When I was a child I lived in Drummond, a small, rural town in Southland. We had a war memorial not far from the hall on the corner of the main road into the village. The locals referred to it as ‘the monument’. It was the place where everyone waited for the cars that would take us to the tennis or netball matches we went to in other small, rural towns; the place to dance up and down the steps in utter boredom. We all knew there were names engraved on the sides but we paid them scant attention. The only day the monument was important for reasons other than my social life, was Anzac Day. That’s when I’d grudgingly put on my Girl Guide uniform and stand alongside the Brownies, the Cubs and the Scouts and watch the fathers of my school friends, be-suited and sporting medals, standing to attention and laying wreaths on the memorial. It was a mystery to me how these men changed from the genial, after-church farmers or country tradesmen, to those silent, attentive men who were not embarrassed to be showing this hidden part of themselves in front of their families and friends.
Not so very long ago I went back to Drummond. Some small towns have kept their sense of who they are but this one had not. The grass grew untamed under the trees in the centre of the village where as school children we’d planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs. The hall had been pulled down. The church had also disappeared and the Plunket room cum Sunday school was someone’s home. Most of the houses along the front road looked as though nobody cared. There was still some of the original spirit left in the garage but the petrol pumps were gone from the front of the store and the store itself, closed and unwelcoming. The war memorial was not the way I remembered. There was no longer an area of mowed grass surrounding it and for some weird reason, they’d painted over the original rosy, brown stone and it was now white.
But it was the names engraved on the monument that took me back. There was the father of one of my friends who always had to sit at the end of any row so there’d be room for his stiff leg and who once, unexplicably walked out halfway through the sermon at church. There was also the kind and funny farmer with the funny name who lived with his sisters and showed us the oystercatcher nests. And the man whose daughter married my uncle. So many more were family friends. Thirty two men from this small community had served in WW2. Five were killed. I walked around the stone to the other side and learned twenty eight men from this small farming community went to the First World War and thirteen of those never came home.
No-one talked about any of it.
The men I knew as a child came back to blend in. In this part of Southland they were sheep farmers. They lived the seasonal life on the farm and after church they talked to each other for what seemed like hours. When there were things on at school, they came in suits. They turned up with their families to events in the Hall and spent most of the time down the back at the bar. No-one I knew, spared a single moment wondering how the lives of these men had changed or what they’d done – and this was only twenty odd years from the end of WW2.
We’ve grown up in a way this last generation of World War soldiers were never able to. Their formative years were in the shadow of the sacrifice of that first generation of soldiers. What must that have been like making do during the Depression? Seeing former soldiers walking the country looking for work? Or watching families walk off farms won in government ballots that despite years of backbreaking labour, had no hope of being productive? WW1 left it’s mark in a decimated population and a general feeling that with enough general support, we could create a decent and equitable society. By the time Hitler was invading Poland, Michael Joseph Savage was leading our first Labour Government and reform was on its way. It must’ve been heartbreaking to watch the rest of the world once more turn towards violence but when it came to doing the hard yards the men and women from thousands of small villages and towns across New Zealand signed up, knowing exactly what they had to lose.
I think we grew up knowing that as well.
The service personnel from WW2 understood, as had their compatriots from WW1, what was required of them when they returned. Very few New Zealanders could comprehend the toll war service had taken in terms of loss of life and spirit. It was impossible for us to imagine violent death let alone death on an horrific scale. And as for understanding their deep bonds and desire to hang out and drink with their mates, thank God they had the RSA. When you look at how little attention we paid to returning servicemen and women, the message was clear. We have a nice life. Don’t ruin it.
And that’s how it was when I grew up. Thanks on one day of the year, no leeway given on the other 364 for the for the nightmares, the violence, the drinking and the other ways men found to cope. We ran a silent ship back then and the fact that the return home itself created more war casualties, was never discussed or understood.
We are more aware of, and attached to the world now than we were then. We see bad things, we know stuff we wish we hadn’t and finally, I think we are beginning to understand how difficult it must’ve been. I think about these things when I stand on the closed road outside the Halswell War Memorial on April 25th. I know there is no way to change what happened but maybe we can look at what we have, and decide to do better.
For a reminder of war by those who bravely wrote their thoughts down so that we could understand, you may wish to listen to the podcasts on my website https://robynandersonwriter.com (This is for all Facebook users – you other dudes, just flick onto the Home page.)
The Drummond War Memorial. (With the trees of my old house in the background)