ANZAC Day Thoughts

O.K. so it’s April 25th, which means it’s ANZAC Day here. This is one of the days when New Zealanders and Australians remember their war dead and specifically, the boys who died on the beaches of Gallipoli April 25th 1915. The purpose of the joint British and French campaign was to capture the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, then still referred to as Constantinople, and secure a sea route to Russia. But it was a disastrous idea and the losses were catastrophic, 21,000 British, 10,000 French, 8,500 Australian and 2,700 New Zealanders. Interestingly, there were also 1,358 from British India and 49 from Newfoundland. The Turkish losses were much higher, 86,700. And the wounded numbered 260,000 from all sides. Many others died of disease because the conditions were so unsanitary.

So much for the statistics. I went to the Dawn Service this morning in Cambridge and people were there in numbers, old, young, families, veterans. It was moving, as such services always are. I wore my Dad’s medals for the first time. He and I used to go to the ANZAC Dawn service at the cenotaph in front of the War Memorial Museum in Auckland when I was growing up, it was our private tradition.

As I was driving there in the dark, and I knew every other car on the road was going to the same place, I was thinking about the names of people who went to war and didn’t come back. My Great Uncle Jock, Mum’s uncle, Great Uncle Arthur, Dad’s uncle, Dickie Bullen who was Dad’s best friend and who he watched die in the Spitfire beside him during their first engagement with the enemy over Northern France, Irwin Ballie who died in the Middle East, Ian Reid who flew bombers, so many of the men in the photo of War Course Number 4 in 1939.

My Great Uncle Jock died about 10 days before Armistice Day in 1918. He enlisted in 1914 and survived Gallipoli and the Somme. He was 5 foot 5 inches tall, his Army records describe his teeth as ‘fair’, he loved to ride horses and (according to the letter written home to his Mother) he had a wicked sense of humour that got him into trouble sometimes, but he was a favourite of his unit. My Grandmother loved her older brother dearly and his death must have caused her much distress. He is buried in Northern France with 18 other New Zealanders and one man from Kent. They were on patrol and they came across a machine gun nest. The Germans surrendered and then, when they saw it was just a patrol, they put down their arms, picked up their gun and killed their foe.

What did they die for, all of these men? To preserve the freedom of the Western World. Freedom to do what? To be an individual, freedom to worship if and where you choose, freedom to vote, freedom to criticise, to say what you think of politicians without fear of imprisonment, freedom to write letters to the paper and sign your name, freedom to express an opinion on royalty, freedom to make choices, the freedom to be alive if you were born less than perfect.

Is war wrong, of course it is. It is such a waste of precious lives, men and women who never fulfil their potential. But if our way of life is threatened, we will fight to protect it. That is the way it has always been and that is the way it will always be. It’s ridiculous to imagine that there aren’t wars been waged against the powers of evil every day across the world. I guess your definition of ‘evil’ depends on where you live. But today, of all days, I feel very grateful that I’ve always had the opportunity to live my life the way I want to and that when that was threatened there were men and women of courage and selflessness who went to war to ensure that my freedom was preserved. The least we can do is remember them.

Uncle Jock's gravesite in Northern France


War and writing tips

I was going to blog today about book promotion. I read somewhere that the lead up to Christmas is a very good time to do promotion because people are buying things, seems a logical argument and one that is hard to argue with. So I did a bit yesterday and found another site to apply to and wait for acceptance and then load information about my books.

There are people who will do the promotion for you, but it costs and there are so many sites available, it isn’t hard to find them. The downside is it takes time.

During my promotional blast I found that I could load a sample of my book onto a site called Your Books, so I did. It’s actually the same sample that is on the ‘Excerpt from my Book” page here.

It got me thinking about “The Secret Keeper”. It took a long time to write and research and I read many books, articles and journals. I watched a film called “The Red Violin” and people have remarked that it reminds them of that movie, in that the movie traced the history of a violin from 18th century Italy to the present day. If you love the violin, it’s a lovely movie.

