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Helen Clark Unkown Warrior Address at Parliament

Address at Parliament acknowledging the Unkown Warrior

I move, That this House place on record its acknowledgement of the return of the remains of a New Zealand serviceman who died in France during the First World War, and who this Armistice Day has been interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at the National War Memorial; and that the House record, too, its recognition of the sacrifice of those 30,000 New Zealanders who died in the service of their country, its appreciation of the contribution of all New Zealanders who have served in times of conflict, and its continuing commitment to helping to bring peace to troubled places around the world.

It is 84 years since Prime Minister William Massey first explored the idea of having a New Zealand Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

At that time New Zealand had only recently suffered more than 18,000 deaths in the Great War. For the bereaved families throughout the land, the chances of ever seeing the burial sites of their loved ones were remote.

Thus, from the outset, the return of the warrior was to symbolise the sacrifice of all, and his tomb was to be a place of remembrance for all, a place to mourn the fallen.

Those were the days when news of a death in war overseas came to the family in the form of a telegramme, and if the loved one was identified, personal memorabilia might eventually be returned. Later on there would be a photograph of the grave or memorial. Relatively little was known about the circumstances in which they died - unlike in today's wars in the television age.

This made it very hard for our families to grieve. Their sons, and occasionally their daughters, had indeed gone to the uttermost ends of the earth and beyond.

When I was a child my grandmother spoke of her deceased brother; and in her hall hung large portraits of two other great uncles in military uniform, my deceased grandfather's only two brothers who also never returned. As children we all knew their story, and of the story of my mother's side of the family too. Granddad fought on the Western Front, with five of his brothers, as did two of his later brothers-in-laws. One of that Granddad's brothers was also killed.

I count myself privileged to have visited the burial sites of those brave men: at Hill 60 in Gallipoli where one died in what proved to be the last offensive of that doomed campaign; at Marcoing in France where another failed to survive an assault on the Hindenburg line nearby; and at Bayeux where a third died of his wounds after being invalided from the front. A fourth was buried in Wiltshire, a victim of the influenza epidemic while in camp before deployment to France.

Understanding more about how, where, and why these ordinary New Zealanders died, and about the impact on my family, has helped me understand the forces and events which shaped our people and our country and its values. And it has reinforced for me a determination that we must never forget, and that their memory should be honoured for all time.

That is the spirit in which we have worked to return the remains of this one soldier, as a permanent memorial to the fallen, and as a place where succeeding generations might reflect on the sacrifices made in our name.

We will never know who this Warrior is, or from where in New Zealand he came. But his name will be among those on the memorials to the missing maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It will appear on a local war memorial in one of the rural districts, towns or cities in New Zealand, and perhaps also on the roll of honour at his old school. He will be listed on the Roll of Honour kept in the Hall of Memories at the National War Memorial. And he is remembered every time the Ode to the Fallen is recited.

Fate may have denied him a named grave, but his name does live for evermore.

The Unknown Warrior represents more than 30,000 personal tragedies, and many more lives changed irrevocably by the experience of fighting abroad. This was a man who endured the terror of combat, horrendous conditions on the Western Front, and the profound uncertainty, homesickness, and distress of being far from his loved ones.

But the tragedy was not confined to the troops overseas: As I have said of my own family, it was felt all too keenly by those who were left behind. They were left wondering each moment what their son, brother, father, husband or friend might be going through in battles far away. They had the anguish of receiving that dreaded telegramme declaring him dead, or missing in action. My family still has my great grandmother's letter to her son worrying about why she had not heard from him. We know now that he was already dead when she wrote, and she knew that too when her letter was returned.

Today is also a day to think of those who did return; those many who farewelled dead comrades and who came home from battle to try to take up "normal" lives.

We cannot erase traumatic memories; we cannot bring the dead back to life. But what we have done, as a nation, is provide a place where people can come to remember and honour those who risked or lost everything serving their country.

While this is a day of commemoration, it is also a day to rejoice that this has finally come to pass.

Today's events are the culmination of three years of hard work and commitment from many organisations and individuals, inside and outside government. The spirit of willingness and co-operation during this time has been uplifting. New Zealanders with diverse backgrounds and many perspectives have united in the quest to honour our war dead in this way.

There is growing interest with the passing of time in the wars of the last century and the experiences of those who served in them, and a sense of regret that we did not do more to record the memories of those who have passed on.

The attendance at ANZAC day services, and the pilgrimages undertaken by significant numbers of New Zealanders to Gallipoli each April, and by others to France and elsewhere, are not only a reflection of the awe with which current generations view the courage of their forebears. They are also a recognition of the significant influence the events in which our forebears were caught up played in shaping the people and the country we are today.

The Unknown Warrior died carrying out New Zealand's role in international affairs. His suffering engraves on our consciousness the need to work, in future, for a more harmonious world; to act always in the interests of peace, tolerance and understanding.

In reflecting on his sacrifice, we remember to value the courage and dedication of today's and tomorrow's servicemen and women who continue to risk their lives abroad.

Ultimately, too, the Unknown Warrior reminds us to look more closely within our own shores - to seek to know each other as we can never know him. Whatever his religion, race, occupation, or politics, he is a New Zealander. His anonymity encompasses all our differences. We owe it to him to cherish our own lives and those of all New Zealanders; to embrace our diversity as a people; and to work together for the future of all.

That is how, as a nation and as individuals, we can continue to find meaning in his sacrifice.

Finding meaning from the appalling events of war has inspired the most moving of poetry from early times. I end with Colonel John McCrae's In Flanders Fields, written in remembrance of those like our unknown warrior who did not return.


In Flanders Fields
By Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


ENDS

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