Skip to main content

Anzac Day and remembrance

Page 4 – Passchendaele activities

Case study: Passchendaele: fighting for Belgium

The First World War ‘had a seismic impact on New Zealand, reshaping the country's perception of itself and its place in the world.’ This 'faraway event' would ultimately claim the lives of 18,500 New Zealanders and wound as many as 50,000. Places thousands of miles from home with exotic-sounding names such as Gallipoli, Passchendaele and the Somme were forever etched in the national memory during what became known as the Great War. While Gallipoli has long held centre stage in terms of national commemoration, especially Anzac Day, it was on the Western Front that most Kiwis fought and died. The fighting at Passchendaele was some of the most brutal experienced by the New Zealanders in all of the First World War.

On 12 October 1917, 843 New Zealanders were killed in one morning at Passchendaele, Belgium. This was the greatest loss of life in a single day in New Zealand’s history – almost as many as the combined total of deaths from four of our greatest tragedies, namely the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake, the 1953 Tangiwai rail disaster, 1979's Erebus disaster and the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Why not Passchendaele Day?

Given these numbers, why then do the events at Passchendaele in October 1917 live in the shadow of Gallipoli and go largely unnoticed in the New Zealand calendar? Can a case be made for reconsidering the place of Anzac Day in our national calendar? Look at the material on about the commemoration of Anzac Day as well as the material on Passchendaele: fighting for Belgium to consider how best to commemorate those who died in Belgium in 1917. The activities that follow explore this central theme, so choose which of them best suits your class and level.

1. Letter to the editor

In letters to the editor people can express their opinions and views on particular topics of interest. There are normally guidelines given in the letters page in the newspaper about the length of a letter. Have a look at the letters to the editor page to get a feel for how a letter might read.

  • Write a letter to the editor of your local paper outlining why you believe New Zealand should consider replacing commemorations on Anzac Day (25 April) with a new Remembrance Day on 12 October each year. You should try to provide three reasons why you believe such a change is justified. Make sure your letter is no longer than the word limit specified in your local paper.

2. Class debate

‘Messines and Passchendaele deserve to be as well known to New Zealanders as Gallipoli. This won’t happen while the national day of remembrance remains 25 April, Anzac Day.'

  • Divide your class into groups of four.
  • Two groups are to prepare arguments that support the notion that Anzac Day (25 April) be replaced with a new Remembrance Day on 12 October each year to acknowledge the events that took place at Passchendaele.
  • The other two groups are to prepare arguments that support the notion that Anzac Day remains the most appropriate day on which to commemorate all New Zealand's war dead.
  • Now select six members of the class to debate this question, applying the usual rules of a formal debate with a team in the affirmative, a team in the negative, speaking times, etc.

3. Cabinet briefing paper

Imagine that a conference has just been held that discussed the impact of the First World War on New Zealand. One of the keynote speakers argued that the Western Front, and in particular New Zealand soldiers’ experiences at Messines and Passchendaele, has for too long lived in the shadow of Gallipoli. This historian raised questions as to how New Zealand might suitably acknowledge these battles.

The prime minister was in attendance at this conference and has decided to prepare a paper to take to Cabinet to consider what actions the New Zealand government might take in addressing these concerns.

Imagine you work for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage as a historian. You have been asked to investigate the issue of how to recognise the sacrifices New Zealand soldiers made at Messines and Passchendaele in 1917. You are to present the prime minister with a range of options to take to Cabinet for further discussion. Two possible options the prime minister has indicated are worth examining are:

  • Option A: Replace Anzac Day with a ‘Remembrance Day’ based on either the anniversary of Messines or Passchendaele.
  • Option B: Keep Anzac Day, but add a new day in the national calendar to commemorate Passchendaele on October 12 each year.

Your task is to present your advice to the prime minister on either option by:

a. outlining at least three advantages of proceeding with either option

b. outlining at least three disadvantages of proceeding with either option

c. advising the prime minister, in no more than 100 words, which option you favour and why.


  • Cabinet will expect answers to some tricky questions raised by those who might disagree with your advice.
  • More importantly, Cabinet will look for advice that will make it easy for them to explain any decision to the general public.

4. School assembly

Why not organise your own school commemoration of an event such as Passchendaele? You could organise a school/syndicate assembly, for instance. Here, the significance of the day could be explained, and students could make presentations about Passchendaele and about ex-pupils who were killed in Belgium.

5. The red poppy

‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow 
between the crosses row on row’

So begins Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem, 'In Flanders fields'. Written in 1915, this poem and its image of the red (or Flanders) poppy has been linked with battlefield deaths ever since. People in many countries wear the poppy to remember those who died in war or those who are still serving. In many countries, the poppy is worn around Armistice Day, 11 November, which marks the day fighting in the First World War ended in 1918, but in New Zealand it is most commonly seen around Anzac Day, 25 April.