In tandem with this I’ve recently discovered a site that posts tweets about WWII in real-time on the day that these things happened. Yesterday was the anniversary of Pearl Harbour, 70 years ago, and we watched an excellent documentary on it last night. My book of my father’s war letters has reached 2500 Amazon downloads and is still #1 in the Kindle list of non-fiction, bio & memoir, military.

So as I garden and shop and knit and write, I think about war. I think about the stupidity of mankind and how we never seem to learn from our mistakes. And I think about racism and intolerance. I have no time for people who judge others by anything other than their actions and their beliefs and their words. I hate generalisations about race. These are the prejudices that led to the Holocaust and genocide in places like Rwanda and Bosnia.  I believe passionately that all human beings are the same and we all deserve to be treated the same, with fairness and justice. It pains me a great deal when I read about how women are treated in some parts of the world. Ignorance and religious intolerance and arrogance. Yes, I respect cultural differences, but you have a responsibility to treat everyone in your culture with decency and kindness.

So I digress, as usual, and come a long way from book promotion. But the subject matter of “The Secret Keeper” is of the kind that brings pause for thought.

It’s a glorious day here, Mum has gone to watch some young horses being schooled in starting gates, called a ‘jump out’ I believe. I am about to go and do some more gardening. Tomorrow we have visitors. My niece who lives in Amsterdam is coming for dinner, with her Estonian partner and her brother, my gorgeous nephew. We are cooking a lovely roast lamb dinner, followed by huge fresh strawberries, vanilla ice-cream and hot chocolate sauce.  Life goes on, life is wonderful….we never forget.

Today’s tips come from the wonderful Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin. He believes in being succinct:

1 Read lots.

2 Write lots.

3 Learn to be self-critical.

4 Learn what criticism to accept.

5 Be persistent.

6 Have a story worth telling.

7 Don’t give up.

8 Know the market.

9 Get lucky.

Armistice Day

Today is the 12th of November here, but in other parts of the world it is still 11.11.11 I did think about being silent at 11am yesterday and in fact I think I was in the shower so I probably was. Not, I hasten to add, that I get up that late, I had been up and writing since around 6am.

Anyway, this weekend is the Armistice weekend in Cambridge and it is a BIG weekend. They have a Mounted Rifles parade today and a special memorial service tomorrow and all weekend there are military demonstrations and displays at Memorial Park. We are planning on popping in to see the WWII display and someone singing songs of WWII this afternoon. Mum will wear her RSA badge and get in for free. She won the war in Rotorua, she was a W.A.A.F in the Air Force dental section and did a very good job of holding officers’ heads still for the dentist and mixing amalgam fillings.

Both my Grandfathers served in WWI. One was in the Army and was gassed and thrown on a pile of corpses with a toe tag on. He moved at a very opportune moment and was recovered and invalided home, where he lived to be 101. The other was a horseman in the Mounted Rifles in Egypt and when they came home they shot their horses so the Arabs didn’t get them. Other members of their families also went to war. Uncle Frank was gassed and didn’t live long after the war. Uncle Arthur was killed.  Uncle Jock was killed.

Actually Uncle Jock, Jack Allen Hicks, is a sad story. He enlisted in 1914 as a driver in an artillery regiment, survived both Gallipoli and the Somme and was killed October 24th 1918. They were coming from Belgium through Northern France on a final push for victory. He was in a patrol of 20 men, 19 New Zealanders and one man from Kent. They took the surrender of a German machine gun nest and when the Germans discovered they were only a patrol, they put their arms down, picked up their machine gun and killed them all. They are buried in a tiny churchyard in Northern France and the villagers tend their graves. Jock would have come home and farmed the family farm here in Cambridge. But he didn’t, so my widowed Great-grandmother sold the farm to my Grandfather, who was married to her daughter. War changes family histories.

