Although ANZAC Day has come and gone this year, I find myself still thinking about this day of remembrance, especially as I sit here talking to Andrew Connolly, our Head of General Surgery who has an avid interest in both World Wars.
This year I was again struck by the significance of this day in New Zealand and how very dear it is to Kiwis. Unlike in the UK (where the sacrifice of fallen soldiers is remembered on Armistice Day on November 11), ANZAC Day seems to be so much more personal on this side of the world. It’s not just about our national identity but about individual experiences and sacrifices made by those we know and love. Although the number of veterans is sadly declining each year, ANZAC Day and the spirit of the ANZACs rightfully seems to be growing in importance.
When World War One broke out in 1914, New Zealand had a population of 1 million. Of that, 250,000 were men of military age, 125,000 went through army training and 100,000 went overseas. Of course, many of us have ancestors who were among this group, or who served their country in successive wars. Andrew’s great uncle fought in Gallipoli and his grandfather on the Western Front. My grandfather was a miner, who dug tunnels in no man’s land in order to put explosives under enemy lines.
When I blogged earlier in the year about the First World War Centenary celebrations, which will start next year, many of you responded with your own stories.
One of our staff wrote: “My grandfather and three of his brothers from the Great Barrier Island, a small island in the Hauraki Gulf, went to the First World War – three serving for New Zealand and one under Australian forces. I do have a large photo of the three of them in uniform and their stories of how they laid down their lives for New Zealand and Australia.
“Side by side, the enormous sacrifice of many lost is what unites ANZAC today. I often think on ANZAC Day about our family, the Sandersons, and how my great grandparents lost three sons in 1917. My grandfather was sent home by the military in 1918. He died a young man after many years of illness due to mustard gas poisoning from the trenches. He was only 48. Despite this family tragedy, my father served for five years in the Second World War and came home to the Barrier. This is truly the time to reflect on the hardship and sacrifices made by those who have passed.”
Another wrote: “My much-loved great-uncle fought in the Somme and Passchendaele. When I knew him, he was bald and had a dent in his skull. I remember asking him jokingly if he got that in the war. To my surprise (I was still in primary school then), he got impatient at me for asking that question, presumably because of the way I asked it. From that exchange, I learnt that any mention of the war was to be done reverently.”
The legacy of the ANZACs and both World Wars continues to shape us and our organisation. As you’ll know, Middlemore Hospital was built as a military hospital during World War 2, hence our position next to the railway lines. Thankfully the sacrifice of the New Zealanders who fought during World War Two ensured its purpose was never realised. Plastic Surgery was located at Middlemore because it was considered important for returned servicemen to have a rarefied atmosphere to recover, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. And even today, a small number of returned servicemen are among those who come into our facilities for treatment.
I just want to take this moment to reflect on the enormous contribution and sacrifice of all New Zealand men and women who have served overseas. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to these brave Kiwis whose courage and commitment secured the freedom and way of life we enjoy today.