Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Elections for geeks

IMG_1242[1]

Democracy sausage

So after my last post on prioritisation, I went and voted. My homework beforehand was to use my patented prioritisation method to choose in the upper house. I found it surprisingly useful to help distinguish in a more granular way between the minor parties. For the state election, my categories (not in order) were:

  • Racism – do they have policies to reduce racism and othering, and/or include the situation of aboriginal people
  • Women – do they have policies to support women (eg improving family violence support, decriminalising abortion)
  • Environment – do they have policies to address climate change (bonus points for something sensible on the Murray-Darling)
  • Education – here in a state election, I’m focusing on properly funding public schools.

A few interesting conclusions:

  • One Nation (by its website) is by far the worst in all my categories. Several policy categories were basically unhinged rants – eg multiculturalism:

Newly-arrived migrants can cluster in a single suburb if they wish, not learn English if its suits them and as for a strong work ethic, that’s optional too. To criticise this pattern of urban settlement is to invite a social media scream of ‘racism’. To talk about obvious issues like ‘white flight’ is to be howled down by the offenderati (as per Luke Foley’s experience inside the Labor Party).

  • The Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile) appears to have cleaned up its policies so as not to be quite so appalling as last time I looked at it. I’m not sure if I trust them to follow through, but they have lost their iron lock on the last spot on my ballot paper
  • There was very little on the Labor website dealing with racism, multiculturalism,  and indigenous issues; which meant that I switched my preferences to the Greens
  • The Liberal party was worse on my key issues than I expected. I hadn’t expected to vote for them, but their entire environmental policy was to invest $22m in Landcare. Also, they promised to clear “Labor’s school maintenance backlog” which after 8 years of government is a bit much.
  • The Animal Justice Party really is a single issue party – their educational policy, for example, involves teaching students about vegetarianism.
  • My most interesting discovery was the Science party (which is not even registered in NSW, so it is named after the top person on the ticket on the voting paper) – some great policies and one fabulously eccentric one:

Create a new city, called Turing:

Australia has a long history of creating new towns. We’re looking forward and building a new city between Sydney and Canberra, called Turing. Placed between Sydney and Canberra on a high-speed train line, Turing will be a place that is desirable for people who have family in either Canberra or Sydney, and may even have jobs in those cities.

Anyway, definitely a worthwhile exercise, and for the Federal election, I plan to do it a bit earlier and blog about it again.

Read Full Post »

Where I live, we are about to have two elections – state (NSW) and federal (Australia). So in this household we’ve been talking a lot about politics, and in particular, priorities. But this particular post came about because, in researching my local member, I came across this facebook feedback form.

Priorities You can tell just by looking at the framing that this local member comes from the conservative side of politics (“securing Australia’s borders”). But it is actually a useful thought starter. If you can only pick four, what are your top four issues? And what do you want done about them? I’m a big fan of forced prioritisation. So I gave it a go. This list is for the Federal (Australian) election. Despite the state election being first, I haven’t figured out my priorities there, although they aren’t actually all that different.

  1. Climate change – Take seriously that we need to reduce carbon emissions in Australia to net zero by the middle of this century. Australia is in the top 20 carbon emitting countries on the planet (not per capita – per capita we are much worse). We are also one of the richest per capita countries on the planet, and we have access to more renewable energy than most countries, if we have the political will to transform our economy to use it.
  2. Indigenous policy – add an indigenous voice to Parliament. When indigenous leaders from around Australia were asked what they wanted in response to the terrible inequality facing indigenous people in Australia, that was their request in their Statement from the Heart. While in one sense it seems symbolic, rather than practical, the practical actions taken by both sides of politics have failed over many years. It isn’t a coincidence that indigenous voices have not generally been involved in deciding on those actions. Having diverse views involved in decision making changes the framing as well as the decisions.
  3. Inequality – Inequality in Australia is increasing. That’s not just bad for people at the bottom of the spectrum. It’s bad for everyone. Increasing inequality makes the whole financial sector less stable (it’s thought to be one of the major causes of the 1930s Great Depression and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis). Newstart – the support for unemployed people – has not kept pace for inflation and is increasingly hard to live on. Our country as a whole does better when everyone has a chance to succeed – see this research from the OECD.
  4. Education – closer related to my third priority. Education in Australia is some of the least equal in the world, in terms of resources per child. As a country, we will do so much better if we educate everyone well. Plus it is an ethical issue – children’s opportunities to be educated shouldn’t depend on their parents wealth and location. My issue is making it more high quality, equal and accessible to all Australians – at all levels (preschool, primary, secondary, tertiary) – although I feel that the biggest issues are at the preschool and secondary levels.

