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Remember the Faces

from the Killing Fields of Flanders

 

Adapted from

Dr Stephen Clarke

100th Anniversary Armistice Day Address

Auckland War Memorial Museum
11 November 2017

Republished with permission from the author


Tēnā koutou i ō tātou tini mate.

Haere, haere, haere.


Greetings to our many dead.

Farewell, farewell, farewell.

 

On This Day 100 years ago – 11 November 1917 – no New Zealanders died anywhere in the world, despite it being New Zealand’s worse year of the war and only a month earlier having suffered its deadliest day in history.

With hindsight, this day was a glimpse into the future some 365 days from now – The Armistice ending fighting on the Western Front at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – but no one on this day 100 years ago would have dared dream of peace in the nightmare that was 1917.

Indeed, 11 November was a paradox in 1917 when the average daily death rate was 15 New Zealanders and on its worse day nearly 850. In total, 5,541 Kiwis died in 1917, over 4,000 in Flanders, Belgium.

These figures are the backbone of History but Remembrance is about names, just look around us today, they mattered then and they matter now – as we remember that these names had faces, hopes and dreams.

Through their stories we can understand where they came from, what they did, and those they left behind. So as we traverse the story of New Zealand at War in 1917, we will pause to remember a few of the many who died 100 years ago this year.

1917

1917 began with high expectations, optimism and determination, with most anticipating that Germany would be defeated before year’s end. The New Zealand Division started 1917 on the Somme before moving to Flanders. However, a special unit stayed behind to play an important support role in the first major offensive of the year – the Battle of Arras on 9 April. These were the men of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, who with tunnellers from Britain and across the empire, developed the caverns under Arras to enable British troops to emerge close to the enemy trenches.

The Tunnelling Company was a unique unit in being handpicked, initially from skilled Waihi gold miners, and with numerous union officials in its ranks, it had a unique ethos and manner, including the use of industrial action to achieve better working conditions.

To help everyone find their way around, the tunnellers gave New Zealand names to places in their section - the northernmost point was Russell, the southernmost, Bluff. Today a visit to the Arras Tunnels is one of the few places on the Western Front where literally it feels like stepping back in time to 1917, complete with carved names such as Isaac Solomon (aka Isaaka Solomona), one of a number of Rarotongans who worked on the tunnels as part of the Māori Pioneers.

 

We pause to remember.

Image (above): Portrait of H. E. Metcalfe. Auckland Grammar School chronicle. 1917, v.5, n.1. Image has no known copyright restrictions.

 

4/1225 Lieutenant Henry Ernest Metcalfe, of Parnell - Henry attended Auckland Grammar. An officer in the Tunneling Company, Lieutenant Metcalfe died in the Battle of Arras on 13 April 1917. The theme for the Museum’s Centenary programme was ‘Courage has many resting places’ and Henry Metcalfe is buried at Faubourg D'Amiens Cemetery in Arras, commemorated at Grammar, and remembered here.

After Arras the British offensive switched to Flanders, where British Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Haig planned to bust out of the Ypres Salient and roll up the German defences and U-boat ports along the Belgian coast. But first the Germans had to be removed from the Messines Ridge to the south.

The Battle of Messines on 7 June was a meticulously planned attack two years in the making. The New Zealand Division quickly captured the town of Messines itself in one of its most successful offensives of the war. Hence, New Zealand later placed one of its four Western Front Battlefield Memorials here in order that its success and contribution to the Allied war effort, at a cost of 700 lives, would not be forgotten. The epitaph on the memorial was penned by Rudyard Kipling – who had visited New Zealand and wrote of “Auckland, last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart” – and now recorded:

"From the uppermost ends of the earth"

Back Home

In New Zealand, the deaths in early 1917 brought grief but also renewed commitment. New Zealanders had great sympathy for “brave little Belgium”, and apart from re-naming German sausage and biscuits in their honour, they raised the equivalent of $100 million today for the Belgian Relief Fund. Mary Wick, for example, sold flowers from her Takapuna garden for the Fund and was one of 33 women to receive the Queen Elisabeth Medal from the Belgian government. 

