Living at the bottom of the world, the horror of war is something most New Zealanders are fortunate enough never to have experienced. In the past we've fought other people's wars, our men enthusiastically thronging to fight in 1914 for king and country – even if it wasn't their country. New Zealand casualties in WWI were proportionally among the highest of the combatants, and it is them who we remember, along with the casualties of all wars since, when we celebrate Armistice Day.
For RSA Franklin, marking Armistice Day 2018 was the culmination of many months of planning. Led by Shelly Boyes, the dynamic president of RSA Franklin and a teacher at Pukekohe High School, this was a series of community events and activities, including tree plantings, services and a dinner and dance, that had plenty of youthful input.
Pukekohe High School had a number of students involved in the whole armistice weekend. Some were in the RSA Franklin Pipe Band playing ‘The Battle’s Over’ at 6:00am on Armistice Day at the cenotaph, then leading the parade later that morning to Pukekohe War Memorial Town Hall. The ceremony included head student, Ellie Cato, reciting Tau Ode with Shelly. RSA Youth Section members and year 10 students, Hannah Lidgett and David Kawondera, were involved in all aspects of the weekend, especially the ceremonial events on Friday evening and all day Sunday.
The highlight of the weekend was Saturday evening’s commemorative dinner and dance, featuring the PHS Stage Band. Hannah's art featured in an audio-visual presentation by Rachel Schanzer’s year 10 art students, who did a fabulous job of creating and producing the artwork to back the performers. Year 13 student, Thomas Williams, was the official photographer.
Securing the guest speaker for the dinner was something of a coup for Shelly. Recalling the longstanding local connection to US troops during WW II, still fondly remembered by older residents, Shelly invited Aric Sottler, US Vice Consul General based in Auckland, along with Will Seal, senior public affairs specialist.
“I just asked!” said Shelly, and Aric was happy to oblige. Armistice Day has significance for Americans; in the US November 11 is known as Veterans Day and is a federal holiday to commemorate the sacrifices of US troops in all wars.
The previous day, November 10, is the 'birthday' of the US Marine Corps, which this year celebrated its 243rd anniversary.
“It's a really big deal, a black tie event with a traditional ball and cake-cutting ceremony,” said Aric. With his father and three brothers serving in the Marines, Aric applied to join the service too “but ended up in a very long queue”. Instead, after some time as a resource analyst, he achieved his “pipe dream” to work in the State Department where he dealt with anti-terrorism matters.
Hopefully he won't need to exercise those skills as Vice Consul in New Zealand, his first overseas posting, but it will be a different story with his next assignment – in Lebanon. The prospect of going into one of the world's hotspots, with its history of anti-US bombings, “makes my parents nervous”, Aric said. However he will be well prepared during a year back in the US after leaving New Zealand, when he will learn Arabic.
Aric is finding Auckland a little different from Alexandria, the suburb of Washington DC where his parents live a mile from George Washington's house, an area steeped in the history of the American Civil War.
Part of a diplomat's brief is to blend in with the locals. Aric has been surfing at Muriwai (“sweet as!”), and participated in the Auckland half marathon. He finds recreational running a lot tamer than at home, where wearing headphones is a no-no because of the wildlife – bears, wolves and even rattlesnakes.
Aric isn't the first of his family to be in New Zealand, having been beaten to that particular milestone by his grandfather. In his after dinner speech he paid tribute to his family's long history of military and public service and referred to the “intense human connection” between the US and New Zealand, beginning with the first US Consul General in 1838.
“It's a testament to the bond that exists between the US and New Zealand.”
The Pukekohe bond was reinforced by a basket of local produce presented to Aric, a reminder of the time in the 1940s when US troops were billeted amongst the market gardens providing food for the war effort.
Like Aric, Shelly has gun metal in her bones. Taking pride of place at the top table was her great grandfather. A veteran of three wars, Daniel Willis Talbot gazed sternly at his descendant from his photo frame.
“An officer in the Canterbury Mounted Rifles, Daniel served in the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa, where he met my great grandmother, a nurse. He went on to serve at Gallipoli and in the middle east during WW I, and at the outbreak of WW II in 1939 was one of the first to volunteer. He was turned down for overseas service because of his age but did his bit in the Home Guard.”
By all accounts Daniel's wife, Amy, was a character not to be messed with, prefering to shoot first and ask questions later. Other family members also served in the military.
“As a child I would sit and listen to their tales for hours. I always knew I would serve, do my duty.”
Shelly joined up in her early 20s, becoming something of a trailblazer for women in the New Zealand army.
“I was one of the first women in a combat role, starting in artillery. In the late 1980s our unit served over two years in Australia, which was pretty interesting. There were no women and some of the men's partners reacted badly.
“But our gear was better than the Aussies' so we found it quite lucrative selling them Swandries.”
Shelly became one of New Zealand's first female field sergeants, and her stroppy great grandmother would have been proud to know she'd been trained in the use of 11 different weapons by the time she left the army. Looking for a change, Shelly trained as a teacher and has been at Pukekohe High for 15 years.
It wasn't until 2014 that she joined the RSA, but she started right at the top.
“Pukekohe and Districts RSA was in its death throes, with no money and no members. I was voted straight on to the committee, and as president of RSA Franklin I'm one of only two female presidents of the 29 RSAs in the Auckland region.”
Once in the presidential chair, Shelly set about revitalising RSA Franklin with a hefty dose of drive, and youthful input via the high school.
“I wondered how the old boys would take to having a woman in charge, but they loved it.
“I believe I'm an enthusiast. Like Calamity Jane, I figure if a girl wants to be a legend she should just go ahead and be one.”