So in choosing those four issues, I have left out two more that I feel very strongly about.

  • Stop demonising the “other” – Australia’s political system is worse than most of the western world in its willingness (sadly from both sides, although more from the right than the left) to demonise refugees, muslims, and african immigrants. Particularly today, seeing the terrible events in Christchurch, which are at least partly the result of increasingly racist language being seen as acceptable in public life.
  • Stop the killing of women – 63 women were killed by violence in Australia in 2018. And for each of those women killed, there are many who are damaged, physically and psychologically, by intimate partners who have nowhere to go. Supporting the funding of shelters and changing the conversation about what is acceptable could fundamentally improve those statistics.

Given I gave myself only four, I’m stuck with which ones I would switch out for my next two. So I’ll let myself look at those issues also in choosing how to vote.

What are your top four?

 

Read Full Post »

School Funding

4303096030_1e5a010e0e_b

Primary school in the 1970s – much more inclusive in those days

Prompted by the announcement on school funding I thought I would look at the facts in my local area.

I live in an area with a preponderance of schools, particularly high schools. There are 14 high schools within an easy commute of my house – eight of them within the 2km that the government says a high school student should walk before a bus pass is issued (only one of those eight and three of the 14 are comprehensive government high schools that will take all comers).

The Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) is an estimate of how much total public funding a school needs to meet the educational needs of its students, as recommended by the 2011 Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling. The SRS is made up of a base amount for every primary and secondary student, along with six loadings to provide extra funding for disadvantaged students and schools.

The base amount is set at $10,953 for primary students and $13,764 for secondary students in 2018.

According to the Myschool website,  not one of the primary or secondary government schools in my area was funded to that standard, either by state and federal government funding alone, or including the contributions by parents. My area is well above average – the ICSEA (Index of Community Socio Economic Advantage) for all of those schools is well over the average of 1,000, with an average of the schools in my sample of around 1,175).  All numbers below are the most recent available, 2016 (and a larger table is shown at the bottom of this post).

All of the independent private schools charged fees higher than that amount – at least 50% higher. The highest parent contribution received per pupil was for Redlands – just over $31,000 per annum. But all of them also received government recurrent funding per pupil of an average of $3,500 (Redlands received just over $3,000 per pupil).

And the catholic schools? My area is interesting – it includes a couple of “traditional” parish schools, but also some very upmarket ones. All of them got a fairly close range of government funding per pupil – a range of $7,000 (St Aloysius, Kirribilli) to $9,500 (Marist College North Sydney).  St Aloysius, which covers primary and high school, receives an average of just over $16,000 per pupil per year from parents. Marist  receives an average of $5,500 per pupil per year from parents.

In most areas of federal government spending, the Australian government has a very targeted approach.

This article from Andrew Leigh (who I’m quoting because he is an economist, even though he is also Shadow Assistant Treasurer) explains it better than I can:

Put simply, a dollar spent in the Australian social security system does more to reduce inequality than a dollar spent in any other welfare system in the world.

As the Australian National University’s Peter Whiteford has shown, this didn’t happen by accident. Our pension has both an income test and an assets test. Unemployment benefits are set at the same level regardless of how much you were earning when you lost your job. We stopped paying the Baby Bonus to millionaires. One reason that so many people were critical of Tony Abbott’s parental leave plan is that it was a wage-replacement model, which gave the most to those who earned the most.

The result of so much targeting is that the size of government in Australia is considerably smaller than in most advanced countries. Put together the spending done by local, state and federal governments, and you’ve got 36% of the economy.

Figures published by the advanced-country OECD put us second-lowest of 29 countries, with only Switzerland spending less. Government in the US makes up 38% of the economy. In most developed countries, government is over 40% of the economy. In eight advanced nations, government is over 50% of the economy. A targeted welfare system means Australians pay a lot less tax than citizens in most rich nations.

Generally, people and institutions are only funded if they need the money. But education is an exception. Very rich institutions are still funded, even if they are already receiving income multiple times the amount required to do their jobs.

