WWI exhibition remembers bloodiest battle

An exhibition about the devastating World War I battle that killed hundreds of New Zealanders, including the first All Blacks captain, will open in Christchurch next year and may tour the country.

Dave Gallaher, the Irish-born captain of the 1905 Originals, the first team to tour as the All Blacks, died in the Battle of Broodseinde, one of the battles of Passchendaele in Belgium on October 4, 1917.

The Battle of Broodseinde was considered a success despite 1853 New Zealand casualties, including 449 dead, as the New Zealand division advanced the British line nearly 2000m and took 1159 German prisoners.

In stark contrast, the First Battle of Passchendaele eight days later was a military disaster, with 846 New Zealand soldiers killed and more than 2000 wounded in a few hours.

The second battle achieved nothing other than to mark it as one of New Zealand's greatest human catastrophes and the worst day in its military history.

Graphic images of the battle will form part of the exhibition, to open in Christchurch in April.

The exhibition is being developed and built by the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 and the Belgian Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History.

As well as disturbing pictorial images of the battle and life in the trenches, the exhibition will also feature weapons found in the trenches.

Passchendaele Museum curator Franky Bostyn said New Zealand had always been important to the people of Belgium "because as you know they came 'from the uttermost ends of the Earth' [as is inscribed on the New Zealand memorial at Gravenstafel] to fight for us".

He said many of the New Zealanders who went to Belgium to fight were still there.

"They are a part of our land, a part of our common history and I think it is our common duty to remember them."

Overall, 18,000 New Zealanders died during the assault on the Ypres-Zonnebeke-Passchendaele line - more casualties per head of population than any other Commonwealth country who sent men to fight in West Flanders.

Mr Bostyn said New Zealand soldiers played a key role in Passchendaele, but the battle appeared to be overshadowed by Gallipoli.

"While this is understandable, for many reasons, the Somme, Messines and Passchendaele also had a devastating effect on the social fabric of your very small nation."

The exhibition tour followed the signing of a shared memories arrangement on October 4 last year by the New Zealand and Belgian Governments to stimulate commemoration on both sides of the world and strengthen the bonds between the countries.

Mr Bostyn and members of the Passchendaele 1917 Society will tour New Zealand in the next two months to look at museums and galleries interested in hosting the exhibition, including Te Papa and the Army Museum at Waiouru.

- NZPA

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