e Big OE  
  Visit Our Recommended Partner
e Big OE menu Community Cool Deals Destinations UK Europe Accommodation UK Working in uk Living in the UK London happenings travel to uk Plan Your Trip to UK Europe e Big OE Home Home Sweet Home A to Z


Hot This Week
Anzac Day - One Soldier's Footsteps
By Richard Francis

My pilgrimage began on a cool spring day in London, and was to take me to the rolling fields of northeaster France, and to a barren finger of land at the western extremity of Turkey. Finally - eighteen thousand kilometers and one year away - I would return to the small New Zealand town where this story begins.

John Ernest Wakelin was born on 14 January 1876 in the small South Canterbury farming community of Geraldine. A second generation New Zealander, John moved north with his family at an early age, and was to live most of his life in the town of Ashburton. The New Zealand of 1876 was still very much a distant frontier of the British Empire - the Maori Land Wars were a recent memory, women were nearly two decades out from being granted the right to vote, and early settlers were toiling on the land and in the towns to lay the foundations for a new society.

John Wakelin was my great uncle, and the family history is silent on how he spent his life in this developing colonial outpost. What is certain is that John eventually came to Wellington, and in his thirty ninth year departed these shores for a Europe that had recently descended into a war of previously unheard of scale and ferocity. A volunteer, my great uncle no doubt embarked with friends and colleagues in an Antipodean version of the Pal's Battalions that were sustaining Britain's army in France. Like so many others, he was never to see the land of his birth again.

More than eight decades on from these events, I began a journey to retrace the steps of John Wakelin and the tens of thousand New Zealand men who answered the call to arms during the Great War of 1914-1918. As time inexorably erases the sacrifices of our ancestors from the national consciousness, I was determined to reclaim a small piece of this history for myself.

On a fittingly somber day of leaden skies and an icy wind, I found my piece of history in small windswept graveyard that overlooked what had been the bloodiest battlefield of the Western Front. The rolling farmland of the Somme had borne witness to the dehumanizing horror that was trench warfare on a terrible scale, and thousands of New Zealanders experienced that horror first-hand. Private John E Wakelin of the Wellington Regiment was but one, and he lies somewhere on the Somme still, with no known grave and just a few chiseled letters to mark the ultimate sacrificed that he made.

The date of my great uncle's death - 16 September 1916 - is ironically a day on which the New Zealanders had one of their greatest successes on the Western Front. The village of Flers had been taken from the Germans on the previous day, and in fierce fighting the New Zealand soldiers captured over eight kilometers of the enemy front line and advanced deep into German-held territory. The cost in human lives of this small victory was enormous - there were over 70,000 casualties in this small sector of the front alone. The nearby memorial to the New Zealanders is inscribed simply "From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth", and marks the spot where our soldiers set out on this historic battle from which so few would return.

It is sobering to note that more New Zealanders died in the mud and gore of the Western Front than at Gallipoli, and that in little more than three months during the major battles of 1916 there were 420,000 British and Commonwealth casualties on the Somme. Just as the England of "brass bands and cricket fields, pit-head cottages and broad acres" lost a generation of young men in this small corner of France, so too did many small New Zealand communities suffer a blow from which they never recovered.

After visiting the New Zealand cemetery and memorial I stood and looked out over a landscape still scarred by the events of eighty five years past and tried to comprehend the misery and fear that the soldiers of all nations must have endured here. The eerie silence of this rural backwater is striking, and on this day as the clouds gathered overhead it was not hard to imagine that the ghosts of countless soldiers still walked these empty plains.

After the war, the locals returned to their shattered villages and farms and rebuild not only their devastated properties but also their lives. Even today the farmers of the Somme region contend with the grim legacy of the Great War. Large tracts of land are still designated 'Red Zones' due to the high concentration of unexploded ammunition, and the so-called 'iron harvest' that the farmers' ploughs bring to the surface each season includes equipment, shells, barbed wire, and other detritus of war. The sad remains of soldiers are still found on occasions too, and will be for as long as these lands are worked.

Three months later and I found myself surveying a very different landscape. The Gallipoli peninsula is a barren, rocky place with only a thin covering of foliage to ward off the sun - about as far removed as can be imagined from the damp pastureland of the Somme. The heights of Gallipoli overlook the Dardanelles, a thin waterway that the Allies saw as a strategic access way to the heart of the Ottoman Turk Empire. It was to this inhospitable land that the ANZAC's were delivered as cannon fodder for an ill considered sideshow that would soon end in bloody defeat and inglorious withdrawal.

The feats and bravery of the ANZAC's at Gallipoli have passed in to legend now. As I walked to the small peak we know as Chunuk Bair and pondered how many hundreds of lives had been lost in the brief capture of this small peak, I could only try to comprehend how the soldiers had fought on and died knowing of the futility of their actions. Their names are now etched in stone, and perhaps the most poignant memorials are to those unidentified soldiers who lie under the graves marked only "Known Unto God".

I do not know if John Wakelin fought with the Wellington Regiment at Gallipoli, or how many of his Cantabrian friends and colleagues still remain their still. Some veterans of course survived the slaughter at Gallipoli only to die in the battles of northern France. In all, 16,472 New Zealand soldiers died in the First World War - a higher toll than in the war that was to follow a generation later, and a devastating loss for a nation of only one million souls.

My pilgrimage ended a world away from my great uncle's resting place on the Somme, but in a place he would have know well. On a beautiful summer's day I stood beneath the memorial for the fallen of Ashburton County, reading his name carved into a stone plaque weathered by the passage of time. John Wakelin has now of course become more to me than an anonymous name on a forgotten memorial, and on ANZAC Day I will remember not only his sacrifice, but also that of his fallen comrades lying in those fields so far from home.




London Weather
London five-day weather forecast
Book your train ticket...

Visit thetrainline.com to plan your UK journey, and to book your tickets.

Navigate the tube with ease...

Visit thetube.com and transportforlondon.gov.uk

Hot Links

Advertise With Us  |  About Us   |  Contact Us  |  Terms & Conditions
Home  |  Plan Your Trip  |  Getting There   |  London Scene   |  Living in the UK  |  Working in UK  |  Accommodation UK
Destinations UK & Europe  |  Cool Deals   |  Community  |  Home Sweet Home  |  A to Z  |  Our Partners  |  Photos