Skip to main content

Report from the December 2015 New Zealand/France Symposium

New Zealand/France Symposium on the French Memorial to be erected in Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in 2018.

Held in France 7‒12 December 2015.

 

Report by Dr Monty Soutar

On the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War, and at the invitation of the New Zealand authorities, a French memorial will be inaugurated in 2018 within the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington. The memorial will recognise the long-lasting friendship and the strong bonds forged between France and New Zealand during the First World War.

In December last year, the French Embassy invited six New Zealanders to participate in a symposium in France ―the objective of which was to establish, through a dialogue between the New Zealand participants and a group of French experts, a document which sets out the general specifications for the memorial and terms of reference in regards to aesthetics, design and remembrance purpose. The document is intended to guide the artists, designers and architects wishing to submit to the call for tenders which is to be organised in the form of a public competition in New Zealand in the first half of 2016.

NZ Delegation

The participants were chosen after staff of the French Embassy conducted interviews with some 30 New Zealanders whose area of work has, in the past, involved First World War research. The members of the delegation were:

General Rhys Jones (ex-Chief of the Defence Force, Executive Director of the National Military Heritage Charitable Trust and head of delegation)

Dave Armstrong (playwright, newspaper columnist and museum writer/concept)

Elizabeth Knox (novelist)

Robin Laing (film producer)

Stephen McDougall architect)

and myself (historian).

We were invited to visit some of the most significant places of remembrance for France and New Zealand that are located in France, to meet with various stakeholders involved in the commemoration of the war, and to reflect on the potential challenges raised by the memorial within the specific context of the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park.

Reflections

The visit to France, for me, put the New Zealand Division’s contribution to the war on French soil in perspective. We were a tiny cog in a huge machine that was the British-Franco army. Our losses (7533 buried in French soil), although high for our population, are dwarfed by the French losses in service personnel and civilians. Having said that, I was not aware that because many countries repatriated their dead after the war, today New Zealand and Australia have the most soldiers buried in known First World War graves in France. Moreover, our men and women travelled the furthest distances to the seat of war― “from the uttermost ends of the earth” as General Rhys Jones often reminded us.

Aside from the idea of loss, it was the French landscape that had its greatest impact on me. The land is still scarred with the memory of “the Great War”. War cemeteries, war memorials trenches and undulating terrain that cover the once lunar-like terrain are to be found all over France.  Shell and shrapnel fragments, military objects, as well as human remains are still unearthed one hundred years after the events that caused them to be there. It made me realise how fortunate we are that during the two world wars New Zealand was never invaded.

I also came to appreciate that New Zealand played its part in a war to defend France from further invasion and the threat that invasion could bring upon Britain and small though it was New Zealand’s assistance is still appreciated by the French today.

The week was tempered with a higher level of security than my previous visit (26 October – 5 November) because of the 13 November terrorist attack in Paris. The attack had also reminded our French counterparts of the fragility of life and they commented on this when we visited the First World War cemeteries and battlefields.

The NZ delegation with French hosts and the Mayor of Longueval (4th left) . Image is courtesy of Stephen McDougall.

Day One: Monday 7 December

Les Invalides

The symposium opened at Les Invalides, in Paris. This complex of buildings houses the military museum of the Army of France, the Musée des Plans-Reliefs, and  the  Musée  d'Histoire  Contemporaine,  as  well  as  the  Dôme  des  Invalides―a  large  church  housing  the  burial sites of some of France’s war heroes, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Entrance to Les Invalides under guard after Paris attacks. Image is courtesy of Stephen McDougall.

We were given a tour of the First World War exhibitions before meeting with representatives from different French ministries, the First World War Commission, the New Zealand Embassy in Paris, French experts on the First World War and the French participants to the symposium.  After introductions presentations were made around expectations for the week including one by Antoine Prost, historian and President of the First World War Committee’s scientific panel. Mr Prost’s address about French perspectives on war memorials was very enlightening.

Le Musée de la Grande Guerre

In the afternoon we travelled to the Le Musée de la Grande Guerre (Museum of the Great War) in Meaux.  This museum offers a new vision of the war through innovative scenography. It tries to illustrate the great changes and upheavals in society that resulted from the war.

Arc De Triumphe

Each day’s programme was very full and the first was no exception. That evening we attended the “Rekindling of the Torch Ceremony” at the base of the Arc De Triumphe. 

Day Two: Tuesday 8 December

Le Musée de la Grande Guerre

In the afternoon we travelled to the Le Musée de la Grande Guerre (Museum of the Great War) in Meaux.  This museum offers a new vision of the war through innovative scenography. It tries to illustrate the great changes and upheavals in society that resulted from the war.

