Passchendaele activities

Page 1 – Introduction

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.

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.
How to cite this page

'Why not Passchendaele Day?', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Sep-2017