During the school holidays, I embarked on a trip to Europe with nine other students. The venture was funded by the Passchendaele society, Ministry of Education, Student Horizons and the Fields of Remembrance Trust. The expedition was a reward for winning a competition in which entrants had to produce a digital, interactive, education resource for Years 7-10 students. The tour would take us to the heart of the Western front, where 100 years ago, the bloody business of the Great War took place.
Over the course of the trip, we were fortunate to visit France, Belgium and the Netherlands. During our time on the Western Front I was overwhelmed by how many cemeteries we saw. This highlighted for us how close we were to the history we had learned so much about. In New Zealand, one might count sheep or cows on the roadsides, in Belgium one counts pillboxes and graveyards. The sheer amount of fallen soldiers drove home the cost of the Great War in a way that statistics and history books can’t. Our first experience of a cemetery was at the Somme. It was a dour occasion. All that could be heard was the distant sound of farmers shooting carried on the wind. However, once we met our Belgian guide Simon, he changed our perspective. Challenging us to remember we were surrounded by our countrymen.
“Please don’t lower your voices
As if we are in some kind of pain.
I can’t tell you how pleased we all are
to see you come back here again.
There’s no need to stop yourself laughing-
We all of us like a joke.
We used to laugh quite a lot in those days,
Despite all the noise and smoke.”
This emphasises the human element of war; we must strive to think of each headstone as a person that left behind a network of family and friends. How can one be alone in such a place? When surrounded by so many of our countrymen, even such a silent, sombre place— cloaked in tragedy—seems more full of their lives rather than their deaths. In a cemetery, one is never truly alone. With this in mind, it becomes easier to put ourselves in their places; to try and imagine what they went through. If we make an effort to do that, we will most certainly keep our promise, we will remember them.
Our trip began in Paris with a runaway tour of the highlights of the city. It was then off to Belgium, where we spent the majority of our time, exploring the battle fields and bunkers, visiting museums and attending commemorations. We visited Amsterdam on our way home, experiencing the history of the Holocaust.
The 12th of October marked New Zealand’s darkest day with the single greatest loss of life in our military history. On that day, at Tyne Cot cemetery, the largest British Empire graveyard in the world, the primary commemorations occurred. We were treated to the insights of Prince William, Princess Astrid of Belgium and the leader of the NZ Army Lt. General Peter Kelly on the Battle of Passchendaele. Following this, we were actively involved in the inauguration of New Zealand’s memorial garden in Zonnebeke which was attended by politicians like the Speaker of the house and military officials like Willie Apiata. Following the ceremony, the memorial garden in Zonnebeke was officially a little slice of New Zealand and promises to be a landmark for Kiwis visiting the region.
I am immensely grateful for the opportunity I had to get immersed in the history of the Great War and to see the places where that history is wrought into the landscape. Truly, every inch of Belgian soil is inscribed with a wealth of stories, of tragedy and humanity. It was both my pleasure and obligation to uncover them. Such a senseless loss of life should never happen again and if we are willing to collectively learn the lesson our fallen soldiers teach us, it never will. To conclude, I’d like to leave you with another visitor’s thoughts on war after experiencing what we did.
“We can truly say that the whole circuit of the earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”
George V, Tyne Cot Cemetery, 11 May 1922
The secondary students who attended the Passchendaele commemorations in Europe were: Alyssa Mae Pineda, Kayla Kautai, Mairaatea Mohi, Atawhai Ngatai and Keighley Jones from Rotorua Girls’ High School; Alexandra Lay from St Margaret’s College, Christchurch; and Dylan Woodhouse, Tony Wu, Lucy Tustin and Conor Horrigan from St Paul’s Collegiate in Hamilton. (Pictured here with the New Zealand soldier monument in Mesen, Flanders.)
Dylan Woodhouse, Tony Wu, Lucy Tustin and Conor Horrigan’s entry can be viewed here: https://bloodandmud.org/
Feature image: Dylan Woodhouse (middle) and a young Belgian student (left) with NZDF delegation at the New Zealand memorial garden inauguration.