New Zealand’s darkest day: visit sheds new light for students

Ten students who won a World War I Battle of Passchendaele competition have travelled to Belgium and experienced the sites at which defining moments in New Zealand’s history took place 100 years ago.

Here they share their reflections on experiencing the anniversary of an event that contributed to shaping our nation, and cost so many Kiwi families so much.

On 7 October this year, 10 student winners of The Battle of Passchendaele competition, made possible by the Ministry of Education, Fields of Remembrance Trust and the Passchendaele Society, travelled to Belgium to attend several commemoration events and experience first-hand the site of the battles they had been researching.

The competition asked students to create a curriculum resource about the World War I Battle of Passchendaele for students in years 7 to 10 using digital technologies.

The winners were: Alyssa Mae Pineda, Kayla Kautai, Mairaatea Mohi, Atawhai Ngatai and Keighley Jones from Rotorua Girls’ High School, Alexandra Lay from St Margaret’s College, Christchurch, and St Paul’s Collegiate, Hamilton students Dylan Woodhouse, Tony Wu, Lucy Tustin and Conor Horrigan.

Apart from attending the National Commemoration Service at Tyne Cot Cemetery and the opening of the New Zealand Memorial and Garden, their 10-day trip included visits to the Memorial Museum in Zonnebeke, Nine Elms Cemetery and the grave of Dave Gallaher – the captain of the 1905 ‘Originals’ rugby team, the first to be known as the All Blacks – and ceremonies in Polygon Wood, Buttes New British Military Cemetery and Menin Gate.

Tony Wu says it was the sheer scale of the battle that perhaps he wasn’t able to appreciate until he found himself standing on the site of so much carnage.

“During our time in Belgium we were overwhelmed by how many cemeteries we saw. This highlighted for us how close we were to the history we had learned so much about. The sheer number of fallen soldiers drove home the cost of the Great War in a way that statistics and history books can’t.”

Alyssa Mae Pineda says she was reminded that, because we left so many fallen heroes behind in Belgium during one of humanity’s most tragic and futile episodes, a little bit of New Zealand will forever remain a part of the land on which these horrifying battles were fought.

“The most memorable event that made an impact on me was the evening sunset ceremony at Buttes New British Cemetery, where our group got to witness a military band perform such eerie and harrowing pieces, to signify the horrific occurrences that the Kiwis faced during their time at Passchendaele. Surrounded by Belgian foliage, incredibly moving waiata and poetries echoed around the audience, leaving us all in awe throughout the entire performance.”

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