Farewell old mate TV3, you gave me the most amazing minutes of my life

My phone alarm buzzed me asunder in a French hotel room at 3:30 am, it was rude awakening.

Four hours earlier Newshub camera operator Simon Morrow and I had just finished the edit of our TV news story detailing how the 1st Canterbury Battalion had been almost wiped out by a German artillery barrage near the town of Armentieres in 1916.

Simon and I were both sunburnt and hung-over, having spent an outrageously hot summer's day with one of the world's leading military historians, Andrew Macdonald, as he flew a drone over where the old Canterbury trenches had been blown to pieces a century before.

As far as we were aware, no New Zealanders had visited the location of the Armentieres trenches in decades, and as both Andrew and I had grown up in Christchurch, it was a doubly humbling experience.

Newshub camera-op Simon Morrow, Tony Wright and historian Andrew Macdonald outside Armentieres, 14 September, 2016.
Newshub camera-op Simon Morrow, Tony Wright and historian Andrew Macdonald outside Armentieres, 14 September, 2016. Photo credit: Tony Wright

While Andrew flew his drone, and Simon filmed, I looked around what was now a farmer's field, and to my amazement, I scooped up a handful of one hundred-year-old bullets, bombs, and bones.

I could not believe what I was seeing and touching - the evidence of the absolute horror of World War I was still easily found.

That evening, in a cheap hotel in the small city of Amiens, Simon and I smashed a few beers from the hotel bar as we put the story together, convinced we were crafting a masterpiece of TV news journalism.

But I digress, my phone alarm buzzed me awake at 3:30 am the next morning, it was a rude awakening.

Simon and I had to drive to the small town of Longueval for the centenary of New Zealand's opening attack in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles, the five month long Somme Offensive.

Of the 15,000 Kiwis who saw battle, 8000 became casualties in just 23 days. It was, as Andrew Macdonald once told me, like "Gallipoli on steroids".

We drove through the dark before dawn, found Longueval thanks to Google Maps, and were directed to park an age away from the town centre by a French policeman.

Hilariously, Andrew Macdonald almost drove into us in the dark as we humped our tripod and camera gear up to Longueval, and gave Simon and me a lift up to the VIP car park a kilometre up the road.

At that point it suddenly dawned on me that 100 years ago to-the-very-minute, thousands of New Zealanders were on the same soil about to face likely death or mutilation.

We bumped into NZDF communications manager Jane Keig in Longueval, and decided to walk up the ridge together for the official dawn ceremony beside the New Zealand memorial overlooking the battlefield.

An offering to the gods of history and war.
An offering to the gods of history and war. Photo credit: Tony Wright

We somehow lost Andrew, but I think he might have wanted a bit of alone time, as he had interviewed veterans of the Somme when he was a teenager, and written one of the greatest New Zealand World War I history books of all time, On My Way to the Somme.

As Jane, Simon and I trudged up the ridge, the legendary Somme mist descended, just as it had done a century before, and I'm sure we all started to feel a little bit spooked. I certainly was.

I'd studied New Zealand's many battles in France and Belgium since I was about ten, recreated them in Wellington and Invercargill for two short films, made a personal pilgrimage there in 2014, and had written about them many times for the TV3 website, so to be walking the Somme at dawn on the Kiwi centenary felt like a weird and wonderful summation of my own life.

I had almost died of cancer when I was 26 - and reading about what soldiers endured in World War I played an unwitting part in my mental recovery from what had been very major surgery in a foreign land.

As I walked up the ridge I actually felt as if I was floating, I couldn't feel my legs as such, and the usually heavy tripod I was carrying felt like a feather.

Jane and I shared a couple of quiet reflections, we both understood how special the moment was, walking the same ground where so many Kiwis had done exactly a century before - but they were facing something I've spent most of my life trying to comprehend.

What is life? What is death? Why do we fight wars?

When we got to the New Zealand memorial we found a couple of hundred Kiwis gathered to pay tribute - and the sun was just beginning to peak above the horizon.

In my state of sleep deprivation and exaltation, I honestly believed there were about two thousand Kiwis in attendance.

The ceremony itself was quite remarkable, I usually shy away from dawn services on Anzac Day and the like, I find them too nationalistic and churchy, but this was something different.

This felt truly meaningful, and right at the end of it I bumped into an old friend, veteran Kiwi military historian Chris Pugsley.

I'd interviewed Chris a year earlier, a now-mythical interview at Te Papa in Wellington that went on for well over an hour-and-a-half. I got six TV news stories from it.

Chris agreed to be interviewed for my TV item on the Somme centenary, and we quickly filmed it beside the memorial.

The TVNZ reporter had no idea who Chris was - and remarkably snubbed him.

At this stage no one else was left - so Chris, Simon, Jane and I decided to walk back down the ridge together to Longueval.

Jane grabbed my phone and took a photo of Chris, Simon and I before the trek back. I've treasured this image since.

Tony Wright with historian Chris Pugsley and Newshub camera-op Simon Morrow at Longueval, September 15, 2016.
Tony Wright with historian Chris Pugsley and Newshub camera-op Simon Morrow at Longueval, September 15, 2016. Photo credit: Tony Wright

As we walked back Chris and I talked the Somme and all things World War I. His knowledge and understanding of it is simply incredible, and his eloquent and passionate way of describing it possibly even more so.

Out of mist, Chris's former military history student Andrew Macdonald appeared, and the pair shared what must have been a remarkable and heartfelt chat.

I left them to it, and then remembered the stash of century-old bullets and bomb fragments still in our hire car. There was no way I was going to get those through customs!

Simon suggested we leave them beside Andrew's car, which we did, as some sort of bizarre offering to the gods of history and war.

There was another ceremony later that day, at Caterpillar Valley Cemetery where the New Zealand Memorial to the missing was built. It records the names of over 1200 Kiwis whose bodies were never recovered for burial from the Somme battle.

Compared to the dawn service, this event felt like a complete chore to cover for TV.

Prince Charles' presence at this ceremony almost ruined the whole affair. Many French locals had turned up just to see the future King of England, and their bored children shouted and played on the headstones of the dead, while their parents smoked cigarettes or talked on their phones.

This was as close as NZ media got to the ceremony - Prince Charles' entourage broke all the rules.
This was as close as NZ media got to the ceremony - Prince Charles' entourage broke all the rules. Photo credit: Tony Wright

Prince Charles' arrogant media entourage ignored the requests of the hard working NZDF organisers to stay put in the designated media area, and they constantly infringed and got in the way of proceedings. The whole thing threatened to become a circus.

That should have really been my TV news story - but I played it safe and produced a regular Anzac Day-type 'honouring the dead' kind of thing.

On the plane ride home to Auckland I planned my long-form story on the Somme to be broadcast on TV3's political and current affairs show The Nation.

It would have the music of English alt-rock priestess PJ Harvey and German electronic band Kraftwerk, sound bites from Andrew Macdonald which would drive the whole thing, and a bit of me.

I'd spent most of my career at TV3 wanting to do long-form news, and the two Anzac-themed stories I did for The Nation are probably what I'm most proud of during my ten years there.

It's ironic then, now that I'm employed at TV3 only to do long-form news for The Nation, that I'm calling it quits.

Sometimes you gotta sin to be saved.

Tony Wright was a Newshub producer and reporter for over ten years, here's a small selection of some of his favourite TV and digital stories: