By ALEX SAIFITI

 

Every Anzac Day we remember them. 

For me, this year is a little different though because my grandfather is no longer physically here with me. 

It was only when he had passed that I learnt the true extent of his service to our nation, and recognised the sacrifices of his father. 

Like my grandfather, a veteran of the Battle of Malaya and the Suez Crisis, my great-grandfather, James Sinton, was no stranger to war.

Too young to enlist, James snuck on board a boat and joined the Otago Mounted Rifles. Giving himself up on board, it was too late to turn him back and so along with the other young men, he found himself in the middle of the Indian Ocean on his way to Egypt and eventually to Anzac Cove. A series of events that would shape his life forever. 

At the age of 19, you could probably find me falling asleep on the train into university, perhaps busy finishing an assignment or studying for an exam and looking forward to the weekend. 

There is such a stark contrast between two very different times and it can often be difficult to comprehend the experiences those who fought in WWI went through, especially those who were young, many of whom had little understanding of what they were getting themselves into. 

From the Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph.

James Sinton. Photo from the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s Online Cenotaph.

One can only imagine the disturbing scenes my great-grandfather came across. One of New Zealand’s last Gallipoli veterans living to the age of 101, James hardly ever spoke of his WWI days. When he did, he portrayed the vivid pictures of war, remembering a time when he had to play possum so that his enemies did not discover him among the dead and wounded.

He also spoke of a poignant moment when he was talking to his mate as they ate lunch in the trenches, turning his sight away for one moment, only to turn back to see his friend had been shot right between the eyes. 

My great-grandfather recalled 24th May 1915 when the soldiers let down their guns and withdrew from the trenches to share in food, cigarettes and conversation. It is experiences like these which paint the uncalled-for need for war and the pure senselessness of it all. 

Now there is an app and a website which explore the stories of individuals who, like James, were caught up in the First World War. Ngā Tapuwae New Zealand First World War Trails guide people through WWI landscapes and sites that are significant to New Zealand. The trails can be explored through smartphone or tablet apps, via the Ngā Tapuwae website, or printable guides.

I had the opportunity to speak with Sarah Burgess, a First World War researcher from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, who further depicted the likely feelings and experiences of those who served in the First World War.

 

What role did New Zealand play in WWI?

New Zealand’s main contribution was troops and continuing to supply troops throughout the duration of the war. The main body left New Zealand in October 1914 and then throughout the duration of the war, regular re-enforcement drafts were sent over.

 

How many New Zealanders fought in WWI?

About 100,000 people served. This number included those who served in the medical units, the doctors, nurses, veterinarians, dentists, and those in the supply and admin units such as the postal corps. It is also important to point out that there were many other New Zealanders who served in other imperial forces. 

 

How many of these were young men and women?

The New Zealand Expeditionary Force accepted men who ranged in age from 20 to at one time during the war, 45. At that time, they were all volunteers. Volunteers were accepted throughout the duration of the war, even after conscription was introduced in 1916.  Conscription focused in order of priority on young single men, married men, and then married men with children. From September 1917, 19-year-olds could enlist with their parents’ permission. Around this time, any young man was automatically called up when he turned 20. 

 

What do you think young New Zealanders in the 21st century can learn from these experiences? 

When you get to understand that they had the same hopes and dreams for their life’s that young people today have, it makes it easier to relate to their experiences and what they went through.

Some of them had just finished school or were looking for their first job. They might of one day wanted a family, wanted to travel and see the world just like lots of young New Zealanders today.

 

Over 100 years on, what purpose do you think Anzac Day serves? 

Anzac Day provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our history. To ask questions and engage in debate about our war history. 

 

What are the Ngā Tapuwae New Zealand First World War trails and what is their purpose?

Ngā Tapuwae translates to “the footsteps.” Following in the footsteps of New Zealand soldiers helps bring home the reality of what soldiers went through. It enhances your understanding of the everyday lives they went through making the reality of their experiences more tangible.

 

As a young person, I cannot imagine what my great grandfather would have endured. This Anzac Day is an opportunity to learn more about the individual stories that made up WWI; tangible stories which allow us to reflect on our values as individuals and who we are as a nation.

 

For more information, check out the Ngā Tapuwae trails here.

Be sure to check out WW100 on Instagram here.

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