In April 2012 Jeff Tobin travelled with a group of NZETC descendants and supporters to visit the Western Front. The main reason for Jeff's trip was to visit the grave of his Great Uncle, 4/1639 Sapper Michael Tobin, NZETC, the first NZEF death on Western Front This is Jeff's account of his journey written shortly after his the service at Michael's grave side and just prior to ANZAC Day. While on the Somme Jeff also visited Rossignol Wood where his Grandfather William Tobin, Michael Tobin's brother, fought and was severely wounded in action in July 1918.
Dear Family, friends and supporters,
With ANZAC Day upon us I have put together just a few words and a selection photos mainly around Uncle Michael Tobins service for you to have a look at. These photos have been supplied by Brett Killington our official photographer.
This ANZAC dawn parade will certainly be different for me having just returned from those battlefields in Europe with a much deeper understanding through having had the experience of this trip as I am sure it will also be for my fellow traveling companions.
The day of the 9th April started before dawn at Carriere Wellington where the Battle of Arras Day (BOA) commemorations were held. The NZ Tunnellers played a big part in this, preparing miles of underground tunnels for over 24,000 British troops to attack the Germans from behind their own lines, pushing them back and saving the town. The caves were extraordinary, many reminders of the NZers having been there for some time for example, names as Nelson and Wellington written on walls to point the direction to different areas of the caving system.
We met NZ Ambassador to France her Excellency Rosemary Banks and her husband Brian Lockstone, at the dawn service, had met Brig. 'Lofty' Hayward the night before, you feel at ease straight away with these good folk.
The forecast was for rain and warming up to 8 degrees, so wore two singlets that I had bought over here, under my shirt and jacket which was a good move. The weather held for the dawn service, which was both in French and English, all the national anthems were played, some of our descendents were involved in the ceremony and read letters from their family who were original tunnellers, very moving and all spoke well, we also did some wreath laying, after the service and some light refreshments, we then set up the road and placed a wreath at the NZ Arras memorial and it started raining, enough to get you real damp, despite some small umbrellas we bought the other day, a sign of what we were in for later in the morning as this was setting in.
After a quick break at the hotel we set off, several car loads of us for Beauval Community Cemetery. The weather was getting worse as we got closer. The significance of this is I am told is that when you do a karanga, calling the spirits, the perfect scenario is that it rains, the rain is seen as a sign of 'tears from heaven'. I did pray for it not to be raining at the service.
We all disembarked and Lofty and Rosemary were already there, some little old French woman drove up and beeped at us but she ended up coming along, I think she was some official capacity at the cemetery.
We formed a formal procession and we walked slowly, umbrellas aloft, Raina and the women at the front, men at the back, David Mashiter another tall gentleman, Clare's husband, held an umbrella over both our heads as I held the picture of Uncle Michael in front of me,
Raina led the procession with the eerie karanga calling the spirits, we must have walked 120 yards, and during this time Raina also did the wailing which was awesome for want of a much better word.
As the speeches started the rain stopped! The gods turned off the tap and it stayed off, just how it is supposed to be apparently in Maoridom at such an occasion.
Stuart Park started the speeches with a mihi, a short Maori welcome speech and Raina responded as protocol required with a short waiata. I can't help but embrace this formal Maori protocol at such an occasion, it makes you feel so special as the others are doing this out of respect for Michael and us his family, plus its classic Kiwiana so far from home, makes you proud to be a Kiwi for sure. John then said the Ode and I laid the first wreath, Wreaths were also laid by Rosemary, Lofty, and Clare who is also a descendent on behalf of the McLellan and Baxter families, and a wreath was laid by Mike on behalf of the NZETC, there were five wreaths all up, Uncle Michael was spoilt, as he should be. ( In honoring Michael Tobin the first death on the western front in the NZEF, we honour all the NZETC soldiers and all those that served and died on the Western Front, I did not see this just as a Tobin thing, it is important that the sacrifices of all those are remembered and in being lucky enough to find uncle Michael and remembering him as the first NZ death on the western front in the NZEF, we help remember and honour all of those that served.)
Rosemary then spoke followed by Lofty, what great speakers and such empathy. I then did my bit and did good, Anne the words that you gave me to read out on your and the Baxter familys behalf were perfect for the ceremony and the moment and added value to what I said. Afterwards I was congratulated for how the ceremony was organised and went, including Chris Pugsly the renowned military historian and author, who with his wife Dee came in their own car and left for their home in England after the service. After I spoke Raina did the Lords Prayer in Maori and that was it. Then the rain started again, just as it was supposed to, although to be honest we could have done without it!
I am most thankful to all those that contributed to the day on the ground, Sue back in NZ and in particular my sincere appreciation for my traveling companions Raina, John, Stuart, Deborah and Mike for their part in helping make this ceremony and everlasting wonderful memory for me. It goes without saying that having Rosemary and Lofty there was something extra special again.
So much more to tell and of the places we visited, to be frank it was emotionally draining, all those battles, the history, so many graves, so much waste of human life, but nevertheless a trip that I am glad that I made.
Lest we forget, and may we in remembering such human devastation, hopefully as a race of beings, we do not repeat it, ever.
My best regards to all.
Enjoy your ANZAC Day.
More photos and brief reports from specialist tour guide Simon Godly on the Battle of Arras commemorations and the visit to Sapper Michael Tobin's grave. These links will take you outside the nzetc website.