We’ve been denied our true history

Do we know enough about our military history? A tour of World War One battlefields leaves Auckland businessman Brent Impey with the firm conclusion our education is lacking.

Last year, I travelled to the killing fields of World War One – the fields where thousands of New Zealanders died, alongside soldiers from France, Britain, Germany and many other countries.

Sure, I had heard of Passchendaele from television documentaries, and was vaguely aware that 18,000 New Zealand soldiers had died in the Great War, but the horrors are hard to imagine now as the familiar (for many Kiwis) sound of tractors drift across the low rolling countryside of Flanders.

But then you see them. The rows and rows of graves, many of them marked “Unknown Soldier” from New Zealand. And it is then that the reality of what happened here 100 years ago, sinks in.

All those young lives lost for a “hill”, which could be more correctly described as a mound, or for a tiny village with no more than a handful of houses.

Driving along a small, narrow road near Passchendaele, I spot a sign that says “New Zealand cemetery”. The road takes me to Polygon Wood. I had never heard of Polygon Wood.

There is a large memorial to the Australian soldiers who died here, and a New Zealand cenotaph. A walk around reveals hundreds of New Zealand graves, many, again, with the inscription “Unknown Soldier”.

Why had I never heard of this place? The graves have Kiwi flags and poppies. Polygon Wood is not in a town, it’s a farming area, yet the cemetery is maintained beautifully by locals. They are employed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but the care of these sacred places indicates it is more than a normal job.

This was my grandparents’ generation, yet I know little about the lives of these men – or more importantly, their deaths and sacrifices.

Then to Ypres, in Belgium, where they conduct the Last Post ceremony every night, at Menin Gate at 8pm. They have done this every night since 1928 – except during German occupation in World War Two.

In October 1916, just fewer than 1000 Kiwi men were either killed or mortally-wounded in a single day in the Battle of Passchendaele.

Fast-forward to 2017. The local mayor attends the ceremony. On a wet and windy night, more than 300 people pay their respects to those who had fought the Germans. It’s truly moving, but at the same time I start to feel a bit lost.

This was my grandparents’ generation, yet I know little about the lives of these men – or more importantly, their deaths and sacrifices. Then I start to feel angry.

Next stop, Arras, a town of almost 50,000 people in northern France.

The Wellington Quarry – la Carrière Wellington – an underground museum in Arras, France. Photo: Gail Trapp

New Zealand has a strong connect with Arras. Five hundred tunnellers from Wellington were shipped over during the war to dig limestone tunnels under the German lines. These guys were experts, many having been coal miners on the South Island's West Coast.

They dug at a phenomenal rate – 80 metres a day. The tunnels are massive and all have New Zealand names: Blenheim, Nelson, Auckland, Canterbury.

In all, 24,000 Allied troops went into these tunnels and came up behind the German lines, making it an immediate success. Until the British generals called a rest day, allowing the Germans to regroup, and regain what was lost.

I was told by locals (with, perhaps, some retrospective optimism) that had the Allied troops been allowed to press on, the war could have finished a year earlier.

These tunnellers are heroes in France. Their inscriptions are marked in the stone and their photos adorn the entrance. However, they are largely unknown at home.

I am a baby boomer with a “good education”. I attended the University of Auckland; I have a law degree and a bachelor of arts with a major in political studies. I took history to stage two.

I know a lot about the Tudors and Stuarts of England, King Henry VIII, the Norman Conquest, George Washington and the Declaration of Independence, the American Civil War, Napoleon, and the Russian Revolution.

Sure, we were taught about the causes and consequences of World War One. We were told about the Kaiser and the assassination of the Austrian prince that supposedly started the war. We were also taught that the defeat of Germany and the Treaty of Versailles led eventually to the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War Two.

We were taught next to nothing about what happened in those wars.

From left, Maurice and Gail Trapp, Wendy Palmer and Brent Impey in the Wellington Quarry, Arras. Photo: Gail Trapp

Important questions

What was Passchendale all about?

Why did New Zealand lose more men per head of population than any other country in World War One? Why don’t we know more about Polygon Wood? Why aren’t those 500 Wellington tunnellers treated as national heroes? Why was our generation deprived of knowledge about these battles in WW1? I haven’t even started on WW2.

More than 41,000 New Zealand soldiers were wounded in World War One. One of them was my grandfather, JJ Wakefield, who fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

This was a battle where the Germans and Allies were fighting for control of the River Somme. JJ was born and brought up in Lawrence, in Central Otago, and enlisted from there at the age of 18.

The number of Kiwi soldiers whose lives were lost or were severely injured was staggering. More than 2100 lost their lives in this scrap and close to 6000 were injured.

JJ was one of the 6000. He was shot. The bullet pierced from his inner to his upper thigh – a clean exit. He showed his grandkids his injury, but never talked about the horror of the experience.

That was because these men were told, or chose, to say nothing of what had happened.

Does this explain why so many Kiwis, particularly men, are unable to express their feelings, and believe that strength comes from being stoic?

Artist Marian Fountain's striking 3.18m-tall bronze monument, The Earth Remembers, at Arras. Photo: Gail Trapp

Kiwi cunning and bravery

It is not just Passchendaele, Polygon Wood, Arras or the Somme. There are other places such as Le Quesnoy, in Northern France, which was captured by the New Zealand Division in November 1918, our country’s last action in the Great War.

Normally, these towns were taken after a heavy artillery barrage that dislodged the German defenders. But our troops, at significant risk to themselves, decided to spare the civilian population in this small town. They took it with Kiwi cunning and bravery.

Many of Le Quesnoy’s streets are named after New Zealand places  – and again our nation is revered and respected.

As I toured these important places, I felt a simmering anger at the failure of our education system to teach us our own history. Yes, Gallipoli is now being treated with the respect it deserves. Anzac Day is now observed appropriately. But this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Still today, our history is not taught with enough depth.

What do we know about the battles epic battles of World War Two involving New Zealanders? Casino, Battle of Crete, the North Africa campaign or the war in the Pacific? Again, not much.

I could go further. What were we taught about the New Zealand (Māori) Wars? Virtually nothing. At best, a very sanitised view.

The point is this. Generations of us have no idea what happened to our ancestors, how those experiences shaped the injured and the survivors, what impact it had on our families, and how it affected their attitudes to their children and grandchildren.

I feel angry because I should have been taught the true history of our nation. I hope our educators can do a better job with the current generation so it can better understand New Zealand history. We need to embrace it, because it explains so much about who we are and what we have become.

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