Crying time

The tears of war

Sam Neill

20 Jun 2015

Last week a woman stopped me in the street here in Sydney and promptly burst into tears. I was aghast. I really can’t say I’m in favour of crying. I associate it with those early days at boarding school: it’s hard to forget an entire dormitory of seven- or eight-year-old boys weeping themselves to sleep. Every night.

Or with those sticky relationship break-ups from the dim past. Enough said…

Anyway, this woman was a perfect stranger, so there was little chance she was breaking up with me. As it happened, she had watched our documentary Anzac: Tides of Blood on the telly a couple of nights before. This covers 100 years of conflict since Gallipoli in 1915. It had gotten to her, and she wasn’t the last — I’ve had more feedback from this than anything I’ve ever done.

In the Antipodes, remembrance of the landings in the Dardanelles a century ago is huge right now. One question I ask in the film is why, of all the battles in all the campaigns in all the wars we have fought, do we in Australia and New Zealand remember this appalling balls-up more than any other? The British, the Irish and the French lost more men than we did there, but have chosen to forget this campaign almost entirely. Curious. One of Churchill’s more hare-brained ideas, it was supposed to result in an easy Turkish capitulation, thereby taking them out of the war. Instead it meant the men being stuck on a beach for nine months at the mercy of Turkish guns and the brilliant Kemal Atatürk. Simply ghastly.

Another question I ask is how all of this affected my own family — and by extension all our families. Nothing special about my family, except we have a lot of soldiers going back on both sides for hundreds of years. British army in the main, so generations of stiff upper lips. My forebears invaded both Burma and Afghanistan twice; they were there in the Napoleonic wars; my grandfather even marched into Tibet with Younghusband. And of course they were also at Gallipoli — I doubt there is anywhere on the planet the British have been where we didn’t have a dog in one fight or another.

So naturally a few relatives of mine turn up in the course of the film, including the aforesaid grandfather: Lt Col Robert Ingham DSO, Royal Garrison Artillery, killed in Belgium in 1917 aged 36. By all accounts a delightfully amusing man and an excellent soldier, he fell for my grandmother while serving in India. He was much taken with her seat — in spite of always riding side-saddle, she could trounce any man at show-jumping. My mother had one startling memory of Bob, home on leave, showing my grandmother his tin hat, thinking she would think the dent from a glancing bullet a great joke. To his consternation, Ella burst into inconsolable tears. She was right — not at all funny. He didn’t come home again, and left her a widow with two small children. Poor Bob, poor Ella.

I never saw my mother tearful though. ‘A soldier’s daughter never cries,’ she’d been taught growing up in Wales. She did however say once, ‘We never cried in the second world war. One worried that if you started, you’d never stop.’ Sterner stuff, that generation. In the course of filming I found Bob’s grave at Poperinge. To my complete surprise I found myself tearing up. Not the full blub, you understand, more a choke and a gulp. What got me more than anything else was the inscription: ‘So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.’ Would it were so, John Bunyan. This was, to me, a direct message from my beloved grandmother Ella: her vision for Bob. Sob.

Ella lived in Tenby, and was the kindest person I ever knew. She had an enormous corgi that was still shell-shocked after being bombed by the Germans at Milford Haven, and thus was unable to walk. Gran, nothing daunted, would wheel the fearful dog around the town in an immense Edwardian pram. People who didn’t know Ella would be somewhat startled to find an orange canine blimp in the carriage instead of a bouncing baby.

Despite losing her darling Bob to the Hun, she ran a humble canteen in her garden for German prisoners of war allowed out on day leave. In return for this simple kindheartedness, she received letters and cards from those Germans to the day she died. Now that brings a tear to my eye…


Close