Inconspicuous memories

Last updated 05:00 17/07/2010
Gilbert John McMeeking
Gilbert John McMeeking

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Southern military history

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When he saw the Christmas tree, outside on a cold Glenorchy day, Gilbert John McMeeking turned to his two young daughters in a state of distress that shocked them.

They girls had decorated it with pretty medals they had found in his drawer.

Something about the wrongness of that sight just tore into the returned soldier.

They had never, ever, seen him angry like that.

Here were two parts of his life that he had been determined to keep utterly separate.

"Until he died," his granddaughter Lesley Soper recalled, "he would never talk about the war."

He carried psychological damage from his service at Gallipoli, France and Belgium, throughout his later years.

"He would wake up some nights, fighting battles, especially towards the end of his life."

Only after he died did one of her aunts ask for his war record.

A shepherd from Millers Flat, he had been a territorial soldier at war's outbreak, and joined as a trooper with the Otago Mounted Rifles.

At Gallipoli he was among those who cleared the way for the taking of Chanuk Bair, and he later endured the peninsula's final horrorshow, the assault on Hill 60.

Wrote British historian Robert Rhodes James: "For connoisseurs of military futility, valour, incompetence and determination, the attacks on Hill 60 are in a class of their own."

New Zealand historian Chris Pugsley called it a "grotesque close-quarter trench battle".

"The men were fine drawn, gaunt, with nerves on a knife edge. They were dressed in brimless forage hats, cut-down trousers and boots, no socks, and in many cases no shirts - just brown, grimy bodies, shaven headed walking skeletons, fighting over bodies sprawled in the saps, with rifle butt, bayonet or bomb."

McMeeking emerged physically unscathed from such conflicts as this, and later from Metz-en-Couture. He was hospitalised several times during the war, but never from wounds; just the so-very-commonplace dysentery.

Among the medals his daughters found, however, was the Belgian croix de guerre, personally presented by King Albert in February 1919.

McMeeking received the high honour for running vital messages "over a country heavily bombarded by enemy high explosives and gas shells."

But Gilbert McMeeking was typical of many an honoured soldier: his award citation spoke of "conspicuous" gallantry, but he returned to New Zealand determined to keep his memories, at very least, inconspicuous.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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