Ladies and Gentlemen,
Tēnā koutou katoa
Greetings to you all!
Standing in this peaceful scene today it is hard to imagine that a century ago this was an infernal, blasted wasteland, which my predecessor as Prince of Wales, my great-uncle Edward, described as “the nearest approach to hell imaginable”.
We are gathered here today to honour New Zealand’s role in the Battle of the Somme. That calamitous engagement represented what was, for a new nation, the greatest loss of life it had experienced in one day - only to be exceeded the following year at Passchendaele. We also acknowledge the part played by other countries of what is now the Commonwealth, and by our French allies. What makes the outstanding French contribution to the battle particularly admirable was that it occurred simultaneously with France’s defence of Verdun.
The footprints we leave today mark the centre of a struggle that found twenty-five countries from five continents on opposing sides in a terrible and exhausting trial of strength. None came further to serve here than the New Zealanders who, on the Somme, confirmed their reputation as exceptional soldiers. They engaged, with boundless courage and tenacity, in defence of values of liberty that we still hold dear to this day. What occurred here 100 years ago did not create national character – it revealed it. The depth of contribution and sacrifice by Pākehā and Maori soldiers was extraordinary. Nearly half of New Zealand males aged between eighteen and forty-four fought, with a casualty rate of around nearly sixty percent - one of the highest of any country.
Measured against the enormity of this suffering and sacrifice, our presence here today may seem small and insignificant. Yet we gather with pride and humility to remember the service and sacrifice of all who fell or were injured here. In so savage a conflict, no-one emerged unscarred by the horror they had experienced. We give thanks to them all, contemplating in quiet reflection the span of our greatest grief, our greatest achievements and the deep and enduring connection they have forged.
More than half of the 2,000 New Zealanders who were killed in this battle have no known grave and are commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing in this cemetery. One of these men is the former All Black, Private Bobby Black. Two years after he went missing, and long after he had been officially declared dead, his mother placed an ‘In Memoriam’ notice in her local newspaper. It simply stated that Bobby, her only child, was “missing somewhere in France” and that she was “still hoping on”.
When my wife and I returned to New Zealand last year, we as always laid a wreath in the Hall of Memories and paid our respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, brought to Wellington from this very cemetery. To this day, New Zealanders continue to travel far from their shores to be at the forefront of peace-making and peacekeeping around the world.
Long after 1916, one Otago soldier recalled how at a New Zealand regimental aid post wounded men were evacuated under heavy shellfire “with no favour or distinction of nationality”. It was he thought “an insane paradox – every energy in the one place devoted to the extermination of life, and the other to its preservation!”
My hope is that today we can re-dedicate ourselves to a future free from intolerance and conflict. We do this in honour of the memory of those who fought and died here so long ago.
Kia mau mahara tonu tātou ki a rātou.
We shall remember them!