The crowd gathers at the foot of the Waikumete cenotaph in the pre-dawn darkness on ANZAC day. Their flickering candle flames pricking holes in the gloom, beneath the trees and before the serried ranks of headstones for old soldiers, that stretch off into the darkness.
The crowds have swelled to many times their original size as more and more young people, families and organisations come to honour the dwindling ranks of heroes who survived the carnage of World War Two, Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam and more recently Afghanistan.
By the time 6am arrives, there are several thousand people and yet it is hushed and reverent.The veterans of the first great conflict are no more and only a handful remain from the second. Old now, in their late 80’s and their 90’s, they assemble out of sight of the crowd, to march onto the Court of Honour, silently greeting their fallen comrades from so long ago.
But though their numbers are small, the parade itself swells each year as youngsters from schools and youth organisations step forward to take the place of the men who are gone. They impart real substance to the words that will soon roar into the dawn sky, as the crowd says in unison “We Will Remember Them”.
The hush is suddenly pierced by the keening lament of a lone bagpiper unseen among the trees, and in the far distance can be heard the parade sergeant major’s voice faintly calling, “Parade! Parade ‘shun!” just as sergeant majors did all those years ago.
“By the lef’ quiiiiick march!” the voice comes out of the night as the Waitakere City brass band strikes a stirring march. And now the hush around the cenotaph deepens, the crowd seemingly holding its breath, listening for the growing sound of the march, and the steady tramp of feet.
Then “boom!” The silence and the darkness are hammered by the detonation of a cannon, and then again and again. Around the Court of Honour old military vehicles stand beside a garden of giant “poppies” planted overnight by volunteers.
High on a nearby hill, appropriately beneath a pine, members of a rifle party stand ready to fire their own tribute at the appropriate moment, when the Last Post has sounded and the flags have dipped in salute.
Out of the darkness the old soldiers march to array themselves before a stage of dignitaries from the city, from the armed forces and representatives of friendly nations. The hymns float out filling the night sky, led by soaring voice of a young soprano. The priest dignified in his cassock, leads the prayers. The Last Post sounds its mournful voice, the flags of New Zealand, Australia, Britain and this year Turkey, rattle down the flagpoles. A voice speaks the haunting words:
“They shall not grown old, as we who are left grow old, age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.”
The crowd takes up the refrain, “We will remember them” with emphasis on the “will” investing it with sincerity and commitment. A disembodied voice calls the roll of honour of the veterans who have taken their personal Last Post in the past year and the rifles bark.
It seems also in the “up and at ‘em” spirit of reveille, that this ceremony is a remembrance of the fact that life goes on; the flags rise into the air as dawn breaks over the eastern horizon, the wreaths are laid and the parade of old men who have been doing this for 70 years, march determinedly off to the standing ovation of the crowd.