Red poppies. Delicate flowers, nevertheless very resilient.
I started noticing their appearance already on that particular Friday just before Anzac Day. Poppy Day, as they call it here. As I learned later, for women, on their right, for men, on their left. Pinned to the clothes.
Poppies... Symbols of remembrance. And hope. They were the first flowers to grow and bloom on the muddy battlefields.
April 25 marks a special date in the Kiwi calendars - it is the commemoration of Anzac Day. Probably one of the most important national occasions, too. Remembering the soldiers of New Zealand and Australia who landed at Gallipoli in 1915 during WWI. Honouring those lost and those returned. From every battle, ever since. In 2016, this occasion even more special. 100 years have passed since the organisation of the very first Anzac Day service in 1916. A centenary for NZ to participate in the war.
A travel back in time… and perhaps a way to look into the present and the future. Despite all controversies. This was Anzac Day through my lens...
Some quick facts and a bit of history:
You can read more about the history of Anzac Day here.
"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
In Europe, I have seen poppies appear as part of the war remembrance ceremonies around Armistice Day, in November. But here in NZ, they mostly wear them in April for Anzac Day. Apparently, the reason behind it was because of a delay in shipment. The poppies arrived too late from Europe, hence were used only in the following year for Anzac Day. Indeed a long way by ship....
As I left for the event, the red poppies appeared everywhere along the way.
I have always enjoyed peeking into national celebrations across the world. It sheds light on the history and mindset of a country and its people. And often, it makes it easier to better understand everyday life and traditions. I was offered to take part in the organisation of one of the local events across Auckland, and was lucky to witness the ceremony from the inside and at the same time from the outside.
The Anzac Day remembrance takes place all around New Zealand, and in other parts of the world, too, particularly in Australia and Turkey. In Auckland, it started with the dawn ceremony at the Auckland Domain, and many local events followed throughout the morning, often facilitated by the local Council or the Returned and Services' Association (RSA) club.
The RSA is a historically important community group for the returned servicemen and women and their families. Built around the "values of courage, compassion, camaraderie and commitment", its initial aim was to provide support and a feeling of belonging to a group where people could share (often big and tough) part of their past. It seems to be carrying on its social activities and willing to attract some new and young members, with special member benefits and even travel discounts. Understandable, as the older generation is not growing by time... I have noticed that New Zealand is very supportive and encouraging of local communities, in many aspects and fields. Well, this is definitely one face of it. The poppies were prepared by them, too, and anyone could pick one from the basket for a donation.
And now back to the local commemoration. It began by a military style musical parade to the local war memorial, with the returned service personnel leading the march, proudly wearing their uniform and shiny military decorations.
They were joined by local community groups and school groups, in their uniforms, too. In NZ, school kids do wear uniforms of different colours and styles, and many schools are only for girls or for boys. Two boys' schools, wearing blue and green uniforms, whereas the girls' school group in red. In the front row, the primary school students.
Once everyone arrived, welcome speeches and prayers followed, by the representatives of the local board, churches and head students of various schools.
On a side note. It was very interesting to discover the speeches of the Prime Minister and the Governor-General appear online some days prior to Anzac Day, made available for local organisations to prepare and read them out during their remembrance events, with the note that they are embargoed until Anzac Day. Meaning it should not be broadcasted or published till the date. This would not be very likely to happen in such an open and transparent manner in many other countries of the world, where such speeches are kept confidential and protected till the very last moments...
The two national anthems of both New Zealand and Australia were sung as part of the Anzac spirit, followed by the flag ceremony - the lowering and raising of the flags, and last but not least, the laying of the wreaths and poppies at the memorial.
Once the remembrance was over, the experienced participants (as it would be at any other event in the world :D ) made their way straight to the reception to the War Memorial Hall, offered by the council for free, to enjoy a complementary tea, coffee and some light refreshment. Anybody could enter.
Go figure, there are even special Anzac biscuits for this occasion, hard, nutritious, eggless cookies designed to survive the once very long ship journeys. :) So creative!
While I was browsing the net about the history of Anzac Day, I came across a very detailed website about the centenary of NZ’s participation in WWI. A lot of information on many national and international events. One can even plan a visit to the original battlefield in Gallipoli, Turkey, with extremely specific details on how to prepare the trip (what to bring, like even sunscreen, and that there are no parenting facilities), available just within a click. Very practical and informative, real Kiwi style.
Visiting Gallipoli to many New Zealanders could be a similar experience like for other nations visiting the D-Day Beaches in France. For many Kiwi youngsters, it might as well be a historic stop during their Overseas Experience...
At certain point, I wondered who would participate at the commemorations. Would it be only the elderly, or the families who have links to the war through their family members? Or would it be a community event where entire families go to and take part? Would young ones be interested? What would attract them? How do the organisers attract them, the crowds? Would the spirit be rather sad or celebrating? How do people pass on the history?
I wouldn't want to draw big conclusions here, but it was definitely interesting to notice some events built around Anzac Day over the weekend, like educational programs organised for kids at the library or musical events and concerts at pubs.
But, one of the most interesting experiences by far was an insightful conversation with a survivor of the war. He shared with me his personal memories and experience. Of war. Adventures, challenges, fears. Stories about commitments, patriotism, trauma, love. And while recalling probably the toughest times of his life, despite all those life changing and life threatening hard moments, he said with a smile:
"You know Love, these were the best days of my life."
I asked him why.
"Because we were young..."
"Lest we forget!"
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