Remembering ANZAC Day, My Grandfather, And The Horrors Of The Past

Remembering ANZAC Day, My Grandfather, And The Horrors Of The Past

I tend to veer towards the opinion that my life is exceptionally good. I come from a caring and well-off family in a caring and well-off country. Civil Unrest, civil war, war, famine, dictatorship and dismal human rights are things that I have never experienced first hand, and here’s hoping it stays that way.

Putting aside my country and circumstances, it is the time in history for which I can be immeasurably thankful that I’m alive in now. It allows me to work online while travelling the world, pursuing my interests and making good money – a lifestyle enabled by technology that didn’t exist even 10 years ago.

I don’t think many people know just how appallingly bad most of human history has been..

Today, often the lowest echelons of Western Civilisation still manage to wallow in a level of comfort which would have been jaw dropping to the privileged classes of our past. But for most of our tenure, the average person was resigned to a life of severe hardship, traumatic violence, extreme ignorance and hysterical superstition.

Up until the end of the 19th century, Childbirth frequently served as a double funeral, with few getting beyond the age of five. Feudalism in the medieval era reduced 99% of people to the property of their lords – who could have them ‘sawn asunder’ for stealing a turnip, or castrated for hunting a hare on their land. Food examples are particularly relevant as when crops failed – which they frequently did before modern agricultural techniques were introduced in the 1700’s  – people starved to death en masse.

Warfare between major powers was essentially endless up until the advent of nuclear weapons in the 1940s. Until then, the population of a nation would fluctuate wildly based on the conflict of the day. England suffered a major crisis of manpower following both the Napoleonic and First World Wars, but that paled in comparison to elsewhere. Prussia’s numbers were cut in half during the Seven Year War – a war that they won. Meanwhile Paraguay’s majestically foolish decision to simultaneously invade Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in 1864 led to 90% of their entire male population been exterminated. As for the once great civilisations of Carthage and Gaul – the Romans wiped them off the face of the earth completely, though they did continue to honour the creative Carthaginian tradition of Crucifixion. A soldier’s life was a brutal one, but the civilian populace could often suffer far worse. A town could see itself pillaged by the enemy one month before becoming part of its own faction’s scorched earth policy the next.

In spite of all this, people were nowhere near as good as killing each other as infection. We’d be riding steam locomotives to work before anyone figured out what a bacterium was. Most infamously, the Black plague cleared out Europe by 30-60%, but it was followed by a line of lesser heralded plagues and maladies that were just as ruthless and whose last tragic culmination was the 1918 influenza pandemic – reducing the global population by 3-5%.

Surgery was little more than optimistic butchery, where ailment to an extremity often meant amputation without pain control.  Bizarrely, anesthetics did exist for forty years – recreationally – before William Morton thought to dispense it to an otherwise would-be screaming patient in 1846.

People respected their elders, as their shear existence was a novelty unto itself.

This of course is to barely scratch the surface of anything; I haven’t even touched on the the stultifying and sadistic tendencies of religion. But for all the horrors of the past, they generally seem distant to the point of fictitious, and entirely un-relatable to us in a modern sense. It only truly comes alive when it affects the people we know, or have known.

Let me tell you the story of my Grandfather.

Norman Anthony Ormsby was born in Te Kuiti, New Zealand in 1918.

He worked briefly as a labourer before joining the army when the Second World War broke out. He was 22.

After military training in Egypt, he was allocated to the 27th Machine Gun Battalion and deployed to Crete in 1941, which by then was one of the last outposts of allied defence in Nazi controlled Europe.

The defence of the island was a mess from the outset, with those in charge of the Australian and New Zealand army corps (ANZACs) proving to be masters of mismanagement and incompetence. In my grandfather’s battalion, one heavy Vickers machine gun was allocated to a firing crew of three men – which was standard practice. What wasn’t standard practice was to omit providing the gun crews with tripods.

Without these, the guns lost almost all accuracy and were a nightmare to control. At best, soldiers could try and fashion their own tripods from scrap metal or tree branches. On top of this, the troops were underfed and low on ammunition before the battle even began.

As predicted, the Nazis launched a paratroop assault on the island. While many were killed before they hit the ground, their superior numbers and the chaotic state of the allies were the decisive factors. At a crucial stage in the battle, a high order – and cataclysmic fuck up – came in for the ANZAC’s to abandon the islands major airfield before it was even under attack. This was game over. The Nazis took the airfield without a hitch and used it to fly in heavy support and reinforcements.

Most of the allies managed to retreat to one end of the island for evacuation, but many others were surrounded – Norman and his gun crew among them. Cut off, they defended a hillock as best they could but their gun took a direct hit from a mortar. Two of them were killed instantly while Norman was severely wounded, suffering shrapnel through his back and while taking multiple bullets his arms and legs. When the Germans overran their position, they saw my grandfather sprawled about on the edge of life.

It’s worth noting that these weren’t Wehrmacht (regular) soldiers who overran his position, but Waffen SS; The most ruthless and ideologically zealous soldiers of Hitler’s war effort. But when they saw the state of my grandfather, well, it must have been some scene, since it inspired pity even in them. An SS medic gave him some morphine and basic dressings to his wounds – but decided that ultimately he was as good as dead, leaving him to die in a marginally more peaceful state than when they’d found him.

A day later, some Cretan locals found Norman still lying there, barely alive. They took him back to their village and the local doctor managed to save him, nursing him back to health along with several other wounded allied soldiers they’d found.

Some months on, the SS got an inkling of what was going on. They began going village to village, demanding that concealed allied troops be given up on pain of death. The Cretans refused, leading to a great many being shot in the village courtyard, day after day. But the Cretans wouldn’t budge an inch, nor would they allow the allies to give themselves up. Norman himself witnessed these executions through cracks in wallboards.

Crushed with guilt, he and the other wounded solders left the Village when they were well enough to move, taking refuge in some mountain caves while the Cretans would bring them supplies once a week. But eventually the SS clued on. Norman was captured and transported to a prisoner-of-war labor camp in Poland, where he’d spent the next few years mining salt. As awful and arduous as that must have been, there was more to come.

In January of 1945, the advancing Russians forced the Nazi’s to pull back their POW camps, disbanding them and force-marching the prisoners back west through the middle of a brutal winter. A great many died before the relentless Soviets finally caught up with them and finally ended the ordeal. Their timing couldn’t have been more impeccable since my Grandfather was literally on his last legs, and had to spend the next few months recovering in a London Hospital.

When he was well enough, he returned to New Zealand and became a builder and volunteer fireman. He met my grandmother a few years later and had four children. That he turned out to be such a peaceful, universally respected, stand up guy in spite of everything he’d been through is perhaps the part that inspires me most. He was a true hero of mine.

He would never attend an ANZAC day (memorial day) or RSA, and didn’t talk about his experiences in the war until in the late 1990’s when, incidentally I enquired it for a school project. By now in his 80’s, I guess he felt the need to pass on his story, even though he admitted to spending a lifetime trying to repress the memories that brought back unbearable sensations of guilt, terror and agony. He died in 2004 from ailing illness.

When a soldier played ‘The last stand’ on the bugle at his funeral, I barely managed to keep it together. There is perhaps nothing on Earth as hauntingly melodic and emotional as that famous tune.

Even now, I only have to sit and recall this story to suddenly feel like a very small person. But I frequently do so that I may put my own petty day-to-day issues in perspective.

The opportunities and freedom of our world are here only thanks to the unsurpassed sacrifice of my grandfather’s generation. What would they think of our ‘problems’? Alternatively, what everyday problems might we be dealing with had they failed?

Their sacrifice must always be remembered and must always be honoured. History has been immeasurably cruel, let’s be thankful we are as we’re now.


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