Proud to be our Patron

Posted on June 10th, 2012

The Passchendaele Society’s Patron, the Rt Hon Helen Clark, was the guest of honour at the Official Opening of the refurbished “In Flanders Fields Museum” in Ypres. In her speech she paid tribute to World War One soldiers who lost their lives in Belgium:-

Rt Hon Helen Clark

Former Prime Minister of New Zealand

Speech at the Official Opening of the refurbished

In Flanders Fields Museum

Ypres, Flanders, Belgium

Saturday 9 June 3pm

It is a great honour for me to be invited to speak at this official ceremony marking the opening of the renewed In Flanders Fields Museum.

This is my fourth visit to Flanders.  Ypres and so many other towns, villages and fields in West Flanders hold many memories for my country, New Zealand.

During my time as New Zealand’s Prime Minister, I placed great emphasis on preserving the memories of major events in the life of our nation.  The World War One battlefields here in West Flanders were the setting for particularly traumatic events for New Zealanders, as they were for the people of this region, and for all who fought here on both sides of the line.

It has been a great pleasure for me to meet so many people here in West Flanders over the years who also value highly the importance of keeping the flame of these memories alive.

Our common objective led to the development of the New Zealand – Flanders Shared Memories Arrangement, signed here in Ypres during my visit in 2007.

In that agreement, New Zealand and Flanders jointly resolved to:

  • increase understanding and recognition of the shared history of the wars of the twentieth century;
  • honour the dead and ensure the preservation of historic and commemorative sites; and
  • conserve and maintain shared war heritage material.

Here in Flanders the investment in renewal of this museum is yet further testimony to the desire of people in this region to ensure that what happened here in World War One will never be forgotten.

Twelve thousand miles away in New Zealand last year, the Passchendaele Society was formed, 94 years after the epic battle from which it takes its name.  I am proud to be its patron.

Our society’s objective is to ensure that New Zealanders are aware of the role our people played on the Western Front and at Passchendaele.  It will ensure that there is an annual commemoration, work to preserve related heritage sites and material in New Zealand, and reach out to younger generations to tell the story of what happened to their forebears.

This vision is highly consistent with that of the “In Flanders Fields” Museum.  Here you have always emphasized the personal stories of those caught up in devastating events with geopolitical consequences.

As the quote on the invitation brochure for today’s opening says:  “There are many who will tell you of the noble side, the heroic side, the exalted side of war.  We must show you the other side, the backwash of war.”

The backwash of war in Flanders, was hundreds of thousands dead, many more injured and traumatised, and communities shattered.  It was war at its most vicious, with heavy losses of life as men fought to advance over mere metres of ground. It was war which saw new and deadly weapons, including the use of chemicals.

Unlike the wars and armed conflicts of the last few decades, the war in Flanders was not at the top of television news bulletins.  Television had not been invented, and generally heavy media censorship prevailed.  The worried families of the soldiers received the occasional letter from the trenches which disclosed little of the true horror – the censor’s pen was quick to delete graphic material.

The communication families dreaded most was the black-edged telegramme informing them of a loved one’s death, with little if any detail or context provided.

In today’s conflicts, the bodies of New Zealander servicemen and women who die abroad are brought home to their family.  While painful, that does help families to grieve and reach closure.  It is a far cry from World War One when not only did the bodies not come home, but also the likelihood of close family ever seeing the grave of a family member 12,000 miles away was very remote.

In Flanders, New Zealand troops were to experience both relative success in military terms and absolute disaster.  The battle around Messines in June 1917 and the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October were regarded as great successes, despite hundreds of deaths and casualties.  But the attack on the Bellevue Spur at Passchendaele on 12 October became New Zealand’s worst ever military disaster, with 800 men killed on that day.  By the end of the New Zealand engagement in Flanders there had been more than 18,000 casualties of which close to 5,500 were fatalities.

Driving through the peaceful towns and countryside of Flanders today, it is hard to imagine it the way it was for those who fought here.  But the reminders are everywhere in the trenches preserved, in the meticulous story-telling of the area’s museums which interpret those epic events, and in the war cemeteries large and small which dot the landscape.  Every name on the gravestones, every name of the missing on those memorial walls, tells a story of lives lost, dreams unfulfilled, homes never returned to, and grieving families.

These are the reasons for commemorating what happened here.  The more we know about World War One in Flanders, the more we know about pain, death, and suffering.  The more we know, the less we understand about how human life came to be destroyed in this way.  The more we know, the more we appreciate the importance of diplomacy, mediation, and peaceful resolution of conflict, so that others do not suffer the way in which soldiers and civilians suffered here.

I wish we could say that our world fully absorbed such lessons from Flanders and other World War One theatres.  Twenty one years after the armistice, a second deadly World War broke out.  The Korean War followed hard on its heels in the 1950s, and then came the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.  All these conflicts engaged New Zealanders.

Elsewhere, wars between states and increasingly civil wars have taken and continue to take a heavy toll on human life.  To this day, too many lose life and limb every year from the remnants of war – landmines and other unexploded ordinances.

My work these days is dedicated to promoting the mission of the United Nations, founded in the aftermath of World War Two to promote peace and security, human rights, and development.  At the United Nations Development Programme which I now head, we work in  countries badly afflicted by conflict to provide the conditions for building peace and recovery from the wounds of war.

We support women’s voices being heard at peace negotiations and in the new parliaments and assembles being designed; we are involved in demining, so that communities can farm their land again and walk in safety; we support disarming, demobilising, and reintegrating former combatants; we work to create livelihoods in communities beginning to rebuild; and we support implementation of the rule of law and the establishment of the institutions which that requires.

Our hope is that communities which are still experiencing armed conflict will one day experience the peace and tranquility which characterise regions like Flanders which have risen from the ruins of war.  Ypres, itself laid to waste, took special care to rebuild its medieval Cloth Hall, Cathedral, and  town centre, with the Cloth Hall receiving recognition from UNESCO in 1999 as a World Heritage Site.

In five years’ time, the centennial of the Battle of Passchendaele will be commemorated. As one privileged to have participated in the ninetieth anniversary events, I know that  this region will host a series of dignified and appropriate occasions in 2017, just as you have ever since 1917.

In so many ways the peoples of towns of Flanders have honoured those whose fate it was to be here in wartime.  I especially commend the Last Post Association, which every night since the 1920s, with the exception of the years under Nazi occupation, has performed a solemn ceremony of remembrance at the Menin Gate.

Ypres and its environs have experienced the very worst of war and destruction.  The peoples of even far away nations like New Zealand were deeply affected by what happened here.

But the story of recovery of Ypres and Flanders, and of the determination to keep the memory of what happened here alive and to learn from it, is inspiring.  The opening of the new In Flanders Field Museum marks another milestone in the remarkable journey of Ypres, and reaffirms its place in the pantheon of communities dedicated to building and sustaining peace.

Thank you once again for the opportunity to be with you today and to speak in appreciation of the work of the communities of Ypres and Flanders to share memories and understanding of what happened here.

Watch TVNZ news item.

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