Some would argue that the children of rich parents who go to public schools are getting too much. Should they be contributing also? But education is a public good, a bit like roads. You don’t have to use a public road, but everyone contributes to it. That means that until we have funded the public system appropriately (which we clearly haven’t, even according to the standards set by our governments), we shouldn’t be giving extra to the private system.

As John Green says:

Public education does not exist for the benefit of students or the benefit of their parents. It exists for the benefit of the social order.

We have discovered as a species that it is useful to have an educated population. You do not need to be a student or have a child who is a student to benefit from public education. Every second of every day of your life, you benefit from public education.

So let me explain why I like to pay taxes for schools, even though I don’t personally have a kid in school: It’s because I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.

Read Full Post »

The Aunts

Myra,Kathy,Lottie,Hilda,Elsie,Annie ,Lang

Myra, Kathy, Elsie, Hilda, Lottie and Annie Lang

Writing this post, partly about my Aunt Mary, has renewed my desire to write something about the people known in my family as  “The Aunts”. The Aunts, pictured above, were my father’s Aunts on his father’s side. My grandfather was the third child of eight; six girls and two boys. When he was thirteen, in 1904, his father died, leaving my great grandmother  with eight children aged from 18 down to 3 and the family sheep farm.

The six girls, in order, were Elsie, who at 18, was already learning to be a nurse in Whangerei (about 50 km away), Annie, 17, Lottie, 12, Myra, 11, Kathy, 9, Hilda, 7, and then there was Bill (my 13 year old grandfather) and Ian the baby, who was just 3.  Of the Aunts, only one  (Hilda) used the name on her birth certificate, those Scots did love a nickname!

After my grandfather left school, to farm (with his Uncle Davy, his father’s brother, who I imagine at the beginning was probably managing it), all of the younger children were eventually educated in Auckland, at Auckland Grammar. That must have been a significant impost on the family finances, LottieMyra and Ian won scholarships, which probably helped, which is quite impressive from a one teacher school in the middle of nowhere. Myra won a maths prize after she had been there a year.

After school, the younger ones all went on to get a profession of some kind. Kathy, Lottie and Myra all went to the teacher training collegee. Lottie and Kathy and Hilda married. Annie seems to have been designated companion to her mother (a family story says that Annie wanted to be a nurse too but by the time she could be spared from home she was told she was too old – a blow to her), and Elsie and Myra never married.

Family report says that Myra was close to engaged to a friend of Bill’s who died on the Western Front in WW1. New Zealand lost a lot of its young men in that war – despite it being on the other side of the world, 1% of the population died, mostly young men.

aunts & Ian

Ian, Myra, Hilda, Kathy and Lottie, probably at their house in Auckland

Once the family had been educated, they mostly left my grandfather behind on the farm and decamped to a rented house in Auckland until the big adventure (more below).

I’ve been trying to piece together the story of the Elsie and Myra, later joined by Hilda, of them in their heyday and their big adventure overseas.

Mary Christina (Myra) Lang

Myra on the way to the US

In 1924, Myra and Elsie decided to go off to the United States. They were in their 30s, and had been working long enough to save up. Plus they each borrowed 120 pounds from a family friend (as their advance share of their inheritance from their father, which wasn’t able to be paid until two years later when the estate was finally settled), and decided to spend it on a big adventure.

Myra was a teacher, and Elsie was a nurse (and what was then called a masseur – now a physiotherapist), and Myra was (according to family report) following a man over there. Sadly when she got there, it turned out he was already married, so they stayed for a while, working and visiting around. We have a record from the Census of Myra living in Buffalo New York in 1930. She was living in a flat, by herself (she is described as “head of house”). Elsie wasn’t with her, but they must have been in touch.

From the connections they managed to create and recreate, while they were away, they managed to get back to Nova Scotia, to St Anns in Cape Breton, where 100 years before, many of their forebears had emigrated from Scotland. They still had relatives there, who took them in with open arms, and made them very welcome. I have tantalising hints of that visit (or visits?) from Myra’s letters to my dad. For example “Once, on my way back from Nova Scotia to Utica N.Y., I stayed at the historic Parker House, Boston…We had fun! We were young!”

After quite a while, they decided it was time to come back, and were in Chicago, ready to catch the train back to (I assume) the west coast, and find a ship to take them back. Unfortunately Elsie was run down by a taxi, and left in the street with a broken leg. Myra was so busy looking after her, trying to flag down help, that she was unable to stop someone stealing Elsie’s handbag, which soured both of them on Americans.

