Director of the National Army Museum, Jeanette Richardson ONZM has recently returned from a trip to Europe where she represented the New Zealand Army and the wider populace of New Zealand. Along with Roy Clare of the Auckland War Memorial Museum she went ‘on tour’ to discuss New Zealand’s contribution to the world-wide World War One commemorations with European colleagues and to see what was happening elsewhere in regard to marking the centenary.
The duo went to Passchendaele in Belgium and to Peronne in France. At Passchendaele they visited the site of one of the most momentous and horrific battles of World War One where New Zealand suffered massive losses. In 1917 the capture of the village of Passchedaele was an objective that took many young lives including those of a large number of New Zealanders. In fact, the ridge leading up to the village turned out to be the site of the worst disaster suffered by the modern nation of New Zealand. On 12 October 1917 New Zealand lost 846 men in the first four hours of fighting there with the sad tally at the end of that day reaching 2,700 dead and wounded.
The nearby Tyne Cot cemetery was very moving and Ms Richardson says that one of the most poignant moments was reading the inscription, “…they came from the utmost ends of the Earth…” on the Belgian memorial to the New Zealand Division. At the Museum at Passchendaele she and Mr Clare walked through the replica dug-out and trench systems that have been built there and which give visitors a glimpse of what it was like to be a soldier in the Great War. Ms Richardson says that a special warmth always greets New Zealanders in this particular part of the world and that especially relates back to the support given by New Zealand in Belgium’s hour of need in the First World War.
In Peronne in France they visited the Historial de la Grande Guerre which is located near the site of the Battle of the Somme. The 1916 Somme encounter was the first major Western Front engagement for the New Zealand Division and losses were heavy. Of the 15,000 members of the Division engaged in this particular aspect of the conflict roughly one in seven was killed and four out of ten were wounded. The same immortal words “…they came from the utmost ends of the Earth…” appear on the French memorial to the New Zealand Division.
The collections of the Historial are located in the Chateau de Peronne: a medieval castle with history dating back to 800AD that has twice been the headquarters of the war-time German Command. Of interest local people still regularly recover vast amounts of the detritus of war (helmets, grenades and such like) from the surrounding fields.
Ms Richardson and Mr Clare also visited the New Zealand High Commission at New Zealand House in the Haymarket and called on the Director of the Imperial War Museum in London. The main site of the Imperial War Museum is currently renovating and updating and the new offering in London is due to reopen with quite a fanfare in July 2014.
Ms Richardson also visited the National Army Museum (London), the Museum of London and the British Museum. She says that she made very valuable links with her British counterparts and along with the visits to the sites in Belgium and France she was able to get a good sense of the remarkable breadth of the upcoming commemorations. She observed that “New Zealand is set to play a significant part in what will be a special recognition of the one hundred year milestone for World War One. The outstanding efforts and sacrifice of kiwis in the 1914-1918 period will be further recognized and highlighted in that global mix“.