Lest we forget

Tēnā Tātou te iwi. I recently spent six weeks travelling through the United Kingdom, Belgium, France and Italy with my family. We returned in time to witness the business end of the Rugby World Cup and I must admit to feeling somewhat nervous during the final having jokingly told a waiter in Paris that we would 'see France in the final where anything could happen'. Phew!

One of the highlights of the trip was a day spent in the company of Freddy Declerck from the Passchendaele Museum – Zonnebeke, Belgium. Freddy is not only an authority on the fighting that occurred in this part of Belgium during the First World War but has taken a particular interest in the involvement of the New Zealanders in this bitter front of war. He was a most generous host and his knowledge was certainly appreciated.

Freddy and his colleagues do an unblelivable job in helping to provide 'an anchor point' in their museum for the many New Zealand tourists who visit this part of the the Western Front. The story of the experience of the New Zealanders in Belgium and France has long lived in the shadow of Gallipoli in terms of our First World War narrative. This is beginning to change as more and more New Zealanders realise that many thousands more died on the Western Front than in Turkey.

A couple of years back I was involved in writing the feature Passchendaele: fighting for Belgium for NZHistory. Part of this feature looked at the impact of the war on Wellington College. My day with Freddy involved visiting the graves of a number of the boys I had written about. This was an incredibly moving experience.  It is impossible not to be moved when visiting the many cemeteries which dot the landscape. On a beautiful autumn morning it was hard to imagine the carnage that took place on this pretty landscape of rolling farmland, punctuated by the many church steeples of the various villages and towns. Many memorials and headstones carried messages such as ‘here lies a New Zealand soldier and whose grave is known only unto God'. Others were stark reminders to the many thousands of men who were unable to be given a proper burial despite their supreme sacrifice. Reading epitaphs such as ‘known to be buried in this cemetery’, ‘believed to buried in this cemetery’ or the even more tragic 'here lies a soldier of the Great War’ filled me with as much anger as they did sorrow. It sounds a little clichéd but it is hard to look at the row upon row of graves and not ask the obvious - why?

My experience also confirmed for me how important it is that we examine the impact of the war on New Zealand and New Zealanders rather than merely focus on its origins.

I will be posting a few pictures from the trip in the next little while. In the meantime NZHistory has an incredible amount of information and media for those wishing to study the impact of the war on our nation. As the centenery of the outbreak of the war draws closer we will also be providing more for the school community. Watch this space.

Ngā mihi


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