Friday, 28 June 2013

The Beautiful Game and The Ugly War

The news this week that the British Government plan to hold a football match between England and Germany on Boxing Day 2014 at Messines in Belgium has inspired me to write this post.

The First World War was an ugly tragic mess that claimed millions of lives. Many survivors would not or could not speak of the grim conditions they endured during the war years. However, on rare occasions, a glimmer of hope and humanity prevailed. An early example of this was the Christmas  truce of 1914. On the cold bleak battlefront the human spirit and goodwill to all men was ignited when British soldiers saw candlelit Christmas trees perched up on the German trench parapets. A biting chill in the air on Christmas eve suddenly carried the warming sound of carols and with it, the curiosity and temptation for both sides to somehow rejoice and sing along. One thing led to another, and chocolate, christmas pudding and other goods sent from home were exchanged by throwing them between British and German trenches.And then the remarkable truce followed. The first British and German soldiers to climb out of their trenches to face one another unarmed must surely have been anxious but bold. The final act of coming together in the middle of no-mans land was without doubt a momentous occasion with the purpose of sharing and celebrating  Christmas.
But as if this was not enough inspiration and goodwill, at various locations along the front line German and Allied battalions came together to play the beautiful game! If the traditional leather football was not available then footballs were soon fashioned out of fabric stuffed with straw, tied up sandbags, and even a ration tin. Regimental hats were crudely used to mark the goal posts, but no matter, the spirit, comraderie and shared passion for football were all that mattered for those brief moments at Christmas in 1914.
When the games ended, and the Christmas celebrations came to a close, soldiers from both sides returned to their trenches, picked up their weapons and resumed the war. Many of those men later fell on the same shell scarred landscape that they had briefly come together to share Christmas and football on.

German prisoner-of-war football team near Messines, Belgium in June 1917.

So, it is with great admiration I have for the British government in their decision to arrange a football match intended to honour the fallen from both sides and to mark the centenary of the 1914 Christmas truce. And what better player ambassador to lead England, than David Beckham. A player built on passion for the game, who exercises true sportsmanship, and a person who can be guaranteed to provide a genuine warm handshake before and after the game. I wouldn't mind seeing our own Ryan Nelsen in the team too, if there were a chance for his inclusion.

It is worth mentioning that whilst rugby is in our New Zealand blood, and matches were played not far from the war zone, football too, was revered during that same period. This hardened bunch of New Zealand soldiers seen below, were a  team from 1916. I wonder whether they ever had the opportunity like those men from the 1914 truce, to be able to lay down weapons at Christmas and have a good old dribble and kick against a German side. What's certain is that any Kiwi side with solid focus and determination is hard to beat. The All Whites punched above their weight against the much higher ranked Italy in the 2010 World Cup. So who knows, maybe there was a Beckham equivalent in this New Zealand army team!

I only hope we have a New Zealand presence at the centenary football match next year so that we might share in the remembrance of all those who were robbed of longer, happier, healthier lives and who instead could only scrape together some small opportunity to play sport together for one brief moment at Christmastime one hundred years ago.

Anzac football team at Rouen, France in 1916.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

"With Sturdy Stride They March Away" - the March over the Rimutaka Ranges

"With sturdy stride they march away
To the roll of the kettle-drums brave,
To cheery trumpets blare and play
And the starry banners wave.
They need no spurs to urge them on;
Their hearts are beating fast,
And tear-bright eyes have smiled and shone
As rank on rank swept past.
From columns deep of marching feet
The dust-clouds scatter and blow,
And boom-boom-boom! the big drums beat
To let the nations know..."
From  a song written by Will Lawson (1876-1957).

The Fifteenth Reinforcement marching from Featherston Military Camp over the Rimutaka Ranges and down to Trentham Camp in the Hutt Valley.
Real photographic postcard taken by John Roger Stewart, 6 July 1916.

Over 60,000 New Zealand men trained to become soldiers at Featherston Military Camp during the First World War. At the end of their training at Featherston, many of these soldiers marched from camp over the Rimutakas along its gravelled road. They stopped for a refreshments break at the Rimutaka Road Summit and bivouacked overnight near Kaitoke (and some reinforcements a second time at Mangaroa Valley) before arrival at Trentham Camp.

It was a journey of approximately 34 kilometres and was often photographed for postcard souvenirs. Prominent photographers whose work included images of either Featherston and Trentham camps, or the Rimutaka marches include; Private John Bernard Arnold, Bickerton, Henry Brett, James Henry Daroux, Allan Mackenzie, Luther Mence, Private Percy Caz Sorrell, Rifleman James Roger Stewart, and Private Tom Varley.

Real photographic postcard showing some of the men from B Company Sixteenth Reinforcement on a refreshments break whilst on their way over the Rimutakas to Trentham Camp c.May 1916.

This postcard was written on the back by Private James Marshall Lawrence of B Company 16th Reinforcement;
"Dear Irene, I was going to send you a button off my uniform, but as we are going to Christchurch to parade there, I will have to keep them on, so I am sending you this P.C. instead, as a little keepsake from this little soldier. Kind regards to Father and Mother. Thank him very much for those addresses he was going to send me. Not goodbye, just so long.
From Corpl J.M. Lawrence, 16ths (Record Breakers)"
James received a gunshot wound to his right hand in June 1917 but returned to New Zealand after the war ended, safe and well.

"The march of the Sixteenth Reinforcements from Featherston to Trentham took place on Sunday. Of nine companies in the draft, five marched as far as Kaitoke, and the others, A, B, C and J companies, marched all the way to Trentham. This was the first time this has been done. The little bootmaker mascot of the Fifteenths joined the column at Trentham, and marched all the way to Trentham. The Sixteenths are regarded as the strongest draft that has yet crossed the Rimutakas."
Source: Colonist, 9 August 1916

Two separate postcards help form this wonderful panoramic view of the 23rd Reinforcement marching from the Rimutaka Ranges and down in to Kaitoke. They are seen here crossing the Pakuratahi River on 15 February 1917. The photographs were taken by Nelson-born John Bernard Arnold, who later in the year  was recruited in to D Company at Trentham Military Camp.

Almost at destination end! These New Zealand soldiers have crossed the railway line evident by the crossing sign seen in the background. The sound of marching boots and the cloud of rising dust have drawn the attention from a family looking on from their verandah. These soldiers are likely making their way along Sunderland Avenue, just a short distance away from Trentham Camp.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Barrage Gardens, Cairo

c.1916. Convalescent New Zealand soldiers and medical staff stood beside New Zealand Expeditionary Force ambulances at the Barrage Gardens, approximately 20 miles from Cairo in Egypt. This group portrait photographic postcard was taken on a day's outing at the gardens whilst enjoying a picnic.