8 June 2017
A hundred years since the New Zealand Division took part in the Battle of Messines, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) has marked the centenary with two extraordinary services in Belgium.
The two services at Messines Ridge British Cemetery and the New Zealand Battlefield Memorial in New Zealand Park were attended by Governer-General Dame Patsy Reddy, the New Zealand Ambassador to Belgium Gregory Andrews and Major General Tim Gall, Commander Joint Forces New Zealand.
During the blustery National Commemorative Service, Major General Gall delivered a reading of Lance-Corporal Robert Bett’s moving description of his feelings as he took part in the battle on the day of his birthday.
“It is an incredible honour to be here to pay respects to the men who fought in the Battle of Messines, to the soldiers buried here and to those who made it home,” Major General Gall said.
“We also remember the families who lost loved ones and the men and women of our Defence Force and their families who make sacrifices as they serve New Zealand today.”
Central to the New Zealand’s National Commemorative Service, attended by nearly 600 people, was the Regimental Colour of the 2nd Canterbury, Nelson, Marlborough and West Coast Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. The Colour carries 21 battle honours, including “Messines 1917”.
An emotional Sunset Ceremony took place at the New Zealand Battlefield Memorial on Wednesday evening, with an estimated crowd of 500 people. It was a uniquely Kiwi farewell to the men who lost their lives in the service of New Zealand and told the story of Battle of Messines through music and ceremony featuring NZDF musicians, the Māori Cultural Group and military ceremonial personnel.
As the catafalque guard took its post, four figures dressed in replica First Word War uniforms stepped silently out of the crowd and took their posts in the shadow of the guard, placing their hands gently upon their shoulders. This shadow guard was a stark reminder to onlookers of the more than 3000 casualties and 700 soldiers who were killed in action between 7 and 9 June 1917.
The attack on Messines Ridge, a vital piece of high ground, was a preliminary move to support the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele. Meticulously planned, it was one of the most successful operations of the First World War but came at a great cost to the New Zealand Division, which suffered 3700 casualties, including 700 dead in the operation.