2014 was a whirlwind of a year for many reasons, but none so significant as being part of the Shared Histories project as a Young Ambassador. This role took me to many places both literally and metaphorically that I never dreamed I would be able to experience in my last year of high school. Though the experience of being in France and Belgium is now over, the memories we made and things we learnt will last forever.
I had always considered myself to be relatively knowledgable about WWI and its impacts; I had read books and seen movies about the event and knew a reasonable amount of information on it. However, facts and pieces of information were nothing compared to being able to stand where the soldiers stood before going into battle, or being surrounded by hundreds of white crosses, each signifying a loss of precious life. One occasion that springs to mind which really made the reality of the war sink in was a day when we visited the Thiepval Memorial. It was a scorching hot day so we were all hiding in the minimal shade that the memorial provided and complaining about the humidity. It wasn’t until someone mentioned that we were standing in the location of a former battlefield that we realised the true extent of what the soldiers had to endure. Here we were, in t-shirts and shorts, whining about the heat that these men would have had to suffer through wearing multiple layers of uniform and carrying huge amounts of heavy gear. We all took a moment to think about this, and the horrors that all the soldiers had to live through for so many years; the reality of their nightmare only became real to me after I was able to experience even the smallest detail of it.
Through my personal inquiry into how West Otago was affected by the Great War, I was exposed to a whole new wealth of information about my home community. It really opened my eyes to the history of the area, and has allowed me to view my community with so much more knowledge of its past. The stories that I uncovered throughout my inquiry about local West Otago men helped me grasp a greater understanding of how the war impacted on individuals and their families, rather than simply looking at the losses as a statistic. If there’s one thing that I have learnt from my experience as a YA, it’s that the devastating consequences of the First World War should not be ignored.
This brings me to what is the most important aspect of being a Young Ambassador and part of the Shared Histories project: the sharing of experiences and knowledge. Since returning from France, I have given presentations to both my school and the West Otago Dinner Club, and have been asked to be the guest speaker at the local Anzac Day services in Tapanui and Heriot. It was particularly rewarding to be able to speak to the Dinner Club, as I felt as if I was giving the ladies of the club a chance to learn about the stories that I discovered, hopefully encouraging them to also do some delving of their own into the region’s history. It was very humbling to have people come up to me after my speech to express their interest in my journey and tell me their own familial stories. For example, one lady told me the story of her uncle’s horse, who was sent to war to assist in the fighting. Of the ten thousand New Zealand horses that were send away, this horse was one of the only four who made it back home. I look forward to doing the same to a wider audience on Anzac Day.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to share the experience of being a Young Ambassador with such incredible people. I think it was nothing short of a miracle that all 11 of us YAs became such good friends so quickly; there were no chinks in our chain! I know we will keep in touch for years to come - I have made 10 friends for life. I am also still in contact with my lovely host family from Arras and can’t wait to plan a trip to visit them again in the future. More thanks need to be extended to Glenda, Ruth and Pascale for making our trip possible and providing endless support throughout the year; I am extremely grateful for all the work you put into the project.
This year I am moving from one end of the country to the other to attend the University of Auckland, where I will be studying a Bachelor of Arts with majors in French and Writing Studies. I’m feeling a little bit apprehensive about the imminent change in my life, especially seeing all of my friends from school getting ready to settle into their lives at the University of Otago in the all-too familiar Dunedin, but I know that my upcoming adventure is going to be amazing.
I look forward to keeping up to date with the goings-on at Shared Histories, because this programme definitely holds a special place in my heart. I can’t wait to see what happens with the programme in the future, and am beyond excited for the Young Ambassadors’ Reunion Tour in 2018 (pleease Glenda?).
Thanks so much to everyone for all your support last year; I can’t believe how many online hits my blog posts have had! I hope you will all continue to follow the Shared Histories stories and show interest in following years of the WWI Commemorations.