flanders fields In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row …

–John McCrae

Anzac Day 2020 — like no other

By Roger Childs

With the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic in early March the decision was made not to hold Anzac Day services. This is the only time they have been cancelled since 1916 when the country first commemorated the landing of New Zealand troops at Gallipoli on the 25th of April the previous year. 

It is appropriate that our country and Australia, which have given so many lives over the years in far away places, should pause and remember the heroism, sacrifices and contributions that thousands made in time of war. However, in 2020 it’s been different. Rather than gather at war memorials around the country, people have been decorating their fences, drawing designs on footpaths and beaches, and standing at their front gates at dawn in tribute to those who gave their lives serving New Zealand overseas. It will have been similar across the Tasman.

Many Kiwis today will have been wearing a red poppy to keep faith with the fallen and the veterans. Some will be wearing a white poppy or both.

The horrendous toll of wars

Peace Movement Aotearoa … describes the white poppy as “an international symbol of remembrance of all the casualties of war”…. Shirley Murray

WW! deathsTragically, the reality of war has been that most casualties have been civilians, caught up in conflicts where they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tragically, tens of millions of innocent people over the centuries have been slaughtered, injured, raped and displaced because of military campaigns aimed at achieving often narrow political goals. 

Anzac war gravesIn New Zealand, we recall the effects of war on families on the home front who lost husbands, fathers, sons and brothers in campaigns on the other side of the world.  However, it is hard for us to identify with the plight of innocent people overseas who, through no fault of their own, found themselves living on, or close to battlefields. 

It is sad that where we remember the fallen, and those who served in wars in foreign fields, we use the name war memorials. If they could tell us, they would probably want the word peace used instead.

Anzac controversy

For a time it seemed that you could only march in the traditional Anzac Day parades if you have been in a war that had public support and had been won. For many years those who had served in the unpopular and disastrous Vietnam/American War were not welcome at Anzac services. Eventually in May 2008, Prime Minister Helen Clark publically apologized to Vietnam survivors, and the names of those who had died in the Indochina conflict were subsequently added to war memorials.

White poppyThe white poppy has also caused controversy. The late John Murray’s advocacy aroused the ire of some folk in the RSA who misunderstood his message. Speakers at Anzac Day services often talk about servicemen and women giving their lives that we might live in peace. That is what the white poppy is all about. Seemingly today this peace symbol is accepted and many wear both colours on 25 April.

John’s wife Shirley, who passed away earlier this year, was also no stranger to controversy herself. Her fearless hymn writing is remembered around the world, but her Anzac hymn has upset many. As you will see below, she wanted to give some acknowledgement to those who refused to go to war because of their pacifist beliefs. 

The words of her hymn sum up what we should all reflect on when April 25 comes around each year. The costs of war are enormous and encompass, but go far beyond, the sacrifice of those who served.

Honour the dead, our country’s fighting brave,
honour our children left in foreign grave,
where poppies blow and sorrow seeds her flowers,
honour the crosses marked forever ours.

Weep for the places ravaged with our blood,
weep for the young bones buried in the mud,
weep for the powers of violence and greed,
weep for the deals done in the name of need.

Honour the brave whose conscience was their call,
answered no bugle, went against the wall,
suffered in prisons of contempt and shame,
branded as cowards, in our country’s name.

Weep for the waste of all that might have been,
weep for the cost that war has made obscene,
weep for the homes that ache with human pain,
weep that we ever sanction war again.

Honour the dream for which our nation bled,
held now in trust to justify the dead,
honour their vision on this solemn day:
peace known in freedom, peace the only way.