13 October 2017
In a marked contrast to the weather 100 years ago, the New Zealand National Service commemorating the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele was held in brilliant sunshine in front of more than 2,000 people at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Flanders, Belgium.
The ceremony was held at 11am on Thursday, 12 October, Belgian time.
The Duke of Cambridge attended the commemoration, as did Princess Astrid of Belgium. They were joined by the New Zealand Ambassador to Belgium Greg Andrews, the Speaker of the House David Carter and the Minister for the Environment Nick Smith, Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating, Willie Apiata VC, President of the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association BJ Clarke and Belgian dignitaries.
In the audience New Zealand flags were flown and kiwi badges and pins were worn by many who had made the journey from the other side of the world to pay their respects to family members who served in the battle, some never to come home.
Hundreds of locals from the Flanders region also attended to give their heartfelt thanks for New Zealand’s contribution – a theme that Princess Astrid repeated on behalf of all Belgian people.
Overlooking the fields where hundreds of New Zealand soldiers died horrible deaths in the chest-deep mud, caught in the barbed wire under constant attack from machine gun fire and artillery shells, Prince William spoke of the great resilience and strength of character demonstrated by the soldiers.
“These are the qualities we still admire in New Zealanders today,” he said. “The fight in these fields was of a magnitude and ferocity that is difficult for us, today, to fully comprehend. But while we may never truly understand, we can remember. The memory of those who fell here at Passchendaele has been kept alive for a century by New Zealand families.”
In his address on the “weight of command”, Lieutenant General Keating noted that New Zealand First World War battlefield commanders laboured under a burden that few can truly appreciate.
“They knew that in this dreadful war, no matter how well they planned and executed an attack, many of their men, often their friends and neighbours, would die.”
This sense of burden carried by commanders for the events of a century ago had been re-experienced in subsequent conflicts, he said.
“All that can be done is for the Defence Force to do our utmost to prepare them and those they command for the challenges they will face while serving our country, and ask their families to be courageous in the absence of their loved ones – sometimes forever.”
The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) Māori Cultural Group, who escorted the official party into Tyne Cot Cemetery, gave the ceremony a uniquely Kiwi flavour and the NZDF vocalists and musicians provided a fitting accompaniment.
And then, with the playing of the Last Post, the national service was over. It was noon and by that time 100 years ago almost 1,000 New Zealand sons, brothers and fathers had died on the fields of Passchendaele.
Later in the day, the Sunset Ceremony was conducted at the hauntingly beautiful Buttes New British Cemetery in Polygon Wood.
Six hundred people gathered in front of the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing as the NZDF contingent performed a musical piece entitled Passchendaele. This re-enacted the events of 12 October, 1917, from the artillery barrage to the machine guns, the dead and dying and, finally, the knock on the door back in New Zealand of the telegram boy with the terrible news to a devastated wife and daughter. It was an emotional end to a special day of commemoration.
The 12th of October, 1917, became New Zealand’s darkest day when 843 soldiers of the New Zealand Division died in a failed attempt to take Bellevue Spur. A further 114 died subsequently of the wounds they received that day.
Over the 19 days the New Zealanders fought at the Battle of Passchendaele, more than 2,000 died, with thousands wounded.
Many of the dead now lie at Tyne Cot cemetery – one of 430 cemeteries in France, Belgium and the United Kingdom that are carefully and respectfully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Ka maumahara tonu tātou ki a rātou. We will remember them.