Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Passchendaele Commemoration Service 12/10/2009

Iain MacKenzie
Honorary Consul of Belgium (2001-2009) reporting:

On a beautiful and sunny spring evening a memorable and touching Commemoration Ceremony was held at Fort Takapuna at 7 pm on Monday 12th October 2009

The Band of the Royal Regiment of New Zealand Artillery entertained the large crowd of over one thousand people who had gathered outside the Fort in sight of the 5,000 white crosses erected in memory of the 5,000 New Zealand Soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country fighting for freedom in Flanders.

Master of Ceremonies Bob Davis introduced His Worship the Mayor of North Shore City Andrew Williams who spoke of the enormous sacrifice made by New Zealanders in Flanders and the relevance of holding the ceremony at Fort Takapuna where the Auckland Regiment and the Pioneer Maori Battalion had trained before leaving New Zealand for Flanders.

His Excellency the Ambassador of Belgium Patrick Renault responded by assuring New Zealanders of the gratitude of the people of Belgium even after 92 years had elapsed and promised that Belgium would continue to look after the graves of New Zealanders as they had done in the past. The Ambassador pointed out that although it was sunset in New Zealand it was sunrise in Belgium when 92 years to the minute the New Zealand Division was given the order to attack Belle Vue Ridge in what was to become the biggest disaster in New Zealand's history.

The Takapuna Grammar School Girls Choir then gave a beautiful rendition of " In Flanders Fields" which was written by the Canadian Lieutenant Colonel Dr John MacRae to music written and conducted by Robyn Goodge.

There followed a wonderful ceremonial presentation which was passed onto the New Zealand Army by the British Army and was a shortened version of the time - honoured Beating Retreat Ceremony which dates back to 1554 when the drums were beaten on the battlefield to tell the troops to retire to the rear whilst sentries were set up for the night. From 1788 the lowering of the flag became a tradition in the Army and now every evening in Military Camps throughout New Zealand a bugle sounds the retreat as the flag is lowered. This Sunset ceremony involved the parading and mounting of the guard, musical troop ,and the playing of music as the New Zealand ensign and the Belgian ensign were lowered.

The ceremony began with the marching on of the guard of the Battalion descended from the three battalions who fought at Passchendaele under the command of Lieutenant William Wright RNZIR and led by the Band of the Royal Regiment of New Zealand Artillery to the famous march of the time " Invercargill ". The Guard took up position and conducted a formal dressing prior to the marching on of the Regimental Colour, which bears the battle honour Passchendaele. The large crowd then stood for the arrival of the Regimental Colours.

Major Terry O'Neill then inspected the guard. Historically this inspection is a ceremonial one which is carried out by looking into the eye of each soldier to see if they are fit and able to carry out their duties. If the day's fighting had fared badly the soldiers may well have been exhausted or wounded. If the fighting had been successful the soldiers may well have over-indulged in the issue of rum and not be fit for duty.

After the inspection of the guard the crowd stood for the National Anthems of Belgium and New Zealand followed by the Ode, which was recited by Theo Thomas of Papakura Returned Servicemen’s Association a veteran of World War 2 whose father fought in the first world war.

As the sun set the Belgian and New Zealand Ensigns were lowered and the Band played " Sunset " composed by Captain Arthur Green, Director of Music, Her Majesty's Royal Marines in 1932. Arthur Greens son John was part of the audience and confessed later to having been absolutely moved by this performance.

As the Regimental Colour marched off it was followed by a silence which was broken by Lone Piper John Graham playing the lament " Flowers of the Forest " and leading the Mayor , the Ambassador, the invited guests and the public to the 5,000 crosses where wreaths were laid as the Band played " The Day Thou Gavest Lord Has Ended, The Darkness Falls At Thy Behest."

A reception for invited Guests followed the laying of wreaths in the Fort Takapuna Officers Mess.

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