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
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.