Elsie was quite badly hurt, badly enough that Hilda (who had married, and then divorced, after losing a baby and nearly dying from complications of the pregnancy, back in New Zealand) decided to come over the New Zealand and help out.  Given the only way of coming was shipping, it would have taken at best a month to get from Auckland to Chicago (probably via Fiji, Samoa and San Francisco), which hopefully meant that by the time they got there, Elsie was better and they could have fun again.

They were still on their way home, so after the three of them together and Elsie was well enough, they resumed travelling, going home the long way around, via Scotland. Myra and Elsie, at least, arrived in Southampton from Quebec in 1932. They then went up to Scotland and visited some more distant relatives and the places where their ancestors had come from 100 years before.

I suspect that this was how, 40 years later, there was a relative in Scotland for my parents to visit (in Plockton, near the ferry to Skye).

From talking to people who knew them, Aunty Myra was the family historian. She was on the 1953 Centennial committee and in about 1951 started the work of writing to all the descendants asking for their family trees and then collating them into the six ships.  This was ready for the ’53 celebrations and the original papers are held in the archive room at the museum.  Her niece remembers “all of those papers, permanently spread out on the table at the southern end of the veranda, all hand written on foolscap in those days and all the letters from people.  We were allowed to look but not touch or move anything.  Of course Aunty Myra never so much as boiled an egg if she didn’t have to but I used to go and stay with her in Auckland when she would apartment sit for various friends and she could cope with cooking so as not to starve”.

Whereas every cousin I’ve talked to remembers Hilda’s cooking – mostly the delicious cakes for visitors. Which is probably lucky given they all lived together in later life and Myra certainly wouldn’t cook much!

Elsie loved purple – for clothing and her table napkin. She had beautiful white hair. And compared with her (somewhat disapproving) sisters she was very left wing. And she was also fascinating by the family history, showing relatives around the local museum and completely ignoring all the ‘do not touch’ signs at the House of Memories as she picked up exhibits and told the stories about which relative or family friend had owned them.

Donald July 10 025When I first met the Aunts 50 years later, they lived in what was affectionately known (by us at least) as The Auntheap, not quite the original family house in Langs beach, pictured here around 1925.

P1050693 Myra, Hilda, Donna, Annie and Elsie

Myra, Hilda, Annie and Elsie in the mid 1960s, with their niece Donna on her wedding day.

For me and all of my cousins who visited they were a fixture. I only remember meeting the adventurers – Elsie (who died in 1976), Myra (1982)  and Hilda (1985). They were in their 80s by then, and I don’t remember much of them, since I spent my days at the beach if I had the choice, rather than visiting elderly relatives. There were always cakes and cats when we visited.

In many ways their lives were ordinary ones of the times. The women, particularly the unmarried women, often don’t get remembered properly. So I’ve written as much of their story as I know, in the hope that my cousins will remember more. And to remember them when as Myra said,

“We had fun! We were young!”

 

 

Read Full Post »

Family gathering

New Year's Day, Waipu, 1933

New Year’s Day, Waipu, 1933

This photo is one of my favourite photos from my family history collection. My great grandmother, the elderly lady standing third from the right, is gathered with all her descendants, by blood and marriage, on New Year’s Day 1933.

There are so many great things about the photo – seeing them all dressed in their Sunday best, at the depths of the depression in New Zealand, looking at my stylish great aunts, with their flapper fashion and hats, some of whom had just come back from a big adventure travelling the US and Canada, checking out the latest in pram technology, and seeing the children who became my aunts and uncles looking cute and adorable.

Sadly, the first death of a person in this photo was not my great grandmother, it was the child at the far left – my father’s cousin Donald, a RNZAF bomber pilot, who was killed in 1943 aged 22.

This week I went to the funeral of the last survivor, my Aunt Mary, who is second from right in the front row. It was a tribal gathering, much like the one in this photo.

My grandfather and grandmother are the two adults standing at the left of this photo. They had 19 grandchildren and 14 of us were at my Aunt Mary’s funeral. Knowing your family and how we are all connected is a big part of the family tradition.

Being the Australian connection of a clannish New Zealand family has meant that I’ve always felt a bit separate from the main family; not in a bad way; but you can’t be as much a part of a family when you see them once every year or two if you are lucky.

