In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

–John McCrae

Wars overseas and in New Zealand

By Roger Childs

Every year on 25 April, Kiwis are encouraged to remember the New Zealanders killed or wounded in overseas wars and all those who served in these conflicts. However, we are discouraged from thinking about the absolute horror of war, why there are wars and what stops them.

Who on Anzac Day remembers the wars here in New Zealand?

  • The Musket Wars c. 1800 – 1840 when at least 40,000 native men, women and children died.
  • The New Zealand Wars / Rebellions 1840s and 1860 – 1869 when about 2,500 Maori and colonial soldiers perished.

If we compare these statistics with other major wars New Zealanders have been involved in, from the South African War to the Vietnam War, all of them combined resulted in about 29,000 deaths. This is less than half the impact in terms of deaths per year and only a small dent in the population compared to the almost one third of the country’s population that perished in the Musket Wars.

The horrendous toll of wars

Tragically, 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 often aimed at achieving narrow political goals. 

In New Zealand on Anzac Day, 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 civilians overseas who, through no fault of their own, found themselves living on, or close to battlefields. 

It is sad that when 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 remembrance controversies

For many years it seemed that you could only march in the traditional Anzac Day parades if you had 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 Day 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.

The white poppy has also caused controversy. 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. Today this peace symbol is accepted and many wear both colour poppies on 25 April.

John’s wife Shirley, who passed away a few years ago, was also no stranger to controversy herself. Her fearless hymn writing is remembered around the world, but her Anzac hymn 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 the range of issues we should 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.

Time to reflect on all the casualties, and peace

So on Anzac Day in 2023, we should reflect on the futility of war and its incredibly destructive effects on people, property, resources and production. 

We should honour and remember all the fallen, injured and displaced, and resolve, above all, to give peace a chance.

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

So think about wearing poppies red and white on Anzac Day. In that way you will be acknowledging the sacrifices our service people made, and the key reason why many died and were wounded so far from home.

 You will also be remembering the millions of innocent people who were killed, injured and displaced, and the tens of thousands who died in New Zealand conflicts in the 19th century.