Remembrance Day Address

  • David Cunliffe
Economic Development

St Matthews in the City, Auckland

The Governor General, Hon Anand Satyanand
Mayor of Auckland, Dick Hubbard

Nga iwi Ngati Whatua, Nga iwi o te motu, tena kotou, tena kotou, tena kotou katoa.

Mist, rose,
Lifted by a chill
Breeze from the south
On a bleak, hillside
Above the little township of Cave, South Canterbury
Stands a plain stone cenotaph.

From my childhood memory of a bitterly cold ANZAC morning, there were some 25-odd names of the young men of that area inscribed on one face, under the title "The Great War."

As a child I wondered what was great about it. The little town of Cave today would be hard pressed to muster 25 young men. It gave its all.

The truth is that New Zealand gave its all in that war. From a population of little over a million, around 100,000 were sent to war. About 18,000 lost their lives. No other country of the Empire suffered more heavily per capita.

So as we mark the passing of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, when the bloody carnage of the "war to end wars" ground to a bitter and exhausted halt, we still ask "why?"

We ask what we can take from such sadness: as comfort, as wisdom, as token that these brave young men did not die in vain.

For the young shearers and farmhands of these days, the war no doubt promised a heady mix of duty and adventure. Unlikely ever to travel aboard as we now take for granted, for some, no doubt, it held the promise of an "OE."

But the same ships that carried those men had decades before carried the trade of empire: our mutton, wool and butter; petroleum from the mid-east; copper, nickel, iron and slaves from Africa.

And as the 19th Century drew to its close and the 20th dawned, so the winds of empires blew in cross current. Competition intensified. Protectionism ensued. Tension erupted.

It is sobering to think of the slaughter of World War I as an accidental cascade of events following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo – triggering as it did alliances and counter-alliances.

It is equally galling, but perhaps more insightful, to see World War I not as accidental but as inevitable.

In that war, the proud towers of competing empires came crashing down in mutual destruction. The world was forever changed - not only the maps of Europe were redrawn but the class-based certitudes of the Victorian era were shattered by the emancipation of women into the workforce and the reorganisation of military and political command.

Unfortunately for the brave young men from Cave, military technology had changed even more quickly. We cannot go where they have gone - where one machinegun had the firepower of three hundred rifles. Into them marched our brave young men and others, line abreast, time after time at places like the Somme and Passchendaele.

And if the scale of the slaughter in this industrial manner beggars comprehension – New Zealand lost 845 men in a single day at Paschendale – so too does the extraordinary bravery of those men who could not have been oblivious to these odds.

Today more than anything else, we commemorate their bravery, their service, their sacrifice made to preserve - that which as a country we held to be good and true.

So, they might well ask us - what we have learned over these last 90 years?

We have learned to honour those who fell or who returned bringing with them tears of the soul that would not heal. Each year, at ANZAC and Armistice Day, the crowds grow larger and more solemn.

We have learned that New Zealand's' troops were the equal of the world's finest.

We gave a generation to the war of the Empire. Through it, we learned to stand up for our own identity. We forged an identity – Anzacs and Kiwis. We took steps towards full nationhood that continues today.

We learned that wars do not end wars.

Twenty-one years after Armistice Day, Germany invaded Poland and the long and ghastly sequel began.

I hope we have learned to put as much sweat and grit and courage into building justice and peace – because war, while occasionally unavoidable, too often represents a failure to solve problems by intelligent means.

We know that New Zealand's extraordinary international commitment continues. We are now in peacekeeping and peace building from the Sinai to Timor to Afghanistan, to the Solomon Islands.

For we have learned that these who forget the lessons of history, inevitability repeat them.

But those "lessons of history" must have seemed remote to our young men buried in the mud of Flanders or the dust of Gallipoli as they whistled "it’s a long, long way to Tipperary" and sang "Abide with me".

We hold this remembrance service here in St Matthews – surely one of the most beautiful churches in New Zealand – built to inspire all who worship in it with the love and truth of God. And as we remember the nobility of courage and sacrifice; and the terrible slaughter of man; we pray for God's guidance to live better in this world.

If His grace, His humility, His love truly abides in us - if we can bring that spirit to bear on the world around us – then we will truly be remembering the young men of Cave and all our hamlets, with a tribute fit for heroes.

If we can do that, then their service and our remembrance, will not be in vain.