April 25th, Anzac Day
5:45am – dawn parade at Stockade Hill in Howick, Auckland.
I felt strangely drawn to get to this event this year, not because I felt it was my duty to but because I wanted to. My Granddad Gordon Somervell fought in the Gallipoli campaign in the first World War. It was one of the few who made it back. And because he made it back, I exist. I understand the providence of God in all of this, but still it is a sobering thought.
As I walked up the hill there was an eerie silence. People stood silently as a mark of respect. Then the Cenotaph Guard marched in and the ceremony began. An event in France was recalled where three Auckland battalions approached the front line to prepare for a major assault. There they stood in their trenches waiting to go over the wall while the worst August rainfall on record came down and drenched their clothes and filled their boots. Waiting in the rain, waiting to die.
I began thinking about my Granddad. He would have sat in a similar trench on the Gallipoli peninsula all those years ago, waiting to go over the wall with his mates; waiting to die. I wonder what he was thinking.
“This isn’t what I singed up for…”
“Whose idea was this in the first place…”
“Will I ever get back home? Will I ever see New Zealand again? Will I ever marry ? Will I ever have children?”
My Granddad never talked about the War – never. Not even to my own father. All I know is it was a rotten existence, and more died from sickness and poor nutrition than from Turkish bullets. Grandad came back sick – very sick. His only diet in those trenches was bully beef and biscuits. Oh how he must have dreamed for fresh veges or an apple! We know they traded food with the Turks. Crazy isn’t it – tossing cans back and forth with your enemy over the trenches, just to get a taste of something different. Granddad said he could hear them talking. They were that close.
Private A.G. Somervell
NZ Expeditionary Force
Then on page 5 (pictured) we see his pay record:
October 26 1915, 5 pounds
November 6 1915, 20 pounds
December 6 1915, 7 pounds 10 shillings.
In the back there is even a page for a Short Will, with dates and figures for the soldier to fill out in case he is lost in action. Granddad left it empty. I wonder why? Did he resolve to return? Could he not face the thought of death?
Upon returning home the NZ government decreed that soldiers returning from overseas service would be given the opportunity to settle on farms, specially purchased and developed for that purpose. Granddad chose a plot of land in Central Hawkes Bay and turned it into a dairy farm. My dad worked that farm until his early 50’s and then sold it. My dad never served in WWII because an eye injury prevented him. My guess is Granddad, after experiencing the horrors of trench warfare wouldn’t have wanted him to go anyway.
It’s important for us to remember these men – their courage, their willingness to sacrifice for their country, and the hardships they suffered. Although they must have sometimes wondered, they did make a difference.