Mary on graduation day

Mary on graduation day

But coming back for what felt like the passing of an era made me remember how fortunate I am to be part of a family that really knows where it comes from. Watching the swirling conversations at the funeral, I know there are parts of the family that get on with each other better than others, it isn’t a romantic dream of perfect harmony. But everyone gets together to celebrate life and mourn its passing, and I am fortunate to be a part of that almost tribal experience.

My Aunt Mary has been part of the fabric of my life; even from afar she has watched me and my brothers grow up; congratulated us at appropriate milestones, done the same for my children and she has been a source of family history when I ask my father about some particularly interesting piece of ancient gossip (particularly about his own childhood). Even though it is six years since I last saw her in person she has felt part of the world I live in my whole life.

There is one almost survivor from this photo – my dad (still known as Donald Beag in some circles, little Donald,  in contrast with his big cousin Donald) is hidden in utero in this picture. We were treating him a bit like porcelain this week.

 

Read Full Post »

Oral History

Tui (Hugh Gordon) Haswell in 1915

Tui (Hugh Gordon) Haswell in 1915

Over dinner last night, as the conversation turned to Israel, my dad started reminiscing about his father‘s first cousin – Hugh (Tui) Haswell, who was killed in 1917, in an Arab village in (then) Palestine called Ayun Kara. That village is now Rishon leZion, part of greater Tel Aviv.

Tui used to love to imitate his father, Henry Haswell, when he was in full flight complaining about his dinner table. To tell the story, my dad started putting on the accent of Henry Haswell and quoting him – who apparently had the scottish accent common to the people in their part of New Zealand at the time (Henry’s parents were part of the great Nova Scotian migration to northern New Zealand in the 1850s).

So my father was imitating the voice of a man who died more than a hundred years ago, which had been passed on to him by his father, via Tui. It is quite amazing to see oral history in action like that.

Dad finished up by saying that Tui had been such a part of family folklore around the family dinner table that he was astonished to find out in the 1950s that Tui was dead.

According to Mexican legend, there are three types of death: The first occurs when all bodily functions cease and the soul leaves the body; the second occurs when the body is interred, returning one’s physical shell to the earth; and the final, most definitive death, occurs when no one remembers you.

Tui must have been a remarkable man, to have lived so strongly in the collective memory.

Read Full Post »

Shoe frontier2.001

In financial economics, there is a concept called the efficient frontier of investing. You can combine a portfolio of shares and other investments in many ways. In theory, there is one line which consists of the intersection of the best return for each level of risk (or alternatively, the lowest risk for each level of return),

While I was futilely trying to convince myself that the shoes I was trying on would become more comfortable with a bit more wear, in my annual shoe buying expedition, I realised that it’s quite a useful concept for shoes, as well.

In buying shoes, there is generally an optimal level of comfort for a given level of dagginess. So in buying shoes, I try to optimise comfort at the least stylish point on the curve I think I can get away with for a given occasion. Others will choose comfort, and optimise fashion, but either way we will end up in the same place.

In putting together the efficient frontier graph, I realised something else. Changing gender from female to male moves the line upwards AND makes it much flatter. The only place the two lines intersect is at runners, and the dagginess factor at that point is MUCH higher for me than women.

Cross posted at actuarialeye.

Read Full Post »

Sheryl Sandberg tells Barack Obama how to create jobs (source Reuters)

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, always leaves the office at 5.30 so that she can have dinner with her kids at 6 (via Laura at 11d). I’m pretty sure that her commute is not like the average commute of the working mother of young children (bluemilk nails it as usual), and she probably has someone at home preparing the dinner, too, so she doesn’t have to spend the first half hour with tired, hungry, fractious kids while she scrambles some food together for everyone. She almost certainly spends lots of time later in the evening working in some way, and when she is in Washington talking to the President, she might have to be a virtual presence at dinner.

But that doesn’t invalidate the value of someone that senior speaking out about the value of family time. Too often the speech is from a man like Michael Hawker talking about how he spends 80 hours a week at work because he loves what he does. And so the model of a senior person is of someone who necessarily spends all their life at work. It becomes the only model of success.

I have found that when I am open about the fact that I leave the office early (I say 5, but it is more often 5.30 when I actually get out the door), a surprising number of senior people will admit to doing the same. But nearly all of those early leavers sneak out. They tend not to admit to wanting to have dinner with their kids, or any other reason for spending time with people not from work, in case some unspecified person thinks they aren’t serious enough.

We need to have more senior people, male and female, talking openly about the ways in which they carve out time in their lives for their families. And, of course, we need more senior people actually doing it.