Some teaching suggestions:

  • Brainstorm with your class what the poppy, as a symbol, means to them.
  • Examine the role of symbolism in memorials and remembrance. What are some of the other symbols commonly used and why? This could be linked to some of the memorials you may have looked at in your own school and/or wider community
  • Should we use the red poppy in New Zealand, given that Anzac Day is associated with the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey and not the Western Front where the ‘poppies blow’? The class could consider adopting a new symbol for Anzac Day and perhaps come up with arguments for encouraging poppies to be worn at a different time of year, for example, dates associated with the Western Front or Armistice Day.

Remembering the dead

If your school was in existence at the time of the First World War (or perhaps the Second World War) chances are that ex-pupils who served in the armed forces have been acknowledged in some way. It might be in the name of a building or a school trophy or award. Perhaps a roll of honour to those who served or were killed while fighting overseas is displayed somewhere in your school.

Acknowledging the sacrifices of those who served or died was an important way for communities to make sense of the human cost of war. Whether they believed soldiers’ sacrifice was for ‘King and country’, for ‘the glory of God’ or enabled their names to ‘liveth for evermore’, most New Zealand communities have monuments that remember the dead.

In you will find a memorials register that has details of over 450 public First World War memorials. This is organised on a regional basis. There are gaps in the records. We invite you to check your local First World War memorial to see if there is any further information that you could provide. We want to add more lists of the names of the First World War dead that appear on the memorials. We also welcome images where these are missing from the register. If you can help, please send your information to [email protected], and we will add it to the register. If you wish to nominate a First World War memorial that does not appear on our register, please include an image and any information about the memorial, such as its unveiling date and exact location.

Use this register to help explore how communities memorialised those who served and died. Some of the activities that follow can be used to introduce your class to this concept or to explore its impact on the school or wider community. They might be posed as questions you could use to brainstorm how you might ultimately explore this theme as a class, syndicate or school. These teaching ideas were designed with the First World War in mind, but if it is more appropriate to your school, they could be easily adapted to fit the Second World War.

  1. If your school was in existence during the First World War:
    • Did any ex-pupils from your school serve overseas? If so, how many?
    • Were any killed? If so, how many?
    • How does your school acknowledge the contribution made by ex-pupils who served in the First World War? Provide a written description or image of the ways in which these contributions are acknowledged.
  2. If your school has an honours board listing those who served or were killed:
    • How prominently is it located in the school?
    • Have your students taken much notice of it in the past?
    • What does it mean to them? For instance, is it ever acknowledged in school ceremonies, for example, Anzac Day?
  3. What are some of the ways students at your school today could acknowledge and remember those former pupils who lost their lives in the First World War?
  4. How does your local community commemorate and acknowledge its citizens who served or died in the First World War?
    • Provide a written description or image of the ways in which these contributions are acknowledged.
    • Can you find the names of ex-pupils on the local memorial or cenotaph?
  5. You might want to discuss with your class the nature of the memorials you have been looking at. Some questions to consider could include:
    • the type or nature of the memorial
    • the tone of the inscription – what is being honoured?
    • the importance of the memorial to people at the time of its construction – why was it necessary?

Turning boys into men

It is a sobering experience to look at the lists that hang on the walls of many schools throughout New Zealand of those killed in the First World War or to see old photos of sports teams and match faces to casualty lists. Schools have honoured, mourned and glorified these ex-pupils, but to what extent must they accept some responsibility for the carnage of the First World War? What role did schools play in turning boys into soldiers?

Consider the experiences of Wellington College under the leadership of J.P. Firth. He was regarded by many at the time as a man to emulate when it came to school management. Schools, he believed, should produce honourable men of good character who would become good citizens. The historian Jock Phillips argues that, for Firth, learning was to be subordinate to character. In Firth’s eyes, the urban world of the early 20th century was a dangerous place where boys were at risk of physical and moral softening.

Yet how do these attitudes and values fit with Firth’s own experiences as the school’s casualty list mounted? He knew each of the 222 old boys who were killed during the war. Personal memories would have come flooding back as he wrote letters of condolence to their families. When the armistice was declared in November 1918, he was observed standing on the steps overlooking the bottom field with tears running down his face. This is not the image of the stereotypical imperialistic school master.

At the outset of war, Firth, like many others, would have had no perception of the scale of suffering his ex-pupils were about to experience. Yet to what extent must men such as him shoulder some of the responsibility for the pain and suffering of so many? Was he a man of his times or a victim of his times?

Use the features Preparing for war – First World War overview and Passchendaele: fighting for Belgium as well as any other material you can find to help you complete any or all of the following activities.

1. Parliamentary speech

Imagine it is December 1909. You are James Allen, the minister of defence. You are to give a speech in Parliament outlining why you believe the new Defence Act that is about to come into effect is so important to the country. In particular, you want to stress the importance of the requirement that all boys aged between 12 and 14 undergo 52 hours of physical training each year as Junior Cadets. Your speech should be two to three minutes long and should have at least three points justifying compulsory military training in schools.