New Zealand’s human contribution to the war also shifted gear in 1917 with the departure of the first drafts of conscripts. Its primary purpose was maintaining the Division at strength while ensuring equality of sacrifice but conscription also broke the territorial links with soldiers – gone now the bar numbers such as 12/ for the Auckland Infantry Regiment and 13/ for the Auckland Mounted Rifles, replaced with a single number. Men who had identified with their town and region were now fighting as a nation.

While most New Zealanders supported the war, a small but significant group opposed it on religious, political, philosophical or personal grounds. Tainui–Waikato’s opposition went back to the land confiscations after New Zealand’s other Great War of the 1860s. Conscription threatened the broad consensus of support for the war.

Wartime leaders moved to shut down resistance and punish those who refused to ‘do their duty’. In July 1917, 14 conscientious objectors were transported overseas and a number subjected to harsh military punishments in No Man’s Land on the Western Front, chillingly recalled in Archibald Baxter’s We Will Not Cease. The repression of this dissent remains among the most controversial legacies of the First World War. But another is that New Zealand shot its own soldiers too. On 19 August 1917, John King was shot for desertion, one of five New Zealand soldiers executed during the war. 23 others sentenced to death were only saved by the mercy of none other than Haig himself.

This harsh treatment of those who refused to ‘play the game’ was the result, as Defence Minister James Allen confessed,

"… if New Zealand’s contribution to Empire was to count, whatever the country raised, had to be sustained and seen to be still effective when victory was gained …. We have a higher aim, a higher purpose, and I hope at the end of the war we shall reap a higher reward".

This emerging nationalism within a wider imperial consciousness would underpin the decision after the war to commemorate our missing dead separately, lest they be lost again amongst the masses of British empire dead (you won’t find New Zealand soldiers beside British, Australian and Canadian names on the Menin Gate). When it was suggested to have just one day of commemoration for the whole empire on Armistice Day, the RSA argued that ‘Anzac Day is a New Zealand Day, a National Day’. New Zealand’s sacrifices had to be acknowledged for international and domestic needs, with so many grieving families, much the result of actions in Flanders fields in late 1917.

In Flanders Fields

Haig finally launched the Third Battle of Ypres – often referred to as Passchendaele – on 31 July. After several setbacks by October, British High Command was optimistic that a way through had at last been found. The New Zealand Division took part in the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October, tasked with seizing Gravenstafel Spur. On that day the New Zealand soldiers overwhelmed German forward positions, captured 1100 prisoners and helped to extend the front line – another success for the Division recognised with the second of New Zealand’s Battlefield Memorials in Flanders.

In 1917, a successful day still cost 500 lives.

Image (above): Full length portrait of Corporal Gallagher of the 22nd Reinforcements. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 31-G2778. No known copyright restrictions.

 

One that ran up the slope that day was a 43 year-old from Grey Lynn, who had earlier served in the field during the South African War as well as playing on the rugby field at Eden Park for Ponsonby and Auckland, and in 1905 captained The Original All Blacks on their Tour of Britain and Ireland.

Leaving behind his wife and young daughter, 32513 Sergeant David Gallagher enlisted with the 2nd Battalion Auckland Infantry Regiment in 1916 and was mortally wounded on 4 October 1917. He now lies in the fields of Flanders at Nine Elms British Cemetery. Last month, hundreds of Kiwis were at his graveside to mark the centenary of his death, and the Irish too from his country of birth. Dave Gallagher is commemorated at Eden Park and also now at Zonnebeke in Flanders thanks to a statue presented by the Mayor of Auckland last month, and he is remembered here.

Passchendaele – New Zealand’s deadliest day

Now buoyed, British High Command resolved to make a push for Passchendaele Ridge but the heavy rain that started on the 4th turned the terrain to a muddy morasses, rendering artillery support ineffective. The New Zealanders who attacked Bellevue Spur on 12 October – officially known as the First Battle of Passchendaele, so close were they to the main objective – were exposed to German machine-gun fire along unbroken barbed wire with deadly results.

