A New Zealand Memorial and Garden has opened at Zonnebeke, Belgium, in time for the 100th anniversary commemorations of the country’s darkest day in World War I. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place surrounded by tall trees in one of the ‘petals’ of a larger memorial for all those who died there – including German soldiers. It’s also a departure from the style of tributes in the 1920s to the ‘glorious dead’, with a century of perspective. 

On October 12, 1917 at Passchendaele, in a futile push towards German lines, 846 New Zealand soldiers died in a single day. Stuck in the mud, they were mown down by enemy guns mounted in concrete pill boxes. The names of the dead are engraved as heroes on every war memorial in every town in this country, but Passchendaele Society director Greg Hall argues they are no more heroes than those who survived and had to come back and pick up their lives. “What’s the difference between someone who performed bravely and came home, and the person who probably ran into a burst of German gunfire, and didn’t [come home]? The ones who lived came back to a country that wanted to forget about the war as quickly as possible. They were forced into the pubs etc where they told their stories when they were together. The country didn’t want to recognise them. 

“These men held in their heads the truth of what happened. The truth was it wasn’t glorious.”

Words like ‘sacrifice’ and ‘nationhood’ also bother Hall. “It wasn’t World War I that defined New Zealand as a nation, things were happening before and happened since then. The way we have addressed colonialism of the country; its social legislation. The war was certainly part of that history.” 

He argues the language of those war memorials – the “glorious dead”, “honour” and “sacrifice” – is very much the language of the time. “New Zealand sent 100,000 men away. We had 57,000 casualties, 18,000 killed. The population at the time was only a million. The impact was not only devastating but it also happened on the other side of the world. The chances of a mother visiting her son at a named grave were pretty remote. 

The garden’s concrete column has a penetration for every wounded man. Photo: Eric Compernolle/Passchendaele Society 

“The only way you could explain to a mother in New Zealand why her son had died, or give families some form of comfort, was by saying that this man had died for some sort of glorious crusade. The government and churches captured the World War I narrative through the monuments …. explaining the expense in lives to the people of New Zealand by casting it in these heroic terms.

“I think what we are doing now is questioning that narrative. These days we are more concerned about the truth. I don’t think the men who died would consider themselves to be heroes. They were very brave and courageous men. They turned from being labourers, farmers, doctors and lawyers and so on into an army and they performed extremely well, there’s no doubt about that. But they wouldn’t have called themselves heroes.” 

Hall says while he respects traditional forms of commemorations, modern memorials are more likely to be captured in art, literature, music, dance and poetry. (That includes Hall’s own best selling book, Good Sons, published in April.) The truth about war from those who lived through it was written at the time by poets such as Wilfred Owen, in his famous ‘Dulce et decorum est’ – where he describes the true horror of the experience and ends with ‘The old Lie; Dulce et decorum est, Pro patria mori. (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.) 

The Passchendaele Society is also behind a visit to Belgium by a group of 15 school children who won competitions to go to the commemorations. Hall says it’s good that fresh minds are looking at what happened. “I don’t think people these days are going to be fooled by the language that used to be used to describe World War I – they are more likely to see the whole thing as the disaster that it was,” he says. “Exploring conflict through art forms and books – people telling the truth about it is extremely important.

“World War I in particular was such a complex issue. It was termed at the time as the Great War … but the whole thing was utter madness, exemplified by the battle for Passchendaele, or the third battle of Ypres. Because the whole battle cost something like half a million casualties almost equally spread on both sides, German and British, over five to six miles of ground gained.” Eventually, on November 6, Passchendaele was taken by the Canadians. 

“Eight hundred and forty-six is not a big number when you think about it: it’s an eight and a four and a six. But scroll through the names of those people…”

The Tyne Cot Cemetery at Passchendaele is the largest Commonwealth War grave anywhere, with 12,000 plots. Many of the markers simply say “a soldier of the Great War”. At nearby Menin Gate in Ypres are inscribed 54,000 names of the missing. The words again, ‘for the Glory of God’, for ‘King and for Country’. Every night, still, the Last Post is played at the Gate. There will be a special ceremony on October 11 for New Zealand, featuring Dave Dobbyn. 

