Passchendaele Commemoration Address II

Posted on November 7th, 2012

Speech by Professor Glyn Harper QSM 



Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, The Honourable Nathan Guy

The Honourable Phil Goff

Councilor Mike Lee, Auckland Council, representing the people of Auckland

Members of the Diplomatic Corps

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you to the Passchendaele Society for inviting me to speak on this important occasion – the 95th Commemoration of the battle of Passchendaele. As many of you will know, Passchendaele was New Zealand’s worst ever military disaster. More New Zealanders were killed/maimed in a single day – actually in just a few hours – than on any other.

Occurred 12 October 1917 – 95 years ago TODAY.

Until relatively recently, and for far too long, the New Zealanders at Passchendaele was an untold story. I think we are slowly getting better at remembering our military past. We still have a way to go though.

‘A Soldier of the Great War, known unto God’. This is the inscription carved onto the headstones of unidentified soldiers of the First World War buried in the multitude of Commonwealth War Graves across northern France and southern Belgium. The inscription had been devised by Rudyard Kipling whose son John (Jack) was killed in action and until recently, had no known grave. As renowned British historian the late Richard Holmes noted: ‘Contemporaries instinctively called it Great: La Grande Guerre, Weltkrieg, and we can easily see why.’[i]

In the history of the twentieth century, the First World War, or ‘The Great War’ as some still call it, can be regarded as the ‘most important and far-reaching political and military event of the century’.[ii] As Holmes indicates above, the reasons for this are clear. For the first time in history a war touched the lives of millions of people across the globe. It brought Americans, Australians, Canadians, Africans, Asians and New Zealanders and many others to parts of the world they otherwise would never have seen. Very few New Zealanders at the turn of the century even knew where Gallipoli or Passchendaele was and the thought of going there, if given the opportunity, would never have crossed their minds. Few New Zealanders, too, would have ever made their way to the Middle East, Northern France or Belgium but for the war of 1914-18. This war brought New Zealand soldiers, and many others like them, to these places in their thousands. The First World War then was truly an ‘international story with unprecedented sweep’.[iii] It changed the lives of millions of people on a scale never witnessed before and New Zealand, despite its isolation, was caught up in the whirlwind.

Then there are the casualties. As the British historian Professor John Bourne has noted:

At the heart of all British perceptions of the First World War lie the casualties. These were massive and unprecedented in the British national experience. It was the casualties which made it “the Great War.”[iv]

New Zealand’s casualties too were ‘massive and unprecedented’. From a population of just over a million people, 124,211 New Zealanders served in the armed forces during the war and some 102,438 Johnny Enzeds embarked for overseas service. This was around 45 per cent of New Zealand males aged between 18 and 45. It was also more than ten per cent of the entire New Zealand population.[v] This was a staggering effort leading one British historian to note that New Zealand’s contribution to the First World War was ‘second to none’.[vi] As a result New Zealand casualties were also staggering, with its war deaths the highest per capita of all the British Dominions.[vii] Some 59,483 New Zealanders became casualties during the war with more than 18,166 being killed in action or dying from wounds, accident or disease. This was almost twice the number of the New Zealand casualties of the Second World War in which more New Zealanders served and which lasted two years longer. The First World War remains New Zealand’s costliest military endeavour; in terms of suffering and sacrifice it is indeed our Great War. And this is measuring it only by the physical scars it inflicted. As in any war, casualties were not just limited to the dead and wounded.

And Passchendaele – October 1917 – is central to the New Zealand experience.

On 4 October, the New Zealanders took part in the battle of Broodseinde – described as a stunning success. New Zealanders and Australians took all their objectives for a cost described by the New Zealand historian as “not excessive”. In fact, in a battle where everything had gone according to plan, the casualty rate was 25 per cent, or one in four of those who took part. One of the 350 KIA was Dave Gallaher – Auckland resident and Captain of the 1905 “Original” All Blacks.

The disaster of 12 October, a battle which should have never gone ahead, was much worse. Some units experienced casualty rates over 80 per cent. In the space of a few short hours on that dismal morning:

846 New Zealand soldiers KIA

2700 wounded

138 would die of wounds over the next week.

These were men with families, children, loved ones back in New Zealand. Indeed one New Zealand family, the Newloves from Takaka, lost three members. Leonard – KIA – 4 October. Brothers Edwin and Leslie KIA on 12 October.  Not one of the Newlove boys has a known grave.  No family ever recovers from the loss of a loved one. We can only ponder how Mrs Mary Ann Newlove, the mother of three sons killed at Passchendaele, was ever able to cope with this terrible tragedy.

War is certainly the destroyer of families and Passchendaele destroyed more New Zealand families than any other military action in our history.

I would like to finish this address today with the words and actions of a senior US commander who fought in Italy during the Second World War. This comes from my research for a book on the Monte Cassino battles. The parallels between Monte Cassino and Passchendaele are striking. Occurred to many at the time, including General Bernard Freyberg, the New Zealand commander.

  • Difficult climate: especially the incessant rain and the deep mud it produced
  • Hostile terrain – with the enemy always on the high ground
  • Many poor command decisions
  • Abandonment of proven military tactics

Never think for one moment that military folly is confined to just the First World War.


One few commanders to emerge from Cassino/Anzio battles with distinction was Major General Lucien Truscott. Truscott, was described by the senior US commander in the Mediterranean, Jacob Devers, as the ‘finest army combat commander of the Second World War”. Many others, including Eisenhower, have concurred with this verdict. Truscott’s sensitivity and sheer decency can be seen in a well-known event that occurred towards the end of the war. Asked to make the Memorial Day address in Italy in 1945 the newly appointed Fifth Army commander turned his back on all the dignitaries seated before him and spoke directly to the dead in the nearby military cemetery. According to several reports Truscott:

 apologized to the dead men for their presence here. He said everybody tells leaders it is not their fault that men get killed in war, but that every leader knows in his heart that this is not altogether true. He said he hoped anybody here through any mistake of his would forgive him, but he realized that was asking a hell of a lot under the circumstances. … he would not speak of the glorious dead because he didn’t see much glory in getting killed in your late teens or early twenties. He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought that it was the least he could do.[viii]

Truscott was right. There is no glory in death in battle as Passchendaele clearly shows.

And the least we can do is to remember that and to ensure that such sacrifices/losses and the events that caused them are never forgotten.

Thank you


[i] Holmes, Tommy, p.xvii.

[ii] Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, BBC Books, London, 1996, p.361.

[iii] Winter and Baggett, p.11.

[iv] John Bourne, Britain and the Great War 1914-1918, Edward Arnold, London, 1989, p.1.

[v] Glyn Harper, Letters from the Battlefield, HarperCollins (NZ), Auckland, 2001, p.12.

[vi] Peter Simkins, ‘Everyman at War: Recent Interpretations of the Frontline Experience’, in Brian Bond (ed.), The First World War and British Military History, Claredon Press, Oxford, p.309.

[vii] For per capita figures of the war dead see Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War, Penhuin Books, London, 1998, p.299.

[viii] quoted in D’este, p.416.

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