New Zealand’s darkest day: visit sheds new light for students

Issue: Volume 96, Number 21

Posted: 27 November 2017
Reference #: 1H9gUp

Ten students who won a World War I Battle of Passchendaele competition have travelled to Belgium and experienced the sites at which defining moments in New Zealand’s history took place 100 years ago. Here they share their reflections on experiencing the anniversary of an event that contributed to shaping our nation, and cost so many Kiwi families so much.

On 7 October this year, 10 student winners of The Battle of Passchendaele competition, made possible by the Ministry of Education, Fields of Remembrance Trust and the Passchendaele Society, travelled to Belgium to attend several commemoration events and experience first-hand the site of the battles they had been researching. The competition asked students to create a curriculum resource about the World War I Battle of Passchendaele for students in years 7 to 10 using digital technologies.

The winners 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 St Paul’s Collegiate, Hamilton students Dylan Woodhouse, Tony Wu, Lucy Tustin and Conor Horrigan.

Apart from attending the National Commemoration Service at Tyne Cot Cemetery and the opening of the New Zealand Memorial and Garden, their 10-day trip included visits to the Memorial Museum in Zonnebeke, Nine Elms Cemetery and the grave of Dave Gallaher – the captain of the 1905 ‘Originals’ rugby team, the first to be known as the All Blacks – and ceremonies in Polygon Wood, Buttes New British Military Cemetery and Menin Gate.

Tony Wu says it was the sheer scale of the battle that perhaps he wasn’t able to appreciate until he found himself standing on the site of so much carnage.

“During our time in Belgium we were overwhelmed by how many cemeteries we saw. This highlighted for us how close we were to the history we had learned so much about. The sheer number of fallen soldiers drove home the cost of the Great War in a way that statistics and history books can’t.”

Alyssa Mae Pineda says she was reminded that, because we left so many fallen heroes behind in Belgium during one of humanity’s most tragic and futile episodes, a little bit of New Zealand will forever remain a part of the land on which these horrifying battles were fought.

“The most memorable event that made an impact on me was the evening sunset ceremony at Buttes New British Cemetery, where our group got to witness a military band perform such eerie and harrowing pieces, to signify the horrific occurrences that the Kiwis faced during their time at Passchendaele. Surrounded by Belgian foliage, incredibly moving waiata and poetries echoed around the audience, leaving us all in awe throughout the entire performance.”

The students also had the privilege of participating in the ceremonies. At Menin Gate, Alexandra Lay and Conor Horrigan laid a wreath at the site during the Last Post ceremony, which was held on 11 October.

On 12 October the students participated in commemorations of what was arguably New Zealand’s darkest day: the failed attack on Bellevue Spur which saw the greatest loss of life in New Zealand’s military history, where in 24 hours there were 2,000 New Zealand casualties of which 846 lives were lost.

The official commemoration was held at Tyne Cot Cemetery. Dignitaries including Prince William, Princess Astrid of Belgium, and the leader of the New Zealand Armed Forces Lt General Peter Kelly shared their personal reflections of the battle and World War I, in which the lives of so many, on both sides of the war, were so pointlessly lost.

All of the students say that simply being there, the land on which the battles they’d researched so thoroughly took place, was an incredibly moving experience. Alexandra articulates the experience perfectly.

“It was a very moving experience, standing where the New Zealanders would have stood on the morning of 12 October. Looking up the hill towards Passchendaele, one can only imagine all the thoughts that those soldiers would have had that day: young people of similar age to me full of hopes and dreams, with everything to live for but probably aware that the odds of surviving the battle were slim. Standing on that piece of ground, I wanted to turn back time and shout ‘STOP!’”

Also on 12 October, the students participated in the opening of the New Zealand Memorial and Garden, which was also attended by distinguished New Zealanders, such as Willie Apiata VC. Atawhai Ngatai, Tony Wu and Mairaatea Mohi were among the speakers, while Lucy Tustin handed out poppies to the dignitaries so they could place them on the Remembrance Column. Along with other Belgian students, Keighley Jones, Conor Horrigan, Dylan Woodhouse, Kayla Kauta, Alyssa and Alexandra held either a flax bowl containing New Zealand soil or a water bowl as part of the ceremony.

Alyssa says their journey was made all the richer because she was able to experience it with students from other schools and gain insights from their guide.

“It was really nice to experience the events along with the other competition winners, as we all had a similar interest about the Battle of Passchendaele. I especially appreciated our tour guide, Simon, who was very knowledgeable about the battle, and through him we have learned a lot about Belgium and New Zealand’s involvement during the war.”

The students also said that the trip enabled them to connect the reality of World War I back to the resources they’d created. Alexandra, for instance, said the winning website she designed will be a richer and more engaging resource as a result.

“As a result of visiting the area, I have a deeper understanding of the scale of the battle and the impact it had. I’m keen to add more videos and photos of the key locations and places such as the model trenches, which we visited in Zonnebeke, and concrete bunkers, which will give people greater insight into the conditions faced by the soldiers. I’d also like to update my Remembering Passchendaele website to include photos from the centenary events and reflections from the trip.”

Lucy says the group was reminded to consider deeply exactly what the fields of headstones really represent, because that’s the only way to ensure that history never repeats itself.

“We must strive to think of each headstone as a person who left behind a network of family and friends. 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.”

Alexandra says one of the most powerful outcomes of the competition, and her trip to Europe, was the interaction that the project prompted with people whose lives were directly affected by the events of Passchendaele and the wider First World War.

“I was amazed at how many people contacted me with stories of their relatives’ experiences at Passchendaele. It was wonderful to take photos of graves, such as [that of] a young army chaplain, Rev Bryan-Brown, from my brother’s school, Christ’s College,” she says. “He had resigned from his position to serve as a chaplain in the army. Sadly, his body was never found, but he is commemorated on the wall to the missing in Tyne Cot. I was able to pass on the photo to the school. 

“I would encourage all New Zealanders who get the opportunity to travel to Europe to visit the battlefields; it’s a very humbling experience. We must never forget these men are not simply statistics or names engraved in stone; each has a story and it is up to us to honour their sacrifice, which continues to speak powerfully to each generation.” 

In Polygon Wood.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:00 am, 27 November 2017

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