The Division suffered 2,700 casualties, of which, 843 died on this single day making it New Zealand’s worse disaster in history – our darkest day.

In fact, according to recent research, 957 men died on this day and of their wounds during the following three months as a result of the 12 October attack. With the 500 dead from 4 October, and others killed while holding the line (including New Zealand-born nurse Elise Kemp in an air raid) New Zealand’s dead in the Third Battle of Ypres that ended on 10 November approached 2,000 (nine percent of New Zealand’s total fatalities in the First World War). These Flanders fields where today the poppies still grow and the crosses row on row are so beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, also commemorating its centenary this year, were in 1917 "New Zealand’s Killing Fields".

For too long Gallipoli has overshadowed Passchendaele, and indeed the Western Front. The reason is simple; Gallipoli was New Zealand’s first major overseas military action with significant deaths - it’s no myth. If Gallipoli was the baptism of fire, however, the Western Front was where New Zealand grew up. Aucklander Ormond Burton, decorated veteran of both Gallipoli and the Western Front, wrote:

"Somewhere between the bloody ridge of Chunuk Bair in August 1915 and the black swamp in front of Passchendaele in October 1917, New Zealand quite definitely found individuality and nationality".

Last month it was Passchendaele’s time to be commemorated. I had the privilege to be there with hundreds of other relatives and affirmation 100 years on that New Zealanders and the Belgians have not forgotten.

What is the legacy of 1917?

The official New Zealand commemorations at Messines and Passchendaele but also last month at Beersheba, Israel (where on 31 October 1917 the Auckland Mounted Rifles captured the strategic high ground to enable the Australian Light Horse to famously charge) – these three being the most WW100 commemorations reflects the significance of this year. But there are other legacies that resonate with us 100 years on. The New Zealand observance of Anzac Day diverged in 1917 from that of Australia where the celebratory parade of living heroes continues to this day, here conscription meant that the parade became a funeral march to the war memorial as the focus was on the dead; for in death the sacrifice of volunteers and conscripts was the same.

The greatest legacy, however, is that despite the early successes of Messines and Broodseinde it is the disaster of Passchendaele that dominates our modern memory of 1917, and indeed the Western Front, just as it contributed to the great shadow that came over New Zealand society after the Great War. Author and soldier John Mulgan captured it best just before he took his own life at the end of another World War,

"We had never, in fact, outgrown the shadow of that earlier war, which our fathers had fought. It brooded over our thoughts and emotions…We felt the tragic waste and splendor of this first Great War, and grew up in the wasteland that it produced".

 

Looking forward to Armistice Day 100 and beyond

The 100th anniversary of The Armistice provides the greatest opportunity in a generation, maybe several, to discover, engage and remember World War One. Community and creativity have been the stand out contributions of the Centenary everywhere; and here the Museum’s Online Cenotaph database has created its own rich online community while the new educational space Pou Kanohi makes a creative connection with a new generation.

My hope for this final year is that we find ways to engage with the German experience of the war; a collaborative remembrance project would be a fitting finale for Armistice Day 2018. And as we approach the end of WW100 we need to think about how, beyond official commemoration, remembrance in the future will talk to us as Kiwis, both old and newly arrived.

The 80,000 soldiers and nurses who returned home set about re-building their lives and making the best New Zealand as an Eternal Memorial to those they left behind. The three architects of this magnificent Memorial Museum were all returned soldiers that literally built one.

So on this day, let us be thankful for the peace we enjoy in Aotearoa, celebrate the achievements of our World War One generation, and dedicate ourselves to making the best New Zealand.

That’s how we can truly honour them.

Ka maumahara tonu tatou ki a ratou.

We will remember them.


 

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References

 

David Gallagher's image

Isaac Solomon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Elisabeth_Medal

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Haig,_1st_Earl_Haig

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Passchendaele

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flanders_Fields