Grevilliers NZ Memorial

Our second day was spent in the Arras region. Our day started with a visit to the New Zealand Memorial at Grevilliers. This memorial commemorates almost 450 officers and men of the New Zealand Division who died in the defensive fighting in the area from March to August 1918, and in the advance to victory between 8 August and 11 November 1918, and who have no known grave. This is one of seven memorials in France and Belgium to those New Zealand soldiers who died on the Western Front and whose graves are not known.

Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery and memorial

By mid-morning we were at the Notre-Damme de Lorette cemetery―the largest French cemetery in the world. The ridge that the cemetery sits upon is only 165 metres high, but with nearby Vimy Ridge it completely dominates the otherwise flat Douai plain and the town of Arras.  The cemetery also marks the central ground (700 metres) where the two battles of Attois were fought. There is the tension of a huge cathedral in the cemetery overlooking 42,000 Frenchmen’s graves. The serene setting was marked by drizzle and a very cold but light wind.

Cathedral in Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery. Image courtesy of Stephen McDougall.

Outside the cemetery is the recently erected (11 November 2014) and stunning Ring of Memory. The architect/designer, Philippe Prost, gave us a tour of the memorial. The elliptical monument bears the names of 580,000 soldiers who died in the Nord-Pas de Calais region during World War I. Forty nationalities are represented. The names are engraved in alphabetical order, regardless of nationality or rank. What is equally amazing is that the memorial does not obscure the ridgelines in the distance.

Delegation with architect/designer, Philippe Prost, at Ring of Memory. Image courtesy of Stephen McDougall.

Carrière Wellington Museum, Arras

Tuesday afternoon was spent at the Carrière Wellington Museum in Arras, northern France. Opened in March 2008, the museum commemorates the soldiers who built the tunnels and fought in the Battle of Arras in 1917. It displays historic artifacts and presents the historical context of the Battle of Arras, including the work of the tunnellers and the military strategy that underlay the tunnels' construction.

500 miners from the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, including Māori and Pacific Islanders, recruited from the gold and coal mining districts of the country, were brought in to dig 20 kilometers of tunnels. We were given a private tour. We accessed the tunnels via a lift shaft that took us approximately 22 meters below ground to the galleries around the Wellington quarry. At various places, graffiti and painted signs could be seen, along with relics of the troops such as cans of bully beef, helmets and bottles. I was fortunate to be taken to the tunnel where Māori and Rarotongan soldiers left their names etched in the walls. Because of a cave – in this tunnel is no longer open to the public.

The Arras tunnels linked the quarries to form a network that ran from the town centre, under no man's land, to a number of points just in front of the German front lines. The tunnel system could accommodate 20,000 men and were outfitted with running water, electric lights, kitchens, latrines, a light rail system and a fully equipped hospital. The tunnellers named the individual quarries after their home towns ―Auckland, Wellington, Nelson, Blenheim, Christchurch and Dunedin for the New Zealanders, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Crewe and London for the Britons.

Rarotongan inscription in one of the Arras tunnels which is now out of bounds. Image is courtesy of Stephen McDougall.

Day Three: Wednesday 9 December

Les Invalides

At Les Invalides again our delegation met for breakfast with the Associate Minister of State for Veterans (Senator Jean-Marc Todeschini) and the President of the France/New Zealand Parliamentary Friendship Group (Senator Jean-Marie Vaulerenberghe) and French Members of Parliament of the France/New Zealand Friendship Group. The senators talked to the delegation about their own expectations for the memorial. 

Historial de la Grande-Guerre de Péronne

We travelled north to the Somme region where the centenary of the battles this year will be a significant event in France. We met with the director of the Historical Museum of the Great War (Historial de la Grande Guerre), Hervé François, and historian Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau. The Historical Museum of the Great War (“Historial de la Grande Guerre”) located near the heart of the Somme battlefields, is housed within the Château de Péronne, a castle in the town of Péronne, France. The museum looks mostly at the Great War, and the years just before and after. It tries to place war in a social context, stressing the common suffering of both combatants and civilians, both of whom were mobilised by the war effort.

Thiepval Memorial

In the afternoon we were given a guided tour of Thiepval Memorial, the Tower of Ulster Memorial and Beaumont-Hamel Memorial. The Thiepval Memorial the most important franco-british Memorial in France. Erected in 1932 by the British government, it is dedicated to the 75,085 British soldiers missing in action between July 1915 and March 1918 and who have no known graves. Their names are engraved on the 16 pillars that form the base of the 45-metre high arch.

Thiepval Memorial gets a spruce up for this year’s commemorations. Image is courtesy of Stephen McDougall.

