Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Prime Minister Bill English visits World War I battlegrounds in Flanders

Bill and Mary English lay a wreath at the Menin Gate at Ypres, Belgium. Photo / Claire Trevett
Bill and Mary English lay a wreath at the Menin Gate at Ypres, Belgium. Photo / Claire Trevett

Prime Minister Bill English took a break from politics today to visit World War I battlegrounds in Flanders in Belgium.

English and wife Mary English laid wreaths at the war memorials in places New Zealanders had fought and died including Messines, Menin Gate in Ypres, and Tyne Cot Cemetery at Passchendaele - the largest cemetery on the Western Front, which has more New Zealand graves than any other cemetery.

Although much of New Zealand's attention is on Gallipoli, the battle for Passchendaele in 1917 was the single most costly for New Zealand in its modern history.

In one day, on October 12, there were 3700 casualties, including 45 officers and 800 troops dead or mortally wounded.

Bill English looks at NZ graves at Plugstreet, Commines Warneton in Belgium where New Zealanders were based in World War I. Photo / Claire Trevett
Bill English looks at NZ graves at Plugstreet, Commines Warneton in Belgium where New Zealanders were based in World War I. Photo / Claire Trevett

English read the ode For the Fallen inside the Menin Gate where the Last Post is still played every evening of the year.

Some locals gathered to watch.

English also met local dignitaries and Belgians who are helping organise centenary events for New Zealand, most of which will happen this year.

English will be back to business tonight, meeting Nato head Jens Stoltenberg and Belgium's Prime Minister Charles Michel.

English said it was important to get "face time'' with the leaders in Europe.

"It's certainly good to have the face time, particularly if you're new. They knew our previous Prime Minister reasonably well and when you're a small country you just have to keep putting yourself forward so that they remember what your interests are, so when they make decisions they can take us into account."

English had also had private meetings with think tanks and business people.

"Whatever decisions are made round how Britain leaves Europe, how Europe deals with its own issues such as slow economic growth, immigration - all of those things have an impact on New Zealand in the end. So it is important to understand how they are thinking.

"What I am hearing is a fairly determined people in Europe who want to and are willing to solve the pretty significant problems they've got and get on with the job, including a free trade deal with New Zealand."

Bill and Mary English with NZ Defence Attache Shaun Fogarty at the memorial for New Zealanders at Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Passchendaele. Photo / Claire Trevett
Bill and Mary English with NZ Defence Attache Shaun Fogarty at the memorial for New Zealanders at Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Passchendaele. Photo / Claire Trevett

He said there had been interest in New Zealand's view on trade and the social investment approach New Zealand Government has taken - on the premise that providing strong support to at-risk families and people early on has pay offs later in life.

"They're also interested in social investment, in fact surprisingly interested. They want to do more work with New Zealand on developing the concepts because they want to see if social investment can work here."

He said cyber security issues had also been raised - partly because of the focus in the media on the alleged hacking by Russia during the US election campaign.

- NZ Herald

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