He rerenga kōrero. 1985-04-25.
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Anzac Day 1985 brought back many memories for two World War I veterans: Bob Robertson who is Pākehā, and George Puhi Nicholas who is Māori, first met on the battlefields of France during the World War I, and then again in Tauranga in 1983.
Haare Williams interviews the veterans. The sound effects of marching and and gunfire are interspersed throughout the interviews. The veterans speak about their clothing, rations, sanitation, mud and the general conditions on the battlefield.
Robertson: When we came out of Le Quesnoy, just the day after the Armistice, this was a moated town, with high rampart wallls and a moat, and as we come out of the town there were three Māoris chucking bombs into the moat, blowing up fish. And we chortled a bit and went on. Sixty-five years later, I walked into the Tauranga R.S.A. and I was introduced to a chap, a First World War man, George Nicholas. And after we talked for a while, as a joke I said, "You know, after we come out of Le Quesnoy, the dashed Pioneers were blowing up fish with bombs."
George looked at me and said "Do you know I was one of those three Māoris?" To think that sixty-five years later we should meet like this was incredible, I think.
Nicholas: Well, yes that was where I first met you, but I wasn't blowing fish up. I was getting rid of the German stick bombs. I thought I'd just chuck them in and hear them burst, but every time they burst little fishes would come up to the top [both laugh]. I was just getting rid of their bombs because they were lying around everywhere. I didn't know there were fish there."
George Nicholas: I left New Zealand when I was about 21. I tried to get away earlier but I was stopped. He tried to volunteer earlier with his workmates Joe Sharplin, Joe Hiscock and Brian Hendridge, but his uncle and father stopped him from joining up. He went to work for Gammon, but the younger brother of the Sharplins told him to come down to Tauranga and sign up with him. He finally managed to enlist at the age of twenty-one in Tauranga, without his family knowing.
Bob Robertson: He enlisted with the Main Body at sixteen but he was barred and had to wait until he was nineteen. He joined the 6th Hauraki Regiment which had had heavy losses already. Otherwise he would have been in the Canterbury Regiment.
George Nicholas: He didn't realise how bad war would be and he was sorry when he got there. He was billeted in 'Plugstreet' [i.e. Ploegsteert] and Hill 63. They went out at night to do trench digging and working on wire entanglements. They were shelled constantly and attacked with gas. He doesn't think he would have survived if he had been in the infantry.
Bob Robertson: You saw friends you knew so well killed, but you couldn't waste time mourning them. His friend was killed after a trip to Paris, before they even got back to the line, but you couldn't dwell on it. Another man was shot through the wrist when he woke up and stretched his arms above the parapet.
George Nicholas: You couldn't say much about the dead, there were so many of them lying around, just said "Poor devils" and move on.
He says a poroporoaki to his friends and comrades [followed by sound of gunfire].
Bob Robertson: Everybody was smothered in lice, you scratched incessantly. You only got a bath once a month but your clothing was still covered in nits and you started scratching again. You were tramping through water and your feet were wet constantly for three weeks. When we changed the skin peeled off when you removed your socks.
George Nicholas: You had to look after yourself when it came to food. We had some hard cases who knew how to look after the Māori boys. There were French potatoes and pigs not far away, but taking what you could find wasn't theft. He thinks Pākehā suffered from lice more than Māori.
Bob Robertson: He recalls advancing over the Hindenberg line behind some English troops and they were lying dead everywhere. He met one dying Englishman looking at a photo of his family, and nearly cried.
George Nicholas: His original unit went into Messines but he had transferred to the Māori Pioneers. They didn't do any fighting but were getting shelled all the time, it was no picnic at all. We also went into Ypres and Passchendaele. Our main job was digging trenches and wiring at nights and pulling out guns and horses stuck in the mud.
Haare Williams: I talked to Brigadier Dittmer before he died and he held Māori soldiers in high regard.
Actuality of Dittmer speaking about 28 Māori Battalion in World War II: He looked on them as "his boys"; recalls food supplies sent to Māori troops by New Zealand whānau, especially at Christmas time.
Bob Robertson: George Dittmer was in charge of 6 Company, a strict disciplinarian but a wonderful fellow; Gordon Coates was with North Auckland; Bill Alderman was the colonel, an Australian, a wonderful man. He can still see him riding the line with his little black horse.
Bob Robertson says he was always frightened but some men were brave. He remembers the night Dick Travis was killed, the whole battalion went into mourning. He recalls other heroes like "Starkie" [Douglas Stark] What a great character he was, whether he was brave or just had no fear.
George Nicholas was two years and ninety-five days on the front. He didn't think there would be another war. He recalls the only time they laughed over there was when they had 'narrow squeaks' when shells missed them. He recalls burying the dead with just a blanket or coat over them.
Both recall the final weeks of the war. Bob Robertson remembers 'Big Bertha' shelling Paris during the July 14 celebrations; people rushed out into the streets. They remember the final push to Le Quesnoy and the Armistice.
George Nicholas: After Paschendaele we chased them all the way up to Le Quesnoy where they didn't surrender until some of our boys got through the gates. A lot of men got flu on the way home. When the Armistice was announced we started jumping around and dancing with civilians. They got as far as Verviers but so many got flu that they were sent home. He came home in a stretcher with Frank Barclay, via Dunkirk.
Bob Robertson: At Beaudignies a chap came riding through to announce the war had ended, but when the announcement came the men were so tired they didn't do anything to celebrate. He collapsed with pneumonia and was carried to a hospital and then onto the ship home.
Haare Williams explains the meaning of the name 'Te Hokowhitu a Tūmatauenga.'
Both men describe what Anzac Day means for them.
George Nicholas: He hasn't missed an Anzac Day yet
Bob Robertson: He has lost a lot of feeling about the awfulness of war over the years but still enjoys meeting up with his comrades.
Reference number 43459
Media type AUDIO
Collection Sound Collection
Māori radio programs
Ethnic radio programs
Williams, Haare, 1940-, Broadcaster
Nicholas, George Puhi, Interviewee
Robertson, Bob, Interviewee
Dittmer, George, 1893-1979, Speaker/Kaikōrero
Date 24 Apr 1985