Every year, as spring blossoms and the tourist season gets under way on Crete, several families from Australia and New Zealand embark on a long and special journey to the Mediterranean island. They come to honor the memory of relatives who lost their lives in the Second World War. We meet Colenso Eramiha, a librarian from Auckland who came to visit the final resting place of his uncle and his cousin.
“Four, five, six – here it is!” Walking slowly across the soft grass of the Souda Bay War Cemetery, Colenso passed row after row of graves, then came to a halt and pointed to a gravestone inscribed with the words: “Private T.R. Poa, New Zealand Infantry.” Crouching down beside it, he gently put a finger on the white stone and closed his eyes, as if in prayer. “This is a cousin of my mother,” he said, after a moment. Behind him, dozens of rows of graves stretched all the way to the entrance of the war cemetery in dazzling symmetry. Over 1,500 Commonwealth servicemen, most of whom were between 20 and 25 years old when they died, are buried here.
This relative of Colenso, as well as his mother’s brother, Hani Poa – whose body was never found – were both soldiers in the 28th (Maori) Battalion, which fought in Greece during the Second World War as part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac), alongside British and Greek troops. They were both killed in Crete in May 1941 while trying to defend the island from the German airborne invaders. As it became clear that the Battle of Crete was lost, the Anzacs fought a series of decisive rearguard battles to delay the advance of the German army and make it possible for the allied troops to retreat from Sfakia in the southern part of Crete’s Hania region to Egypt.
As he carefully showed us a black-and-white photograph of a youthful soldier, Colenso recounted the last months of his uncle’s life, when he traveled from Oceania to the battlefields of the Eastern Mediterranean. “He was 19 years old and he had lied to the defense forces about his age to get into the army and come here. He left New Zealand on November 8, 1940, arrived in Egypt on a ship just before Christmas and then came to Greece, to Athens. They defended the Olympus Pass, but to no avail, then they withdrew, leaving Athens and arriving in Crete in April. He died on May 23, 1941.”
Seventy-seven years later, Colenso made the same long journey from New Zealand to take part in the commemorations of the Battle of Crete (May 20 – June 1, 1941) in the Hania region. Dozens of other relatives of soldiers from Britain, Australia and New Zealand, as well as 98-year-old Anthony Madden, one of the last three Kiwi survivors of the battle, also made the trip. We met them as they gathered to attend the commemorative service at the Commonwealth War Cemetery, in the humid and stifling heat. As the first notes of the “Last Post” rang out, the audience fell silent and the ceremony began.
In attending the ceremony, Colenso was honoring a promise he made to his mother long ago. “Before she died in 2010 she used to go on to me about it: ‘No one has ever visited your uncle; you need to go over there.’ But I never really listened.” Two years ago, he said, he started to think more seriously about making the trip, so he asked one of his cousins to help him with the preparations and the project was finally realized. “But we never imagined that we would actually be here, that we would have the privilege of being part of the service today,” he confessed.
The 55-year-old and his cousin May were asked to lay a wreath on behalf of the Maori fighters. Dressed in a dark suit and wearing the New Zealand infantry beret, Colenso stood up from his place in the audience, May by his side, and walked slowly toward the memorial, where several wreaths had already been placed. Holding the framed picture of his uncle in his left hand, his right forearm held out in front at a 45-degree angle, he delivered a eulogy in Maori, his voice gaining in intensity as he approached the cross: “Just rest. You won’t be coming back, but we, the living, will follow you. We will meet again. Just sleep the sleep of heroes.” A traditional way for Maoris to farewell their dead, in a loving and caring way, he explained to us after the ceremony, as those attending the service silently dispersed.
Born in a remote settlement on New Zealand’s North Island, Colenso said he is privileged to be able to “maintain the traditions” of his community. And whether he was talking about the plight of refugees in Europe or the harshness of modern society, his vision of a peaceful world encompasses the concept of “mana,” which forms the basis of the Pacific Islanders’ spirituality. “Wherever we go, we remain individuals. We should never trample on the ‘mana’ of another person simply to elevate our own, whether by violence – physical, verbal or emotional – or in any other way, including depriving them of food or monetary gain,” he said.
Walking along the rows of graves at a military cemetery, it’s only natural to reflect on peace – and to fear that we might lose it someday. When we asked Colenso about the role of the commemorations, at a time when nationalism and the far right are once again on the rise in Europe, he insisted on the importance of remembrance and the passing down of traditions as principles that can guide our actions: “These services serve as instructions for how we should be living today,” he assured us. “If you bury your head in the sand, you are doing society a disservice. It is very important to follow the news, to watch what is going on all around the globe. Because it affects little old New Zealand too.”
As residents of Hania, we had visited the cemetery on many occasions and grown used to seeing it there, nestled at the bottom of the valley – a visual reminder of unimaginable sacrifices. What we had never really grasped, however, is that almost eight decades after the battle, beyond the gravestones there are hundreds of family stories that are very much alive today, thousands of kilometers away from Crete; that the dead are still being mourned, their memories cherished, trips to Crete being planned and carried out. Meeting these “fellow islanders,” (ditto) we had a brief encounter with the enduring and profound impact of war, with the traumas it inflicts on individuals and communities across time and space.
Still immersed in his thoughts and emotions, Colenso had to hurry to catch up with the other members of the British and Anzac delegations. There is a tight schedule for the commemoration ceremonies and the party was due to attend other official events in Hania that evening. Before parting, Colenso cast a last glance at the rocky slopes surrounding the bay, visibly relieved to have seen, after so many years, the resting place of his uncle and cousin: “When I see the hills around us, they remind me of one of the phrases we say for the dead: ‘Let these hills of honor stand proud, I should lie at their feet.’ That is the way I feel today. Because these people here, on this little island, have been the caretakers of my uncle and cousin, and for that I am truly grateful.”
The 28th (Maori) Battalion – created in 1939 at the behest of Maori MPs and attached to the 2nd New Zealand division – fought its first campaign in Greece in 1941 and was later to take part in several decisive Second World War battles, such as the Battles of El Alamein (Egypt, 1942), the Tunisia Campaign (1943) and the Battle of Monte Cassino (Italy, 1944). It was among the Anzac battalions with the highest number of casualties during the war. Of the more than 500 members of the Maori Battalion who landed in Crete on April 25, 74 were killed, 102 wounded and 67 captured during the 13 days of the battle (20 May – 1 June 1941).
Journalist Chrissi Wilkens is correspondent for Greece and Cyprus for the portal Eurotopics. Her Eurotopics colleague Antoine Rossi is a freelance journalist and translator, also based in Greece.