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Prince marks New Zealand losses at Passchendaele: We may never understand horror

World News | Published:

October 12 1917 is known as the darkest day of the war for the New Zealand Division, when more than 840 Kiwis were killed.

The Duke of Cambridge has told descendants of New Zealand soldiers who fought and died at the Battle of Passchendaele that although we may never truly understand the conditions they endured “we can remember”.

Speaking at a centenary service commemorating the actions, valour and commitment of the Kiwis, William said newsreels may have described them as ordinary men and women but “there was nothing ordinary about their service or their sacrifice”.

The Duke, who represented the Queen at the event in Belgium, was joined by the county’s Princess Astrid and delivered his speech at Tyne Cot cemetery, near the town of Ypres in Flanders, surrounded by thousands of headstones of Allied servicemen who died in the Great War.

October 12 1917 has become known as the darkest day of the war for the New Zealand Division, which suffered heavy loses when they were ordered to take an area called Bellevue Spur but were bogged down in shell holes under enemy fire.

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On that day, more than 840 Kiwis were killed fighting in a foreign land far from home – part of a huge toll of dead and injured both sides suffered that summer.

The Duke said: “All too often the newsreels speak of ‘ordinary’ men and women. There was nothing ordinary about their service or their sacrifice.

“As we have heard, October 12th 1917 was the ‘darkest day’ in the military history of a proud and committed people.

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“For New Zealanders, the loss of more than 840 men in just a few hours is seared into the national consciousness. All told, the Battle of Passchendaele would claim close to two thousand lives – a devastating toll for a country with a population of just over a million.

“Half a world away, news of the losses was felt like a shockwave. Every death here left a shattered family there. Entire communities were robbed of their young people. No part of New Zealand was untouched by loss.”

David Carter, speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives, earlier told how Kiwi soldiers described devastating scenes amidst a “porridge of mud” and “a place that stamps itself on one’s mind and memory – like a red iron”.

William went on to say: “The fight in these fields was of a magnitude and ferocity that is difficult for us, today, to fully comprehend. But while we may never truly understand, we can remember.”

Before the service began, William and Astrid were greeted by the Maori cultural group of the New Zealand Defence Force, whose spiritual calls and chants rang out across the white headstones.

The Duke shared the traditional Maori greeting with Willie Apiata
The Duke shared the traditional Maori greeting with Willie Apiata (Tim Rooke/PA)

The Duke also shared the traditional Maori greeting – a hongi – with Willie Apiata, the first and so far only recipient of the Victoria Cross for New Zealand.

The ceremony had an added poignancy as Tyne Cot cemetery is close to the battlefields of Passchendaele, and it ended with a bugler sounding the Last Post and the guests observing a minute’s silence.

William, who was dressed in a suit and wore a poppy and his medals, laid a wreath in recognition of the sacrifices of the fallen.

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