In June 1914, when a rebellious student shot a member of the Austrian royal family on the other side of the world, most people in New Zealand would barely have heard of Serbia, the scene of the assassination.
Even less would New Zealanders have imagined that within weeks their young men would be volunteering in droves to lay down their lives for king and country as a result of this act. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the trigger for the delicately poised balance of power maintained by a system of European alliances to collapse into hostilities. On July 28 the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary and Germany) declared war on Serbia and its Franco-Russian allies.
Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium brought Britain and its Empire into the war on August 4, and New Zealanders leapt to the support of what most regarded as the ‘mother country’. Loyalty came easily; the majority were only a generation away from being British-born themselves, and they looked forward to doing their patriotic duty as well as enjoying a great adventure.
What no one envisaged was the adventure turning into wholesale slaughter; the fighting imagined as ‘over by Christmas’ ground on for four long years, spreading across the world bringing death and injury on an industrial scale.
The war saw a growing recognition of New Zealanders in their own right, but this new identity had come at a huge price. New Zealand’s population was just over a million at the outbreak of war, with 100,444 New Zealanders serving overseas - 10% of the population. Among the millions of casualties, New Zealand’s loss was one of the largest per capita of any country.
Like the rest of the country, Papakura and surrounding districts contributed their share of young men who never came back. Nearly every family was affected.
Some of the reality of war was brought home to New Zealanders with the arrival of the ship Willochra on July 15, 1915, carrying the first returned soldiers of WWI, from the killing fields of Gallipoli. One of these, Donald Simson, quickly realised the need for an association of returned soldiers and was instrumental in the formation of a number of local associations throughout the country.
The New Zealand Returned Soldiers’ Association was formed on 28 April 1916, just a year after the ANZAC forces’ fateful arrival on the beaches of Gallipoli, where among the 3000 New Zealanders who landed on the first day there were 20% casualties. The RSA’s establishment recognised a need to provide care for returning soldiers and to honour the memory of those who would never return, and to provide support and comfort for service men and women and their families.
Many of those who returned outwardly unharmed were mentally scarred. Many men who could have been New Zealand’s leaders after the war withdrew from public life content with the quiet homes to which they had returned. At the RSA’s they could be with other servicemen who would understand what they had been through, talking amongst themselves about horrors that could never be fully understood by those who had been lucky enough not to experience them. The RSAs recognised the desire of returned soldiers to renew and celebrate their unique bonds of comradeship.
By 1920 national membership had swollen to 57,000 out of a returned soldier population of 80,000, and the RSA received royal patronage in 1920. It grew to become one of the largest voluntary welfare organisations in New Zealand, and one of the world’s oldest ex-service organisations.
The RSA quickly became an advocate for veterans, successfully pressing for Anzac Day to be a public holiday in 1921 and providing its own welfare services with the introduction of Poppy Day in 1922.
Today there are over 100,000 members throughout New Zealand.
Daryl Styles, a long time RSA member recently enrolled with the Papakura club, explains what RSA means to him.
“My grandfather, Manfred Munroe McFadyen, fought in the second world war in the third New Zealand division. He encouraged and helped me to become a collector of militaria.
“Back when I was five years old, he would sneak me in because kids weren’t allowed. I would listen to the stories the men told. In civvy street they probably wouldn’t be mates, but the armed forces brought them together to make friendships that would last a lifetime.
“For me, it’s not just about Anzac Day once a year, but a regular place to enjoy with friends and family.”
Far from being just an old soldiers’ club, RSAs have seen a resurgence in interest in recent years among young people.
Papakura RSA was the venue, on March 31, for the prizegiving of a school project driven by the club in partnership with the Papakura Business Association and Papakura Museum.
“A Fallen Soldier’s Story” was a project inviting every pupil among Papakura’s 23 primary and three secondary schools to focus on just one soldier who died in the Great War and to tell his story 100 years later. This set hundreds of local students on a path to cenotaphs in Papakura, Manurewa, Ardmore, Drury and Clevedon. With the help of Papakura Museum and Sandi Cozens, the museum’s education advisor, each student was invited to tell a chosen soldier’s story in either performing arts, visual arts, literature or in digital form.
“The prizegiving for the best entries saw one of our bigger crowds for a while,” says Papakura RSA secretary/manager Tom Sainsbury.
“But more importantly it showed us that the history of our young people who died or suffered in war is of real interest to our young people today. They want to know and understand how and why these events happened.”
To further that understanding, war will be brought graphically to life on April 18 at a Military Tattoo at Papakura’s Ray Small Park. Papakura has a strong military heritage, with its own military camp established in 1939. Many of its citizens were brought up in and around the camp. The result is that dramatic family stories revolve around military ancestors who fought, suffered, earned medals for outstanding bravery and bore the scars, visible and invisible, of their experiences throughout their lives.
“The Tattoo will show warfare as close as it can get to reality without endangering lives,” says organiser Bob Derwin. “Weapons ranging from huge battery guns to small arms will be operating. Mock battles, warbirds attacked by deafening pom pom guns and the pageantry that always accompanied war will be choreographed throughout the day from 10am to 4pm.
“It will be a spectacular show, featuring re-enactments of battle scenes showing the brutal nature of war and the need to avoid it however we can.”
The intention is to bring to life what previous generations of Papakura citizens confronted and some failed to survive.
“Our community has 33 names on the Papakura cenotaph,” says Bob, himself an army veteran. “This event will commemorate those men, and others who fought and survived the Great War. The Tattoo is among several events we have planned this year to commemorate 100 years since the start of hostilities in 1914.”
In this centenary of the ‘war to end all wars’ - which unfortunately didn’t happen – it’s appropriate to reflect on the words of the poet, Coleridge: “If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!”