The new garden has been in the wind since Helen Clark was Prime Minister and entered into an accord with the Belgian government. It was designed by Auckland-based Cathy Challinor after she won a competition run by the Passchendaele Society. Every single part of it was shipped in containers to the site from New Zealand, and built with huge attention to detail. It features native birds in steel silhouettes, and includes a concrete tube with 2700 penetrations in it to represent all the New Zealand casualties, and 846 brass discs to represent every soldier killed on October 12. 

“Eight hundred and forty-six is not a big number when you think about it: it’s an eight and a four and a six. But scroll through the names of those people … all those names actually killed on the 12th.” 

NZ Artillery in action, firing from shell holes at Kansas Farm on the Ypres Salient, circa October 12, 1917. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

Hall does exactly that and there is Hawke: John Martin. My great-grandfather. Private Hawke was 33, from Otago Regiment. He knew his wife was expecting a child, but was killed before the baby (my grandmother) was born. The documents lodged with New Zealand Archives tell his story – a farmer, he enlisted in 1917 (he was a volunteer), embarking on the Wilochrra – one of a fleet of troop ships that made continuous trips to England and back. He joined his battalion on October 9 and three days later was killed in action on the attack on Bellevue Spur.  Or at least, it was “reasonable to suppose” he was killed that day, as his body was never found. 

“He was unlucky,” says Hall. Of the New Zealand losses in World War I, 25 percent were in Belgium, most at Messines on June 7, and at Passchendaele on October 4 and 12. New Zealand troops were bogged down in acres of mud for months and months, so in a way Private Hawke was lucky – he only had three days of hell before dying. Another 150-200 men died over the next days and weeks. When I go to Belgium for the commemorations on the 12th, I will, in a literal sense, be walking on the bones of my great-grandfather. 

There is no doubt I will be welcomed as a New Zealander, with most Belgians still hugely appreciative of what our country did for them in Flanders Fields, after coming from so far away. Hall says another factor is the huge amount of money New Zealand raised during the war for Belgian refugees. “It’s not really appreciated in this country,” he says, referring to the affection Belgians still hold for Kiwis. 

Kiwis haven’t really appreciated how significant this battle with the un-spellable name is either – hanging our war stories instead on Gallipoli, where there were fewer casualties. Hall points out that in Turkey New Zealand was the aggressor, invading a country that, in spite of what we tried (and failed) to do there, still welcomes us back as pilgrims. “In France and Belgium, they had already been invaded and we went in there to try to stop the aggressors.”

He says the history of Anzac Day goes back to 1916, when, a year after the landings there, returned soldiers put on the pressure for a national commemoration day. “The government wasn’t keen – it didn’t want to publicise Gallipoli as it was a spectacular failure – but April 25th was then used for war recruiting. Conscription was introduced in 1916 as there weren’t enough men in the ranks. The chances of undoing something that was legislated 100 years ago I would say are zero percent.”

I’m not dragging my 24-year-old along. A century ago he probably would have been there without me, fighting in the mud. He won’t be fooled by the language of war. 

And yet, as historian Steve Watters points out in his argument for a ‘Passchendaele Day’, 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; the 1931 Napier earthquake, the 1953 Tangiwai rail disaster, 1979’s Erebus disaster and the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Hall says the Passchendaele Society wants to remind people that World War I was not just about Gallipoli, with all the myths that have built up around it. Unlike that centenary event, the ceremony at Tyne Cot on October 12 didn’t have to be balloted because of a clamour to attend. Hall estimates about 500 New Zealanders will be there for the commemoration. A special barbecue will be held afterwards on the Memorial Museum grounds, and for the occasion the Zonnebeke Church Dugout, an underground complex dug by the Allies beneath the foundations of a former church, will be open for tours. 

The day will end with a sunset ceremony in Buttes New British Cemetery in Polygon Wood. That’s where the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing for those 388 New Zealanders who were killed in the area between September 1917 and May 1918, and who have no known grave, is located. The cemetery has 95 known New Zealand graves. But there are 1600 unknown soldiers also  buried there. 

My mother, my son and I will attend, three generations for a man we never knew, but whose absence cast a grim shadow on the family. My mother was born during the next great conflict, her father off fighting in the Pacific, her mother not knowing if she would be repeating family history by becoming a widow at an early age. (Grandad came back and lived to 97.) I’m not dragging my 24-year-old along – this was his idea. A century ago he probably would have been there without me, fighting in the mud. He won’t be fooled by the language of war. 

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