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The final resting place: Home or abroad?

WATCH: 'In Foreign Fields' New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera investigates the story of the war dead in the player above. 

John Keir explains how the Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries came into existence - and why most Māori and some Pākehā question whether all our fallen should ‘forever lie in foreign fields’. 

As the WW1 casualties mounted, New Zealand and other countries faced a huge practical problem - how to deal with the dead. The issue provoked a fiery political debate about who ‘owned’ the dead. Was it the families? Or the state? 

In In Foreign Fields New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera investigates the story of the war dead. His research takes him to a handful of the 2,500 Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries around the world and into the heartland of NZ sacrifice. 

“Almost every whānau, every Kiwi family, has a connection to one or more of these cemeteries," Witi says. "But the story behind all those headstones has been lost somehow.

“This Anzac Day, a hundred years after what was supposed to be the end of ‘the war to end all wars’, I wanted to give a voice to those we don’t otherwise hear from. The dead.” 

The story of the war graves is intensely personal for him because Māori have always brought their fallen warriors home. Much of Witi’s writing - both factual and fiction - has centred around the unspoken pact between a soldier and his country. 

Ultimately the British parliament decided the state owned the dead. And that decision, which involved the Commonwealth including NZ, was the beginning of an entirely new way to remember the casualties of war.  

Prior to WW1 the fallen in European wars were given mass graves at best, and quickly forgotten. A hundred years ago that thinking changed dramatically. With a Royal Charter in 1917 which set up the Imperial War Grave Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) it was decided that those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country would be remembered individually and equally - irrespective of status, race or creed.  

They would be buried close to where they fell. 

And every name would be carved in stone.  

It’s why we now have the magnificent war cemeteries in the places where NZ soldiers fought and died - in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Importantly, the graves of our servicemen and women are protected in perpetuity.  

The British author Rudyard Kipling described these war cemeteries as “the biggest single bit of work since the Pharoahs - and they only worked in their own country”.  

They are why we can never forget. 

NZs are visiting these solemn places in increasing numbers. 

Ironically, the task of burying the WW1 dead, and creating these forests of stone, row upon row, finished just before the beginning of WW2. The protection given to the First World War dead was then extended to those killed in the Second World War.  

Any NZ serviceman or woman who died prior to 1947 has a grave paid for and protected forever under the Commonwealth War Graves mandate.  

But outside the British Commonwealth attitudes to the dead differ from country to country. 

The Americans, for example, returned 60 percent of their dead from WW1. But not all Americans went home.  

"What I find interesting is that during the early 1930s - at the height of the Great Depression - America paid for more than 7,000 women, the mothers and widows, to travel by ship to Europe so they could visit the graves of their sons and husbands," Witi says. 

NZ - being so much further away from most theatres of war - seemed just to accept that our dead would always be buried far from home.  

“Yes, there is something very comforting about the idea that men like my uncle who died in North Africa will forever lie with his mates," Witi explains.  

“But Māori have a different view. My mother was determined her brother should come home and be buried with whānau”. 

In In Foreign Fields Witi Ihimaera tells the stories behind five individual headstones.  

- Corporal Jack Dunn, from the Wairarapa, who died in Gallipoli 1915 (no grave but his name appears on a monument to the missing at Chunuk Bair); 

- Captain Pekama Kaa, from the East Coast, killed on the Western Front in 1917 (buried Kandahar Farm Cemetery, Belgium); 

- Trooper Peter White, West Coast, killed in Palestine 1917 (buried Beersheba War Cemetery, Israel); 

- Private Rangiora Keelan, Gisborne, died in North Africa, 1943 (buried Sfax War Cemetery, Tunisia); and 

- Trooper Adrian Thomas, Northland, NZ’s first casualty in the Malay Conflict 1956 (in Cherus Road Cemetery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia). 

Witi talks to and about the families of these men. Some are able to visit the overseas graves of their relatives, but others - for reasons of cost or politics - will never get to pay their respects in person. 

“Each has a remarkable story. Jack Dunn was sentenced to death for falling asleep at his post. Pekama Kaa, from the East Coast, was killed trying to save others during Passchendaele. My uncle Rangiora Keelan died in 1943 trying to take a Tunisian hill he and his mates named Hikurangi.” 

Last year (2017) the NZ Government agreed to repatriate the remains of some thirty NZ servicemen buried in Malaysia (whose graves do not have the protection of those killed before 1947) who died in various South East Asian conflicts including the Vietnam War - and they will be coming home later this year. 

While many in NZ accept what was agreed a hundred years ago - that all our fallen will ‘forever lie in foreign fields’ and be protected in perpetuity - Witi believes it is time to ask: is this what Māori want?  

Should Uncle Rangi come home to his whānau’s urupā near Gisborne to lie with his people? 

Or should he stay with his comrades in a beautiful war cemetery in North Africa? 

'In Foreign Fields' - Māori Television, Anzac Day April 25, 10am and 6.30pm 

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