Family Health Diary

In the coming weeks poppies will start being seen on people’s chests, in the run up to ANZAC Day on 25 April. There will again be huge turnouts at dawn parades with small children on parents’ shoulders watching as generations past parade before them. The sombre, collective experience will be absorbed at the dawning of a new day, along with what living to see a new day truly means.

If you’ve not done a dawn parade, why not make it this year’s mission to do so? Taking children to such an event is a concrete conversation starter. It glues generations together too. Why does great grandad/ grandad have those medals? What do they mean? That’s if they have a relative alive to tell those stories first hand –  an increasingly slight chance with the advancing years for WW2 veterans. Sadly though, humankind being what it is with war mongering, there are also other conflicts post WW2, all with a story, all with a New Zealander involved somewhere.

My message for anyone this ANZAC Day is to find those stories and record them in some way. For me, I am working with my 93-year-old dad to try and piece together his father’s war – a war he entered 100 years ago, this year. And it is indeed a jigsaw as we gather information from many sources and put it together to form a picture of a life before my father was even born in 1923, along with the war that derailed it. In April 1917 Ernest Kirk was about to board a ship in China which would take 3 months to sail to France. Having enlisted in Dec 1916, as a 40-year-old English engineer living in China with his NZ born wife and two children, he was about to live a very different experience. Being bilingual no doubt, he would have been prized by the British to be able to converse with the company of Chinese men he was about to be a part of. I have been astounded to learn that over 90,000 Chinese were sent to France under the British agreement. This Chinese Labour Corp (CLC) were tasked with supporting the work behind the front line, although that was not without danger and there were deaths. These were commonly illiterate men, with no knowledge of English, let alone French. It was a bleak time, far from home and they appear to have been treated very poorly in the initial reading I have done, as I try to piece together my grandfather’s war.

A year to the day he left China, he was shell shocked in Dunkirk, France in May 1918. The reading as to the effect of that in his file is typically understated. “Appears nervous, among other things has lost all hearing in one ear and may now be unfit for active service”. There goes the CO – ship him out to England for a while to ‘recover’. I’m not sure he ever did of course. In fact, I’m sure he did not. The effects of that event cost him his engineering job back in China post war and eventually killed him early back in NZ, just as he farewelled his oldest son to WW2, who would eventually be a POW in Poland. Not a place you want to be a POW, but he survived it.

The youngest son (my dad) went on to get his wings the day the war ended so was spared war conflict in the air, but was sent to Japan in the post war occupation forces on the ground instead. I have a pretty good idea lot of my dad’s story as I recorded his memories on video and he has written things up himself which has been fabulous.

So now the race is on to try and piece together his father’s story – WW1 being an integral piece. It’s a big job. This year I am going to northern France and Belgium to retrace his steps 100 years on. Ernest Kirk, my grandfather, is a man I have no memory of (he died when my father was 16 in 1939) but as I find out more about him, I’m also contacting older relatives who have pieces of the story. It’s cathartic, it’s connecting, it’s sad, it’s interesting, and…it must be done.

Who is your Ernest Kirk this ANZAC Day? Who don’t you know the story of in your family?


Written by Jude Dobson

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