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Passchendaele

KARINA ABADIA
Last updated 10:13 13/09/2012
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Photo: JASON OXENHAM
FAMILY CONNECTION: Iain MacKenzie would like to see more recognition of the bloody battle of Passchendaele. He is pictured with his grandson James.

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James MacKenzie is too young to remember the great-grandfather he is named after.

But he knows more than most children about the battle of Passchendaele his ancestor fought in.

"It would have been quite scary for the soldiers because they could have been shot down at any moment," the year 7 Remuera Intermediate student says. "It's important to learn about - just as important as Anzac Day."

James' grandfather Iain MacKenzie could not agree more.

The Scotsman emigrated to New Zealand in 1977 and is president of the Passchendaele Society. He has connections to the Belgian Embassy and was the honorary consul for Belgium from 2000 till 2009.

He would like more New Zealanders to understand the importance of the World War I battles that will be commemorated with a 95th anniversary service at the Auckland War Memorial Museum cenotaph.

The battles took place over several months but were forgotten about and overshadowed by the commemoration of Gallipoli on Anzac Day.

Mr MacKenzie says the considerable loss of life at the battle of Passchendaele, which took place in Belgium on the Western Front on October 12, 1917, makes it the blackest day in New Zealand's history.

About 846 New Zealand soldiers were killed within the first four hours of battle. The total number of casualties, including the dead, wounded and missing, was 2700.

A ceasefire was agreed on November 11, 1918 - Armistice Day. By then, more than 12,500 New Zealanders had died on the Western Front out of a total of 18,188 during the entire war.

"By that time New Zealand was war weary and the government didn't want to encourage the news of a massive defeat. We don't remember because it was too terrible."

Mr MacKenzie's father was a 20-year-old British soldier at Passchendaele and never spoke about his experience.

"But from a historical perspective, I think it's really important New Zealanders know their history."

Massey University professor of war studies Glyn Harper is the author of Massacre at Passchendaele: The New Zealand Story.

"Passchendaele is a crucial part of our heritage," he says. "Military history is family history and it's part of what makes us New Zealanders."

Dr Harper will give the address at this year's commemorative service.

"Any opportunity to promote an awareness of the battle and its importance to New Zealand is an honour.

"We're generally not good at remembering our military history.

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"The Battle of the Somme in 1916 for instance, which is actually our bloodiest battle ever, gets very little attention.

"The battles that strike a chord with New Zealanders in general tend to be what I call heroic failures, where we almost succeed but don't quite make it.

"The ones that fall into that category are the battles of Gallipoli, Crete and Monte Cassino.

"With Passchendaele there were no redeeming features at all.

"It was a disaster from start to finish and never should have gone ahead."

Both men believe progress has been made in raising awareness of Passchendaele, particularly the official government acknowledgement in 2007.

Prime Minister Helen Clark signed the Ypres Agreement with the Flemish Government promoting their shared history in the world wars of the 20th century.

- North Shore Times

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