2. Playground conversation

Imagine it is the start of the school year in 1910. You are a 14-year-old boy. It is the opening assembly of the year, and your principal has just announced that your school will be implementing the government’s new requirements that all boys between 12 and 14 undergo 52 hours of physical training each year as Junior Cadets. Up until now, your school has had a voluntary cadet force, and you have avoided having anything to do with it. At lunchtime, you and some of your friends talk about this decision and how it will affect you. Those already involved with the school’s voluntary cadets think it is a great idea. Explain to them why you disagree. Remember some of them are committed to the cadets, so you should consider the fact that they think you have been shirking your responsibility for too long already. See if you can identify three reasons why schools should not be a place where military training of any description takes place.

3. Class debate 

Debate the topic ‘Men like Wellington College’s J.P. Firth were victims of their times and can’t be expected to take responsibility for what happened to so many ex-pupils during the First World War.’

  • Divide your class into four groups.
  • Two groups are to prepare arguments that support the notion that men like Firth have to shoulder some of the blame for the suffering experienced by ex-pupils during the war.
  • The other two groups are to prepare arguments that support the notion that Firth was a victim of his times and in no way can he be blamed for what happened to his ex-pupils.
  • From the groups, select six students to debate this point, applying the usual rules of a formal debate with a team in the affirmative, a team in the negative, speaking times, etc.

4. Writing to those at the front

For those fighting overseas, mail from family and loved ones provided an important link with home and a welcome distraction from the hardships of war. More than 1600 men who had, at some point, attended Wellington College also received a postcard from their former principal, J.P. Firth. Firth had postcards made that showed an etching of the East School, and he used these to write to each old boy. None of these postcards have survived as they were often left pinned to the walls of billets and dugouts in the hope that fellow old boys might pass that way.

Imagine you are J.P. Firth writing one of these postcards to an ex-pupil. What do you think he might say? What do you think these ex-pupils might want to hear about? Write a postcard (100 words) that Firth might have written to a Wellington College old boy during the war.

Examining primary sources activity, Passchendaele

a. Look at the photo of uniformed school cadets in the grounds of the Marist Brothers School at Wanganui shortly after the passage of the Defence Act 1910. Then do the following:

  • In a paragraph of between six and eight lines, outline why you believe school cadets were an important way of preparing boys for the possibility of fighting a war.
  • In a paragraph of between six and eight lines, outline whether or not you think schools today should be expected to make all young people between 12 and 14 years old undergo 40 hours of physical training each year as Junior Cadets. Remember to justify your opinion.

b. Look at the certificate of merit from the Passchendaele media gallery. Using this and any other information you have, complete the following activities:

  • What was this certificate awarded for?
  • When was this certificate awarded?
  • What symbols of nationhood have been used in this certificate?
  • What evidence is there on this certificate of the Anzac spirit?
  • Explain the significance of the image in the centre at the top of the certificate?
  • Who is Captain Leopold McLaglen?
  • In a paragraph of six lines, describe your personal feelings/reactions to this certificate.
  • Given that New Zealand was at war in 1915, do you believe it was appropriate for boys to learn how to use a bayonet while at school? Explain your answer.

Their name liveth forever more activity

Many memorials to those killed in the First World War state that those listed will live ‘for ever more’. A minority of soldiers who won medals or were acknowledged by their school (for example, in the name of a building or prize) have seen their name ‘liveth for ever more’. What about the thousands of others who did not achieve such status? What do we know about them? How do we find out about these people and bring a school’s roll of honour to life?

There are two very useful websites that students can go to if they want to find out more about someone who was killed during the war. These can help people who are conducting some family research or trying to find out more about an ex-pupil.

The Auckland Museum’s Cenotaph database enables you to search for personal records on those killed while serving in the New Zealand forces during the war. It does not show, though, those New Zealanders who served in the forces of overseas nations, such as Britain or Australia, of which there were many. A site that can help find these people, as well as perhaps shed more light on those found in the Cenotaph database, is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Both of these sites are very user-friendly.

How can teachers and students use these databases?

1. Adopt a name.

  • Select a name from the school’s roll of honour, and use the websites (above) to build up a profile of that student.
  • Use these sites to build a database for all of the school’s war dead. This could then be used in a variety of ways. For example, you could map the places where people were killed and/or buried, or you could create graphs showing the dates of deaths or the ages of those killed.
  • Information, photos or other material from the websites could be used to enhance the school honour board.

2. A school assembly could be held on significant days associated with the war, and some of these old boys’ lives could be brought to life.

3. The information gathered from the websites could be used, in conjunction with any school records that might exist, to find out which year group suffered the most. Class and sports team photos could be used to help with a drama presentation on that year group.

Creative writing exercise

For Wellington College, the class of 1909 suffered the most during the war. From that year group, 25 were killed and 32 were wounded. Their average age was 24. As a Year 12 student sitting in class today, can you (or your teachers) imagine, 5 or 10 years from now, going off to fight in a war thousands of kilometres from home or seeing and experiencing the deaths of so many of your mates from school?

These sorts of ideas could be the basis of a creative writing exercise where you put yourself in the shoes of a student in the class of 1909. Perhaps you are writing a diary entry while serving in Belgium in 1917 and reflecting on or reminiscing about your school days and class mates, or maybe you are writing a letter home. These activities don’t need to be confined to Belgium. The feature on the First World War in contains a number of topics that will help you complete this task.

How to cite this page

Passchendaele activities, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated