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A Poem for Passchendaele

Gail Romano
Associate Curator, History

how can they be dying here all morning
faster than two a minute? You start to count
and you find that when you add the wounded
they are tumbling over, like a storm
of autumn leaves, almost as you blink.

Kevin Ireland, ‘A Fine Morning at Passchendaele’i

When New Zealand poet and writer Kevin Ireland visited Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial in October 2019, the reality of the headstones stretching out before him became overwhelming and he reached out for something solid to hold onto. How quickly the lives, hopes and promise of so many had been extinguished; many who had embarked for the war in a fever of excitement and unreal expectation. The poet’s father had remembered he would have done so if he hadn’t still been in school at Seddon Memorial Technical College rueing the end of the war before he could get there and have a go at the enemy himself.ii  

The Tyne Cot cemetery east of Ypres, on the Broodseinde Ridge just south of Passchendaele village, grew around the site of an allied aid station established after the Australians won the ridge on 4 October 1917. The cemetery incorporates German pill boxes, together with the headstones creating a powerful tableau that despite its regularity, restraint and stillness projects the tangible chaos and brutal reality of the events that tore apart the Belgian countryside and took the lives of hundreds of thousands through the years of the First World War. 

you’ll see them stepping out before you,
not real people or ghosts, or even shadows,
but a kind of flickering at the furthest edge
of sight, a disturbance in the mind …

Ireland read his poem at Tyne Cot in 2019 during New Zealand's Passchendaele Commemoration Service. He had written ‘A Fine Morning at Passchendaele’ following an earlier visit to Belgium to mark the centenary of Leslie Beauchamp’s passing, the only brother of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield. But on this visit in 2019 the enormity of the sense of loss was visceral. 

…suddenly the past becomes the present
and you shiver and ask yourself:
how can this be happening…

In November 1918 after the Armistice, Mansfield had written to a friend about her distaste for the celebrations, thinking ‘of all those toothless old jaws guzzling for the day—and then of all that beautiful youth feeding the fields of France—Life is almost too ignoble to be endured…. What is the meaning of it all?’iii The feeling she expressed of overwhelm, of it being too much, was shared by many then and many since. Piet Chielens, coordinator of the In Flanders Fields Museum (IFFM) in Ypres, wrote in 2018 that the Flanders front was a key operational theatre that spanned the entire war. But the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, from Messines in June to November when the Allies finally captured the ruined village of Passchendaele, was ‘a carnage in the mud: a supreme example of senseless war.’iv Belgium has not forgotten.

N.Z. Reinforcements on the way up the line. Road near Kansas Farm. Auckland War Memorial Museum \u003ca href = \"https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_library-photography-18251\" target=\"_blank\"\u003e PH-ALB-419 \u003c/a\u003e

N.Z. Reinforcements on the way up the line. Road near Kansas Farm. Auckland War Memorial Museum PH-ALB-419

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Ireland’s poem remembers the young New Zealanders who were part of the ‘massive waste of human life’ that Chielens wrote is difficult for us to understand could still be possible ‘In the context of the horrendous “bloodletting” battles of the Somme and Verdun, waged in 1916…’ But beyond remembering, the poem is a witness to the otherness of a landscape thick with the whispers of those who will share the experience of days we can never truly know. It is this palpable presence that transforms the ‘landscape’ of the countryside to a ‘place’.

…you’ll cross the gruesome place where so many
young men simply disappeared and you’ll
need to hold your nerve when thinking trenches,
mud and cold and ponds of muck and ooze.

The accepted casualty numbers of New Zealand’s ‘blackest day’, 12 October 1917, are now widely known. During the attack on Bellevue Spur, the ridge leading to the village of Passchendaele, 843 lives were lost in a single day, 1860 wounded.v And yet Passchendaele was seldom talked about in New Zealand until all too recently. IFFM, which ‘conceives itself as a caretaker of the Belgian WW1-battlefield’, has continued to work to identify those who fell on that and other days on Belgian soil. The project is the Names List. The Names List collects the names of all who died there, military and civilian, acknowledging that ‘Belgium once was the battlefield for almost the whole world: people from over a hundred different nationalities, from five different continents … ‘. The List contains the names of over half a million men and women. As at 2018 this included 1798 New Zealanders lost at Passchendaele between October-December 1917, and 5356 lost in Belgium overall between 1916-19.vi

Coming World Remember Me, Koen Vanmechelen. This installation was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the figurines in the form of stooping soldier represent the 600,000 victims of the First World War on Belgium Soil.

Coming World Remember Me, Koen Vanmechelen. This installation was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the figurines in the form of stooping soldier represent the 600,000 victims of the First World War on Belgium Soil.

Image kindly provided by Reinhard Kölmel, CC BY-ND 2.0

The List formed the basis of an installation by Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen constructed to see out the last months of the First World War Centenary. The collaborative art project, installed in the Palingbeek nature reserve just south of Ypres and south west of Passchendaele, honoured 600,000 victims of the Belgian battlefields who are included on the Names List. This park was once the front of the Ypres salient. Named Coming World Remember Me (CWRM), the installation represented each of the 600,000 by a small clay figure in seated posture with legs drawn up and bowed head. The clay was sourced from the surrounding countryside and members of the public had the opportunity to individualise one or more before they were placed in position. Every figure was echoed by a dog tag inscribed with the name of a victim and which was placed in a glass tank bearing the legend ‘The future depends on forgotten memories.’ At the end of the Centenary the public were invited to take a statue each, and some were distributed to museums. The remainder have now become part of a permanent installation at the park. Auckland War Memorial Museum was lucky enough to be gifted one of the small clay figures in 2019 by a Belgian visitor to Auckland. 

First World War commemorative figure, from Coming World Remember Me Installation. Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira \u003ca href =\" https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_humanhistory-object-885123\" target=\"_blank\"\u003e 2019.20.1\u003c/a\u003e Gift of Hilde Coeman.

First World War commemorative figure, from Coming World Remember Me Installation. Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira 2019.20.1 Gift of Hilde Coeman.

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Thus this little figure carries forward the memories of the New Zealand soldiers whose lives ended on this foreign soil, and at the same time evokes those of the hundreds of thousands of unknown men and women of diverse nationalities and ethnicities who suffered the same fate in the same place. It is this similar multilayering that amplifies the power of ‘A Fine Morning at Passchendaele’. On the surface a simple recounting of a personal experience, the poem is at once a specific and universal lament. It achieves what Michelle Obama described as an ‘emotional [burst that can] split time in two, overlaying who we are atop who we were…. seeing at once the present and the past, the outlines still visible beneath parchment’.vii The poem, Ireland says, ‘rambles because my feelings were unstructured and sometimes you just have to let the words go and look after themselves.’ It is that unguardedness that underscores the poem’s power. 

…The whole thing was a shambles,
a disaster, a catastrophe – and our only consolation
lies in little miracles…

The poem ends on a lift that nods to the resilience of life. CWRM arranged the figures of diverse ‘children of a torn world’ as an expression of the large miracle of ‘connection and peace over division and hate’.viii In stillness it encourages visitors ‘to contemplate cultural and national identities, and reflect on international relationships the world over’ in a setting that was ‘one of the supreme killing-fields of the First World War’.ix In words ‘A Fine Morning at Passchendaele’ offers us the same opportunity.  

Mules carrying ammunition to the New Zealand guns on the Western Front. Auckland War Memorial Museum, \u003ca href=\" https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_library-photography-18263\" target=\"_blank\" \u003e PH-ALB-419 \u003c/a\u003e

Mules carrying ammunition to the New Zealand guns on the Western Front. Auckland War Memorial Museum, PH-ALB-419

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A Fine Morning at Passchendaele

On a fine morning, looking out
from a bright new observation post
over the slow and gentle ocean swell
of the Belgian countryside,
you’ll see them stepping out before you,
not real people or ghosts, or even shadows,
but a kind of flickering at the furthest edge
of sight, a disturbance in the mind,
and suddenly the past becomes the present
and you shiver and ask yourself:
how can this be happening,
how can they be dying here all morning
faster than two a minute? You start to count
and you find that when you add the wounded
they are tumbling over, like a storm
of autumn leaves, almost as you blink.
We gaze across a tilled field to the easy roll
of what could almost be a ridge
and possibly something of a modest spur,
then on to a village and not much else
but a scattering of misty barns and trees.
The soil is firm and looks rusty with age
though the air is warm and still and dusty,
and nearby you can buy a meal or a beer.
There is nothing readily you’d call a hill.
It seems a landscape for a stroll,
far too tidy for a battlefield. Yet if, indeed,
you choose to wander down a bit
you’ll cross the gruesome place where so many
young men simply disappeared and you’ll
need to hold your nerve when thinking trenches,
mud and cold and ponds of muck and ooze.
Here you’re forced to face the fact that there
never is a perfect war, yet some seem worse
than others, and the worst don’t get talked about
at home. The whole thing was a shambles,
a disaster, a catastrophe – and our only consolation
lies in little miracles: my best friend’s father
somehow scrambled to the German wire
then back again and never got a scratch.
 

Thank you to Kevin Ireland for permission to use his poem in this post.


FURTHER READING

Kevin Ireland reads ‘A Fine Morning at Passchendaele’ at Tyne Cot, 2019, New Zealand Passchendaele Commemorative Service, Tyne Cot Cemetery, 12 October 2019. New Zealand Pilgrimage Trust Facebook.

‘Battles of Broodseinde and Passchendaele map, Ministry for Culture and Heritage.  

Koen Vanmechelen, Coming World Remember Me Artist’s Statement, on artist’s website.

Alyssa Vreeken, ‘One of Many: The Coming World Remember Me (Temporary) Memorial’, a critical discussion and analysis of the CWRM project on Paratext Academia etcetera.  

REFERENCES

[i] Title poem in Kevin Ireland, A Fine Morning at Passchendaele, Steele Roberts Aotearoa, 2018.

[ii] Many young men must have been quickly disabused of this romantic overlay on the nature of war. In a letter to his mother from the troopship Maunganui in January 1916, Donald Melville Wood Brown (2nd Battalion, Auckland Infantry Regiment) wrote to this mother ‘I hope I get a smack at the Germans’. By June 1916 he was thinking ‘I have been thinking what a damn fool I was to leave home no more wars for me after this …’.  However, for others the excited state of mind persisted. A few days before the Passchendaele offensive Waikato man Charles Stewart Alexander (2nd Battalion, Auckland Infantry Regiment) wrote home to his cousin that he was ‘looking forward to the near future with a feeling of curiosity, eagerness and some other “Roll of Honour” “Weekly News” Spring Grass sort of sensation’, a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. A Roll of Honour lists casualties, and such rolls were regularly published in the Auckland Weekly News during the war. In this sense, ‘Spring Grass’ could be hinting at a reference to a future possibility that Alexander saw for himself: buried under the grass of Belgium. Donald Brown died on 15 September 1916, the first morning of New Zealand’s engagement on the Somme. He was just 16. Charles Alexander survived Passchendaele, one of the ‘little miracles’. Donald Brown letters, Collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, various. Charles Alexander, Letter to his cousin Amy Field. Collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, MS-1992-70-9. Alexander wrote a follow-up letter to his cousin on 3 November 1917 describing his experience.

[iii] Rishona Zimring, Social Dance and the Modernist Imagination in Interwar Britain, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2013. 79.

[iv] Piet Chielens, ‘1917 in Flanders Fields: The Seeds of the Commemorative War Landscape in Belgian Flanders’, in The Myriad Legacies of 1917. A Year of War and Revolution, eds M. Abbenhuis, N. Atkinson, K. Baird, G. Romano, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 224.

[v] Ian McGibbon, ‘Counting the cost of Passchendaele’, 2017, on archived First World War Centenary website ww100.govt.nz.

[vi] Chielens, ‘1917 in Flanders Fields’, 232.

[vii] Michelle Obama, Becoming, Penguin, 2021, xii.

[viii] Alyssa Vreeken, ‘One of Many: The Coming World Remember Me (Temporary) Memorial’, 2021, on Paratext Academia etcetera.

[ix] Chielens, ‘1917 in Flanders Fields’, 240, 224.

Cite this article

Romano, Gail. A Poem for Passchendaele. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 29 September 2021. Updated: 11 October 2021.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/features/Passchendaele-Poem