Crete 1941: an epic poem
by Bernard Cadogan
Australia has ‘The Great South Road’, South Africa has ‘Shaka Zulu’, Argentina has the gaucho epic ‘Martin Fierro’, and Chile has ‘La Araucana’ as its national poem. Now New Zealand has Crete 1941, a 2475-line epic poem about the New Zealand-led defence of Crete during the Battle of Crete between 20 May and 1 June 1941.
Crete 1941 joins Anthony Kellman’s epic of Barbados, Limestone, as one of the two major epic long poems in English since Derek Walcott’s ‘Omeros’; with the entry of the 28th (Māori) Battalion providing the culmination of the poem.
As geopolitical tensions rise in the Pacific today, it’s timely to look back to when New Zealand last went to war and defended another small nation – Greece – on its last redoubt, in a battle that ended in a Dunkirk-style evacuation.
More than just a war story, Crete 1941 brings women back into the historic struggle for Crete. The poem is a life-changing reflection on the virtue of good small nations, on the contribution of indigenous people such as Māori and Cretans to international developments, and on the fragility that both peace and its disruptors share.
In this poem, Bernard Cadogan tells the story of what small nations such as Greece and Aotearoa New Zealand have had to do to uphold international law, and of the extraordinary extent which indigenous citizenship, such as Māori possess, contributes to the international personality of a country.
The defence of the island of Crete in the second world war was a mission which Allied forces could have won. The failure to repel the German landings embroiled Cretans in more than three years of bitter occupation.
It is astonishing, in retrospect, that New Zealanders led the defence of the island against a great power such as Germany. Crete is where the famed 28th (Māori) Battalion found its feet in battle. Sfakia on Crete is where the revolutionaries began the struggle for a Hellenic republic in 1821, while in 1941 it was where Allied troops were evacuated from; New Zealand’s Dunkirk.
This poem presents a story which both Greeks and New Zealanders need to recover for themselves from the myths that British writers have created around the Battle of Crete.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in New Zealand in 1961, Bernard Cadogan is an accomplished poet, philosopher and historian. Since 1996, he has worked as a political advisor and speech writer, in particular as the NZ prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser, and has been a consultant to the New Zealand treasury since 2011. He was appointed an honorary advisor to the Māori king in 2015.
He is especially interested in the philosophy of Paul Ricœur, John Rawls and Charles Taylor, and his current focus is on postcolonial thought, the formation of empires, and the resilience, relevance and viability of small nation states. Bernard holds a DPhil from Oxford University on the political thought, constitutionalism and racial policy of Sir George Grey (1812–98) in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Bernard lives in the Cherwell Valley, near Oxford, with his wife Jacqueline and their children.
Main photo: New Zealand soldiers in an olive grove on Crete. Bill Spence (front left), Billy Moran (front right). Rowe, EKS, active 1941. Ref: DA-11032. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22513826
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