He died in the 2nd New Zealand Hospital in Surrey, from bronchitis – what was thought to be the after effects of a mustard gas attack at Passchendaele. He died alone, away from his home and family. He did not want to trouble his aunt in England, and she was not able to see him before he died. In a letter home to his wife she wrote, “It is difficult to offer consolation to the bereaved, we all feel that he laid down his noble, heroic life for the cause of truth, justice and righteousness and also the safety of our English homes. Ours is a heavy debt.”
Still, after all this grief, 1918 was not going to conclude itself so easily. Influenza, a disease born and bred in the trenches of World War One, was carried back home by the soldiers who had managed to escape the Great War’s carnage alive. Perhaps for soldiers like Horace, their late arrival home saved them from the epidemic of 1918. But for others, they were not so lucky. The disease found its way into military camps, and spilled out onto the streets and into the homes of New Zealanders. The war killed 16,500 in four years. The flu, 8600 in one year. It was fresh wounds atop the aftermath of years of trauma.
Horace, never spoke of the war, in fact it was forbidden in his family. But for the soldiers like him who had returned, they were living evidence of its cost. There were those who came back physically changed. Those who were never to walk again, never to speak again, never to see again, never to taste again. There was also a less obvious cost, the scars on the heart, unspoken scars of trauma and loss. And of course, there were those who did not come back at all. Those who now lie, whether it be under a white stone grave, or at an unnamed one.
At the outbreak of World War One, New Zealand marched off enthusiastically to a war that was supposed to be finished by Christmas. 1918 was in stark contrast to this ideal, and while Gallipoli and the battles that followed forged our identity as a nation, I think that the war’s end also changed our outlook. We were no longer the innocent, young nation we had been, but had grown older in a way. We had lost this innocence, we had now experienced war’s cost.
Today, 100 years on, is a time of remembrance. A time to remember the pain, the grief, the scars, the stories, the fight and the human sacrifice. A time to remember the rains, the ships, the widows, and the bitter aftertaste- all but items in a collection that was 1918.
Lest we forget.
By Ethan McCormick,