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Year by year we Kiwis and Aussies gather on Anzac Day to recall the horrors of war and commit ourselves to working for peace. For us it has become a national day of mourning of soul searching and commitment. Gallipoli is at the core of our remembrance and the focus for that day. Of course we lament the deaths of all in war whenever that has been.
Today we commemorate the signing of the armistice which ended the first world war. An armistice signed at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. For the British this is the day they wear the Flanders poppy which we wear on Anzac Day. It is fitting indeed that we commemorate the ending of what was seen as the war to end all wars, for many many Kiwis gave their lives in many battles as well as course in the Dardenelles at Gallipoli. I want to talk today about another dreadful in our history.
On October 12th, less than a month ago we commemorated the 100th anniversary of a battle. Ever since 1917, Passchendaele has been a byword for the horror of the Great War. In terms of lives lost in a single day, the failed attack on Bellevue Spur on 12 October was probably the greatest disaster in New Zealand’s history.
Eight days earlier, 320 New Zealanders died during the capture of Gravenstafel Spur, one of two spurs on the ridge above Passchendaele in Flanders, Belgium. Although this attack was successful, it had a tragic aftermath. The British High Command mistakenly concluded that the number of German casualties meant enemy resistance was faltering and resolved to make another push immediately.
An attack on 9 October by British and Australian troops was to open the way for II ANZAC Corps to capture Passchendaele on the 12th. The plan failed. Without proper preparation and in the face of strong German resistance, the 9 October attack collapsed with heavy casualties.
The New Zealanders nevertheless began their advance at 5.25 a.m. on the 12th. The preliminary artillery barrage had been largely ineffective because thick mud made it almost impossible to bring heavy guns forward, or to stabilise those that were in position. Exposed to raking German machine-gun fire from both the front and the flank, and unable to get through uncut barbed wire, the New Zealanders were pinned down in shell craters. Orders for another push at 3 p.m. were postponed and then cancelled.
The troops eventually fell back to positions close to their start line. For badly wounded soldiers lying in the mud, the aftermath of the battle was a private hell; many died before rescuers could reach them. The toll was horrendous: 843 New Zealand soldiers were either dead or lying mortally wounded between the lines.
On 18 October, Canadian troops relieved II ANZAC Corps. In a series of well-prepared but costly attacks in atrocious conditions, they finally occupied the ruins of Passchendaele village on 6 November. The offensive had long since failed in its strategic purpose and the capture of Passchendaele no longer represented any significant gain.
What a tragic and pointless loss of human life on all sides. War is a terrible business. Today we gather to honour all those who have given their lives for what they believed was for a better world. What a species we human beings are. Of all the animal kingdom of which we are a part we have the capacity for the most amazing love and concern for one another, to reach out for justice and peace. We have great faiths of which our Christian faith is one which have a vision of the world as we believe God’s love would have it be. The human spirit is one which yearns for peace and love. And yet We are also capable of the most gruesome cruelty and evil. We are driven by greed and desire for power and control over others.
I remember travelling with my wife some years ago through the battlefields of France, staying in ancient villages and spending time with local people. For countless years, indeed centuries the powerful have battled across the map of Europe fighting for power, control and wealth. In these villages we would see and meet local folk, peasants who had lived in them for generations. The old walls of the towns carried the remnants of war in the battle scars and bullet holes. Old women in widows weeds had eyes filled wisdom, resilience and sad remembrance. And in the midst of that had been done to them, we would arrive on a day when there was a village fair, an opera, a shin dig. In these people we saw a defiance in the face of what the powerful were doing. The human spirit will not be denied.
And the human spirit insists that it is not true that violence and hatred will have the last word and that war and destruction have come to stay for ever. There is another way and it is founded on our commitment to peace with justice, for life in all its fullness. Jesus the Christ spelt that our for us in his life. Countless others have stood determinedly against all the forces which seek to destroy. It is the core of my faith in God, and this I believe that all that separates and injures and destroys is and will be overcome by all that unites and heals and creates.
In a world that seems to be stepping deeper and deeper into tragedy as we watch the horrific images in our TV screen and the hyped up rhetoric of some of our world leaders, we gathered here today with countless others around the world to stand for a vision which as I have said from this place many times is beautifully summed up in the Ode of the Burma Star Association out of their experience in the second world war, and which is as true of those who were killed in the first world war, indeed those of our countrymen who died at Passchendaele. ‘When you go home tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today’.
Today we remember them, today we hold before God those who are suffering as a result of the continuing wars around the world, the evil that we humans are perpetrating on one another. And as we remember we stand for a renewed vision and a renewed commitment to do all that we can for peace and justice. And you know, there is no way any of us can say, this is nothing to do with me, or what can I do, little old me in Taranaki. Every gesture of kindness, every good act of reaching out to help some one, every time we have the courage to say no in the face of wrong-doings and stand up for those who are marginalised, put down and oppressed, every good act reverberates through the universe and the choirs of angels sing in thanksgiving.
When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today. Let us be worthy of their sacrifice.