Graduate returns to deliver ANZAC sermon
Good morning, thank you very much for the invitation to come and speak today. My name is Dylan Woodhouse and I attended St Paul’s between 2014 and 2018, and throughout the great war of my secondary school education, I attended a great many chapel services. Of those many services, the ones I remember are those in which our school community gathered to discuss something of significance to us all. This service today is one of those, for every one of us is here because of the sacrifice of the men and women who came before us and the events in which they took part; that shaped the modern world. I am here to talk about the Great War, one of those events.
World War I was the realisation of total war; globe-spanning empires were mobilized; all manner of people came and sacrificed all in a war far from home. This drew ordinary people into the most extraordinary of circumstances. In the panorama of the Great War, we see the very best and worst of humanity emerge, comradeship and heroism took place alongside wholesale slaughter on an industrial scale. The bloody toll that World War I took was made possible through technology that advanced swiftly beneath the spurs of necessity. Yet, despite the advances made in the art of war, killing in the trenches was reduced to brutal, medieval terms. “The carnival of hell,” as German soldier R. Baumgartner called it.
Yet, the Great War brought out the best as well as the worst, while we became more adept at killing, strides were made in medical science, healing those wounds and allowing disfigured veterans to live more normal lives. The First World War was less a war of hate than the Second, there was compassion between the trenches. Moments of humanity shined through the poisonous clouds of the conflict, even after New Zealand’s darkest day, the 12th of October 1917. The attack on Bellevue Spur, where the New Zealanders were, “asked to do the impossible,” as then Prime Minister William Massey said, was a disastrous action in the disastrous Passchendaele campaign. That saw more Kiwis die in a single day than any other battle in this nation’s young history, with a great many more dying of wounds they suffered during that doomed charge. The following day, a truce was called to allow the New Zealanders to retrieve their wounded, with the Germans holding fire. It took many stretcher bearers to retrieve only one wounded man in the mud. AJ Cummings wrote, “Every yard of that features slab of landscape held the menace of death.” Over the course of the futile campaign at Passchendaele and in Flanders, 5000 New Zealanders died, a greater loss than the sum of the previous actions in France and Gallipoli. It was the centennial of this event that my friends and I won the honour of attending, following a Ministry of Education competition, funded by the Passchendaele Society.
In Flanders, it is hard to escape the memory of the Great War for its history is recorded in much of what you can see along the Menin road. One can pass in minutes, what took years of courageous struggle. All around are battlefields, bunkers and of course the dead. As common as cattle in New Zealand, the cemeteries of the Great War flank the roads in Belgium. Farmers still use barbed wire hooks from the war as fencing, locals display collections of unearthed shells, a bookshop had, as all bookshops should, a Vickers machine gun in the window. The dead are also still being found in Flanders fields. Despite this, there is more than tragedy in Flanders, the humanity again shines through in places such as the welcoming Talbot House, where soldiers gathered between battles, or the press of the hilarious trench mag that guaranteed to cure you of optimism, the Wipers Times. In Flanders, the best and worst of humanity, are ever present. The village of Messines is the site of a Christmas truce and a major NZ victory in 1917. It is also where a Kiwi hero, Samuel Frickleton won his Victoria Cross taking a German machine gun post at the church, the same church where a villain, a young Corporal named Adolf Hitler, was taken when he was wounded in the early years of the war. Outside that church is a map of New Zealand on Belgium’s earth—that along with the New Zealanders buried in it—stands as a testament to the courage of this small nation and the impression it made upon the World during the Great War. The Belgians are a lovely people and they are especially welcoming of New Zealanders - it is a shame that they see so few. For Passchendaele and the Western Front are not so widely remembered in this country. While even today, the Belgians remember that Kiwis came from the uttermost ends of the earth to fight for their freedom.
During his final year at St Paul's, Dylan and a small group of classmates travelled to Passchendaele, Belgium, to observe the site of one of New Zealand's most notorious WW1 battles. Read about Dylan's trip to Passchendaele here.