My Father was a Spitfire pilot in WWII and flew for three years, in England and the Middle East. When he came home at the end of 1943 only four of his training course of 20 men were still alive. Three Uncles were in the Army. One of Mum’s cousins was killed in the Air Force and another served in the Pacific and came home.

As you may know, I have edited my Dad’s letters home from the war into an e-book and it is available for free at Smashwords and for .99 cents at Amazon.

It has had one 5 star review and has been downloaded 278 times at Smashwords. I am delighted that his fascinating account of service in war-time has proved popular. Today I will wear his medals with pride, he had both European and Italian campaign stars and he had a QSO (Queen’s Service Order) miniature on there as well.

Tomorrow Mum is going to stand up in church and speak for a few minutes about him and his war service. I have written her a little speech but anyone who knows Mum, knows she won’t stick to it!

So that’s it, our day to remember all those who served, those who survived and those who made the ultimate sacrifice. It would be good to say it never happened again. That mankind learned a lesson from all the senseless slaughter and the loss of a generation or two of magnificent young men. But we know that isn’t true. War rages somewhere all the time and I suspect it always will. I know women who say that if women “ruled” the world there would be no war, I suspect they’ve never seen girls in a playground. I think it is more relevant to say that if the politicians and commanders had to sacrifice all their own children first, war would be harder to declare. Whatever happens, I will never forget them.


A reflection of war and death

Driving home from Lucas’s place this evening I heard the news on the car radio. Another New Zealand SAS soldier has been shot dead in Afghanistan. Obviously, my heart goes out to his grieving family. And the arguments will start over whether we should be there, again.

It pulled me up because I’m typing my Dad’s letters into the computer so I’m reading his thoughts as a 23-25 year old in the middle of a world war. He describes it as a “ghastly business” although readily admitting that he had some amazing experiences. He was shot up at least five times and made it home and crashed twice in the desert. One thing I have discovered by reading what others said about him was that he was a ‘damn fine pilot.’ He goes out of his way to pass tips on to youngsters, things he says saved his life many times over France.

But the thing that makes me think is the fact that he killed at least one man. He shared several “kills” with various wingmen (i.e. two planes were firing on one enemy aircraft and it is unclear who actually fired the bullets that ripped the plane apart) but on one occasion he found himself alone with a German ME 109 bearing down on a bomber and took the action necessary to blow the plane out of the sky and watch it hurtle to the ground with black smoke pouring out of it. I know he thought about that man, wondered who he was, where he came from, did he leave a wife? He planted a tree to honour him many years later. It reminds me of a line from a song about WWI, “at both ends of the rifle we’re the same.” Sure, he felt bitter about his friends and he watched many of them die, and they all hated “old Hitler” and it was, genuinely, kill or be killed. He expressed a desire to come home and have a ‘go at the Japs” and after the Pacific heated up at the end of 1941 he admits to thinking all the time about home and what will happen if the Japs invade….but he also talks at length about wanting to take an active role after the war to make sure this never happens again and if it does happen again in 25 years time, then that would constitute a betrayal of all those who died willingly so that those who were left could live in freedom. And it keeps happening. Mankind keeps going to war. If it were up to me I would institute a global law that we must do what the tribe in Papua New Guinea do, fight until someone draws first blood, right, you’re the winner, now let’s all go home.

On another note my book of short stories, “Stirred not Shaken” has been accepted into the Smashwords Premiere catalogue as well. That’s good news. It goes out to all the major ebook retailers in a day or two. And it will be free. Hopefully people will find it, read it and maybe want to read the novel too. I am about three days away from finishing, “Our Father’s War” and I shall upload that to Smashwords and Amazon as well, 99 cents at Amazon and free at Smashwords. I am going to print a copy for each of my three brothers and every one of Dad’s grandchildren, so one day they can share it and the knowledge of this brave man will live on. And I want them to know that there was a girl in England who called him “Halsey Palsey”, it is worth reading for that alone.

The young Spitfire pilot