25 Apr 2015

'For glory and honour'?

4:53 am on 25 April 2015

Wilfred Owen asked about the passing-bells for those who die as cattle. In World War I the New Zealanders didn't only die at Gallipoli, and soon enough will come the centenaries of even more major loss in France and Belgium.


Messines. Photo: RNZ / Jim Mora

This past week our family's been visiting the battlefields of Flanders. This weekend we'll join other New Zealanders (Hamilton's Herb Farrant leads an annual tour, for example) at Le Quesnoy, for Anzac Day. This is the town which each year honours the New Zealand Rifle Brigade's storming of its ramparts to liberate it from the Germans in 1918.

There's a tour to acquaint us with the boldness of the attack, the mayor will apparently shout us lunch, and on Sunday morning come the more solemn service and procession.

New Zealand troops marching through Le Quesnoy on 10 November 1918.

New Zealand troops marching through Le Quesnoy on 10 November 1918. Photo: Supplied / Ville Le Quesnoy

In that same year, 1918, New Zealanders took part in the great turning-point battle of Bapaume, and from my mother's family Sergeant Joseph McCreanor from the Auckland engineers died there. We'll try and find Joseph in the Bancourt British War Cemetery.

If you stay in the big Northern French city of Lille, as we've done, it's central to many places where thousands of young NZ men died in 1917 and 1918. The Belgian town of Ypres was the centre of the 'salient' where a full 5 percent of all the WW1 fatalities took place - 500,000 people dead, thousands of buildings reduced literally to rubble. Yet there are few mentions of kiwis in the excellent (and deeply moving) In Flanders Fields museum, and it seems that was partly our choice.

The very attractive town square in Ypres looks medieval, but it was completely rebuilt after 1918, as were surrounding towns and villages. Churchill wanted it left as ruins testifying to the madness of war, but he was out-voted. At the entrance to the town is the magnificent Menin Gate, one of the great war monuments.

If there is beauty in war beyond courage and comradeship, it's in the graveyards and memorials that honour martial sacrifice, and on the Menin Gate, more than 54,000 soldiers are remembered. It was so artfully designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield that from the middle of the vaulted passage you can read the names of thousands of men on both sides of the road, without straining your eyes.

Menin Gate

Menin Gate Photo: RNZ / Jim Mora

Circles in the ceiling let the light in, and on a fine day the passage of the sun illuminates the names of groups of men in turn. Every night without fail, whatever the size of the crowd, The Last Post is played. Although derided by Siegfried Sassoon as a sepulchre of crime, it is seen by most as an elegaic tribute to the missing in war, those who were blown into unrecognisability, or simply claimed forever by mud and morass.

There are no New Zealand dead remembered here. Our High Commissioner back then held out against having our names on the great gate; he wanted memorials that were closer to the actual action. So down the road, for example, at Messines, is a beautifully-kept graveyard surrounded by farmland with paddocks of llamas and ponies, and in the Spring sunshine hazy pastel outlines of distant ridges and copses.

If after you die there is any cogniscence of place. then the pastoral peace of Messines would be hard to beat. It's impossible now to imagine batteries of guns on those ridges, or knee-deep mud on the flat land. Men of the Auckland, Otago, Wellington and Canterbury regiments are named here - the Machine Gun Corps, the Entrenching Battalion, the Maori Battalion; 700 died at Messines.

Only some of their tales are known to us now, but many of those are of great guts, mostly without the glory. No Last Post is played here. A few RSA poppies wedged in wall cracks show that NZers do visit. Poppies here are an everyday item, part of the merchandise of tourism: poppy pins, poppy tins, even poppy chocolates.



At Passchendaele, slightly to the north, 5000 New Zealanders died, and another museum remembers them and their last days in trenches where water could run a metre and a half deep and freeze in winter. We know much more about these men's battles now, their history is no longer obscure: Te Ara summarises it very well.

On one of those terrible days, artillery support failed and more than 800 NZ soldiers were killed in just a few hours. There is no sign of that sacrifice on the land any more at all. Anglers line the local river running through the battlefield, the half-completed Passchendaele walkway traverses grassland with trees.

The memorial to the New Zealand Defence Force in Le Quesnoy.

The memorial to the New Zealand Defence Force in Le Quesnoy. Photo: Supplied / Ville Le Quesnoy

These areas of France and Belgium have many memorials in city squares to the valiant dead and those who led them out of their young lives. We have a German friend staying with us and she says, interestingly, that you see nothing similar in Germany. That must be partly to do with the historical shame of Nazism and defeat, but it is strange even so.

Many of the enemy's young men would have thought they were fighting for glory and honour as well, especially in World War 1. Many died as cattle on both sides, as they sought to wrest purpose and meaning from - or more likely just survive - a dreadful new warfare of creeping artillery bombardments, machine-gunning and gas.

There wasn't much nobility in much of it, but there doubtless was - in degrees - in many of them. That big memorial in Ypres isn't about the glory of war at all, it's about its victims.

I forget which writer said your heart stops when you see the Menin Gate. There is certainly a plain power in 55,000 names of missing men, no swagger in the sentences on the stone, just simplicity from Kipling, whom they commissioned brief words from. This should surely have been, as they thought then, the war to end wars, but it didn't take long for it to begin all over again.

At the In Flanders Fields museum you enter electronically your personal details as a visitor, and the database matches you up with people who died, who may in some way be kindred to you.

One of them, for me, was Eliza Kemp from Wellington, a 36-year-old nurse, and evidently an outstanding one. She was killed doing her night rounds of the wounded in a Casualty Clearing Station beside a railway track. The museum prints out short bios which you can take home, so Eliza Kemp's name can travel and stay with me.

They make such an effort here over these memories. If only we could learn more from beautiful graveyards and mighty monuments.