While we were here General Jones and I were interviewed by the local newspaper, the General as group leader and myself because Maori participation in the war was of interest to the region. An online version of the article appears at http://www.courrier-picard.fr/region/thiepval-les-neo-zelandais-imaginent-leur-memorial-ia0b0n687943.

Tower of Ulster

The Ulster Tower is the memorial both to the Irish of the Battle of the Somme and to all Ulstermen who died in the Great War. The tower, financed through public

subscription and built in 1921, in romantic Gothic style, is an exact replica of a tower near the 36th Division's training ground in Belfast.

Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial

The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial is a memorial site dedicated to the commemoration of Dominion of Newfoundland forces members who were killed during World War I. The 74-acre preserved battlefield park encompasses the grounds over which the Newfoundland Regiment made their unsuccessful attack on 1 July 1916 during the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

At Pozziers we stopped at the Tommies’ Pub where there was a great private collection of objects recovered from the Somme. Farmers have donated them to the hotelier over the years.

 In Peronne we were the guests of the Sub-prefect for the Peronne region.

Day Four: Thursday 10 December

Longueval

We met with the mayor of Longueval and he laid out plans for the Somme centenary in 2016. He escorted the delegatoin to the Caterpillar Valley British war memorial cemetery, which is the cemetery from where the remains of our unknown warrior were removed in 2004. The mayor also accompanied us to the Caterpillar Valley New Zealand on the Somme battlefield.

Caterpiller Valley Cemetery. Memorial stone marking the gravesite from which our unknown warrior was removedImage is courtesy of Stephen McDougall.

Delville Wood South African National Memorial

Next we took a look at the South African National Memorial at Delville Wood. It is the only memorial dedicated to the participation of the South African Forces on the 1914-1918 Western Front. 229,000 officers and men served with the South African Forces in the Great War. They suffered 10,000 casualties.

We also visited Amiens before heading back to Paris where we were guests at a reception held at the New Zealand Embassy.

Day Five: Friday 11 December

Verdun

All of Friday was spent at Verdun. We were welcomed at the City Council. The mayor told the delegation that Verdun symbolized for the French the hell of WW1. Eighty different nationalities fought there. 300,000 soldiers on both sides died during the battle and 600,000 were wounded. In 1994 the city unveiled the World Centre for Peace, Liberties and Human Rights which is in the old bishop palace in the town. The centre is a place for reflection to promote Peace and Human Rights.

The Douaumont ossuary

Walking through the ossuary was quite a moving experience. It contains the remains of unidentified soldiers who died on the battlefield during the Battle of Verdun. It is located in Douaumont, which is on the Verdun battlefield. The battle of Verdun lasted 300 days (21 February - December 1916). 26 million bombshells were fired by the artillery (i.e. 6 bombs per square meter). The result was thousands of shredded bodies the unidentified remains of which were put in the ossuary.

Viewing the cemetery from the Douaumont ossuary. Image is courtesy of Stephen McDougall.

Verdun’s Battlefields

Outside the ossuary lies a cemetery containing known graves and nearby the battlefield lies untouched. The grass and trees have been allowed to grow back but the ground is still covered with indentations made by shell blasts.

The scarred terrain. Image is courtesy of Stephen McDougall.

The Verdun Memorial

The delegation was given a guided tour of the Verdun Memorial situated on the battlefield close to the destroyed village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont. This memorial building was opened to the public in 1967. While it remembers both French and German combatants as well as the civilian populations lost during the battle, it also serves as a museum which displays French and German armaments. Over time it has become more of an educational museum than a commemorative monument in an effort to keep younger generations aware of their communal heritage.

Image of the Verdun Memorial is courtesy of Dr Monty Soutar.

Fort Douaumont

Our final stop was Fort Douaumont. This fort was the largest and highest fort on the ring of nineteen large defensive forts that had protected Verdun since the 1890s. However, by 1915 the French General Staff had concluded that even the best-protected forts of Verdun could not resist bombardments from the German 420 mm Gamma guns. As a result, Fort Douaumont and other Verdun forts, being judged ineffective, had been partly disarmed and left virtually undefended since 1915. On 25 February 1916, Fort Douaumont was entered and occupied without a fight, by a small German raiding party comprising only 19 officers and 79 men. The easy fall of Fort Douaumont, only three days after the beginning of the Battle of Verdun, deeply shocked the French Army. It set the stage for the rest of a battle which lasted nine months, at enormous human costs. On 24 October 1916 the Fort was recaptured bringing closure to the Battle of Verdun.

Image of Fort Douaumont is courtesy of Dr. Monty Soutar.

 


Updated on 3rd August 2016