Remembering Passchendaele

By Alison Duncan

As the Passchendaele bell tolled at the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park last Thursday, thousands of paper poppies poured from the top of the carillon over the heads of the assembled public.  They were there to commemorate the centenary of New Zealand’s bloodiest day of battle, 12 October 1917, when 950 New Zealanders were killed or mortally wounded on the Western Front.

Belgium’s Ambassador to New Zealand, HE Mr Mark Mullie, read an extract from a letter written by Private Leonard Hart, that had been written shortly after the battle and got through remarkably uncensored to his family back home in New Zealand.  It described the horror of that day and the feeling of futility that filled the troops after realising the terrible blunders that had led to their miserable failure of an attack.  Also moving were the words of Brooke Kinajil-Moran, representing the youth of New Zealand, who read a speech about the importance of compassion.

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A few days later, I took my family on a steam train excursion on the Ab608 Passchendaele – so named in 1925 in memory of the 5,000 New Zealand railwaymen who served in the Great War.  My four year old son, Jack, was beside himself with excitement at seeing the big black engine belching steam and hearing it hiss and toot as we made our way from Wellington to Trentham and back.

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The volunteers staffing the train handed out cards that told the story of New Zealand soldiers who fought at Passchendaele.  Jack recognised his own name on the card, and listened carefully to the story of 22 year old Jack Langley Braddock, an apprentice sign writer from Wellington, who survived Passchendaele only to contract cerebrospinal meningitis two months later and die at a casualty clearing station on 5 December.

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We imagined Jack Braddock and his mates filled with excitement and bravado as they bumped along in old train carriages, like the one we were in, on their way to war for the first time.  And we imagined them later, wearied, cold and haunted.

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The Passchendaele offensives were part of the Third Battle of Ypres, which lasted from 31 July to 10 November 1917.  In those eight weeks, New Zealand suffered 5,300 casualties, while Australia incurred 38,000.   The remains of many of those who fell were never recovered.  Their names are inscribed on the Menin Gate in Ypres, which records the names of 55,000 Commonwealth soldiers who were killed on the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown.

Passchendaele was a terrible tragedy for both our countries.

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It’s important to talk about these events with our children.  To honour the memory of those lives cut tragically short and the families who were torn apart.  To explain the terrible reality of war and the obligation that imposes on us all to promote tolerance, respect and peaceful resolution of disputes.  And, for our family in particular, to teach my son – who is both Aussie and Kiwi – about the shared sacrifice of our forebears that has had such a profound impact in shaping our national character and our trans Tasman bond.

Lest we forget.

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Alison Duncan heads up the economic and trade team at the Australian High Commission in New Zealand and is currently Acting Deputy High Commissioner. She has previously served in Indonesia and Solomon Islands.

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