Cross posted at actuarialeye

Read Full Post »

Statue of Jeanne Mance in front of the Hotel Dieu in Montreal

Jeanne Mance was one of the founders of Montreal. A devout Christian, she moved from looking after the sick in France to founding a hospital in Montreal, as well as raising money from the cream of French society to continue the project of healing the sick and developing the tiny French outpost of Ville Marie into the town (and later the city) of Montreal.

Jeanne Mance was born in 1606 in rural France, the second of 12 children of a haut bourgeois family. After seeing her brothers and sisters into adulthood, she moved smoothly into religious service, nursing the victims of the 30 years war and the plague that killed nearly half the people of her town. Through a cousin, she learned of the New France settlement in what is now Canada, and was inspired. After spending some time in Paris trying to work out a way into the religious groups who were moving to New France, she met Angélique de Bullion, a rich woman who wanted to provide money found a hospital in New France, if Jeanne would found it for her.

So Mance, with her 40,000 livres, joined the founders of Ville Marie (now Montreal) and sailed to Quebec in 1641. They arrived too late in the year to start the settlement, so after wintering in Quebec, they sailed down to Montreal island the following spring. Mance had wanted to go and work directly with the Huron, the local tribe, to convert them to Christianity and heal the sick, but because of her promise to Angélique de Bullion, she stayed in Ville Marie and built a hospital.

This was at the beginning of the Iroquois wars – the Iroquois were an Indian nation east and south of Montreal, who were allied with the British. The Huron, who were north and west of Montreal, were allied with the French. So the new settlers of Ville Marie (which was the border at this stage) were frequent victims of Iriquois attacks, meaning that Mance had plenty to do in her new hospital.

Once she had set things going, she returned to France to look after the funding and political side of things. She did this three times altogether, each time bringing back more money from the various sponsors, and also (on her second trip) bringing back more staff with her. She lent the money to the Ville Marie township at least once, as they needed it to keep the township going, and also dealt with many other issues as part of her role as leader of her hospital.

The weather of Montreal was (and is) harsh – much harsher for a population that were living in log cabins. The Iroquois were always close, and frequently attacked, leading to danger for the hospital, as well as complex injuries to deal with. Her second trip to France was partly a personal one – Mance had broken her arm badly and was unable to use it – she was hoping (unsuccessfully) for some better medical care there. And one of the biggest challenges she had to face was a society that wasn’t especially used to women in leadership roles, even religious ones.

Nevertheless, by the time she died, Mance had seen her hospital, and her town, well established. Today she is well remembered for her impact on the city – the Montreal musuem of archeology and history describes her as Montreal’s cofounder.

Read Full Post »

Captain W R Lang, 1917

On Anzac Day, it seems a good time to remember one of the soldiers in my family. I recently visited Flanders Fields, in Belgium, and found out a lot more about my grandfather’s time there. He was lucky – he came back, and had five children and lived a long life after the war, even though he was wounded.

When I was growing up in Australia, most of my peers had some relative or other who served in WWI. Not so true these days, as more of our immigration comes from countries that weren’t big participants. Or else, like Mr Penguin’s forebears, from countries that were on the other side from Australia. Nevertheless, it was such a carnage, and so many people died, that it is worth remembering, and commemorating, as a reason why war should always be thought of as a last resort in conflict resolution.

My grandfather was born in 1890, and left school at 12, when his father died, to run the family farm. When war broke out, in 1914, he was already a member of a volunteer unit of the NZ army. Lots of people made the transition to expeditionary soldier swiftly. Grandpa ran into resistance when he tried to organise the farm for his absence. Several relatives tried to talk him out of it.

It took a year (and reportedly the receipt of at least one anonymous white feather in the mail) before he was set to sail in December 1915. In that interim he had gone from being a senior non-commissioned officer to being a second, one ‘pip’,  lieutenant. A hiccup of some sort kept the convoy in port until 1 January 16.  They sailed to Egypt and stuck around there for a while and then were sent on to France. My dad never discussed Grandpa’s actual movements with him. He did once remark that his first crowd of warriors did things with trench mortars and he thought they were all crazy. They tended to investigate unexploded weaponry.

In the summer of 1916 Grandpa spent time at the Somme (a byword for waste of life on both sides). During that time that he went up a grade to first lieutenant entitled to wear two pips. Most of his fighting was in Belgium, in Flanders.

He spent most of 1916 in Belgium, which was the “quiet time” on that part of the Western Front. When we visited, our guide pointed out to us that “quiet time” just meant that fewer people were dying every week, instead of the carnage of the big battles (5,000 in one night), there were a few hundred a week.

In 1917, the Allies decided to try and push to the coast of Belgium. The first step was at Messines, in June, when after a year of tunnelling, the Allies exploded around 20 bombs directly under the German front line and killed 10,000 Germans in one go, and managed to get a few kilometres forward that day.  The second step, though, is known as Passchandaele, and is almost as notorious as the Somme for the waste of human life. The whole campaign was to try and dislodge the Germans from their entrenched positions on the Passchandaele ridge. Not much of a ridge today, but in a flat country like Belgium, enough to make an enormous strategic difference.

The Allies spent three months fighting uphill through thick mud, with many soldiers dying from falling off their duckboards and drowning before they could get up again. The main battle for the New Zealand troops was Broodseinde, in which Grandpa won a Military Cross.

New Zealand War Memorial to the many whose bodies were never found

In the military history for the New Zealanders, there is a map. Two lines of dashes curve down the map. On the left the label “German Front Line (3rd. Oct., 1917)”. Now move to the right something like two kilometres, but not uniformly. The second label says, “New Zealand Line (4th. Oct, 1917)”. A lot of blood flowed between those times and places.

There are spots on the map with names. Two that matter are Winzig and Aviatik Farm, between two and three hundred metres behind the marked German front line.. All the place names hint at history – usually recent and transported history. Winnipeg, Gallipoli, Abraham Heights, Berlin, Berlin Wood, Albatross Farm, Calgarry Grange, Waterloo, Kansas House, Kansas Cross and Peter Pan are on this map.   The two New Zealand companies were the   3rd Auckland Company, commanded by Captain Coates (later Prime Minister of New Zealand),  and 15th North Auckland, including Grandpa. In the lead up (3/10/17) the battalion “were lying very close to the enemy strong points at Winzig and Aviatik Farm, from whence came a considerable volume of machine gun fire,….” They were said to be in “Cluster Houses”, about 200 metres into the “friendly” area.

It was later established that the other side was planning an attack on the morning of the 4th. There were two waves of the Auckland Regiment each of about 170 men set to attack about 400 Germans. The British artillery opened up at 6.00AM, about ten minutes before the German zero hour, and about a quarter hour before dawn.There was a quagmire approximately at that ‘German Front Line’ There were narrow and winding tracks which the Germans appeared to have accurately targetted. Those 170 men were somehow spread over about 500 metres and also combined with another company, between the two marked strong points.- and concentrated toward Winzig. Both companies combined to take Winzig.

In the action once joined the narrative condenses. In five sentences on four lines the attack lost three officers. Two lines further down “Lieutenant Lang and his platoon were within bombing range.” …Four strenuous lines later … “…Winzig fell. The advance was at once continued under the direction of Captain Coates.” There were further objectives, and flanks to protect. I gather they eventually dug in “on the further side of our own barrage”.

Military Cross

My Grandpa won a Military Cross that day. His citation said

Awarded military cross for acts of gallantry in the field (NZEFOs 419)

(HQrs Lon 31.10.17)

Awarded MC for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He took command of his Coy in an attack, when he was the only surviving officer, and captured his objectives with great skill & courage. He showed a quick grasp of the situation & complete disregard of danger. {NZEFOs 554 Hqrs Lon 15-4-18)

The description in the military history makes it sound organised, and planned, but with terrible loss of life. But it was mostly a disorganised, muddy, mess. By October that year, it had been raining constantly. Flanders is wet at the best of times, but early in the War, the Belgians had destroyed most of the drainage systems in a futile attempt to hurt the Germans. In the end, both sides spent months at a time in the mud, with a shell a minute being fired in their general direction, and the constant reminder of the mortality around them as it was next to impossible to retrieve the dead bodies from no mans land.

The ground won by the New Zealanders, which was a small part of the Passchandaele campaign, was ultimately ceded back to the Germans in early 1918, after the Allies realised they couldn’t hold it. But that small patch of a few kilometres of ground had taken around 500,000 casualties on both sides the year before. World War I is probably the worst waste of human life for a war that my relatives have been involved in. But wars continue around the globe, with commanders of all nationalities using the lives of their people (military and civilian) as ingredients to gain objectives that seem worthwhile to them.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »