Why don’t we remember the Battle of Passchendaele?
The inaugural Ministry of Veteran’s Affairs Passchendaele Competition was won by Eve Bain with the following entry:August 22,2011
Dear the Minister of Veterans’ Affairs
I am writing this letter in response to your question, ‘Why don’t we remember the Battle of Paschendaele?’ This question has proved a very thought-provoking one over the last two months, and its full significance has required my due consideration.
At first, I found it difficult to understand why the offensive on the Ypres front line was not more well-known. Between June 1917 and February the following year, approximately thirteen thousand soldiers of the New Zealand Division became casualities, and five thousand lost their lives. In today’s terms, that would be a casualty rate approaching eighty thousand. The population of New Zealand was just over one million at this time, and it is not an exaggeration when one says that every person in the country was affected by what happened on those muddy battle fields.
A tragedy should be remembered for no other reason than the fact that it happened. We should not, however, regard the battle solely as a tragic waste of life – a slaughter – for those men fought for the peace and security we enjoy today. The experiences at Passchendaele are something that should never leave a generation’s mind. We shall remember them.
I was ashamed when I realised that I did not know that October 12th was the blackest day of our histoy. There is a sort of stigma around the name of the battle, and I believed I had an understanding, but in reality, I had no idea. I felt ignorant. Time passed, I spoke with several people, and I eventually started thinking perhaps I was not completely at fault as an individual. I am educated under the standing New Zealand curriculum, I attend Anzac Day services, I have studied the First World War in History, and yet I had failed to fully grasp the significance of the Battle of Passchendaele. I struggle now to understand why we do not remember more prolifically, as a nation, those costly months fighting in Belgium.
I have tried, in my own small way, to process what I have learnt about the New Zealand Division and the Ypres offensive. I did this through a series of letters, of which this is one.
With the passing of the last known World War I veteran this year, we no longer have living connections with this period of our past and those events. Like a brain, the more time you see or review something, the synaptic link which allows you to remember that fact grows stronger. We need to create similar links in society, between the mind of our people and that day on the fields of Belgium. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a statement following the death of the last known survivor of the seventy million men who fought in the Great War. ‘His death marks a significant chapter in world history … Mr Choules and his generation made a sacrifice for our freedom and liberty that we will never forget.’
Anzac Day commemorates all those who lost their lives while fighting for New Zealand. The term ANZAC, however, was coined during the Gallipoli campaign, and this national day of rememberance marks the anniversary of the landing at Anzac Cove. We remember this battle; the events and deaths of this assault are stamped on our national psyche. That battle on the shores of the Dardanelles has become synonymous with courage, and the forging of a national identity. But to what is the Battle of Passchendaele synonymous?
As a nation, we did not know how to cope with what happened that day, 12 October 1917. s the New Zealand Army has described the battle, it was ‘a severe military failure’ and our ‘greatest ever human catastrophe’. Two thousand eight hundred men were killed, injured or listed as missing that fateful Friday, and no territory was gained.
At the Battle of Passchendaele, we had lost. Everybody had lost. This was our forces’ first-ever major military failure and we did not know how to cope. Could we be proud? A nation grieving, a nation still at war, we clouded our memory, and so became the blanket cover of something so terrible that we could not talk about it; a constitutional swear. As Glyn Harper wrote in his book, Massacre at Passchendaele: Th enEw Zealand Story,
‘an untold story made the name of this battle one to shudder at’.
This is why I would like to formally thank you for creating and running this competition. Because now I know, and now I can truly appreciate the red poppies of Anzac Day. I can acknowledge the sacrifice made for me. Knowledge is a gateway. There is a Greek proverb that says, a society grows great when [people] plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. These men planted the seeds of peace, a peace that too many never got to witness for themselves.
As John McCrae wrote in his poem In Flanders Fields,
‘Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.’
It is our obligation to keep these memories and these sacrifices alive. So I pose the question to you now, Minister: Why don’t we remember the Battle of Passchendaele?
Eve K. Bain
— BRITAIN CANNOT FOR MUCH LONGER SUSTAIN LOSS OF MERCHANT SHIPPING. GERMAN SUBMARINE PENS MUST BE DESTROYED OFF BELGIAN COAST. ADMIRAL J JELLICOE —
— SUCCESS AT MESSINES. GERMAN MORALE LOW. ORDERED SWIFT OFFENSIVE ON PASSCHENDAELE RIDGE. GENERAL D HAIG –
— HEAVY ARTILLERY BARRAGE FOR TEN DAYS FROM JULY 18. ALLIED ATTACK LAUNCHED AGAINST AN ELEVEN MILE FRONT. TELEGRAM BEHALF OF COMMANDING GENERAL FIRST ARMY CORPS —
Letter to Cecilia Atkinson 6th October 1917
— PM GEORGE CONCERNED AT DISSENT AND CRITICISM PASSCHENDAELE OFFENSIVE CONTINUES WE MUST REMAIN STRONG —
—FLANDERS A MARSHLAND PROGRESS IMPEDED FROM HEAVY RAINFALL DRAINAGE SYSTEMS DESTROYED. GENERAL D HAIG —
— AUTHORISES HAIG PLAN AS LAST PORT OF CALL ALLIES MUST ACT. PM D L GEORGE —
Letter to Phillip Atkinson 17th October 1917
NOVEMBER 6. ATTACKS HAVE SUCCEDDED. PASSCHENDAELE VILLAGE HAS BEEN TAKEN
Letter to Passchendaele 1953