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PM's Address: Memorial Service for Unknown Warrior

PM's Address at Memorial Service for Unknown Warrior

We are here today to honour a warrior who has lain for close to 90 years in foreign soil, and who has now been called back to serve his country once more.

New Zealand has waited a long time for this day. It is over eighty years since Prime Minister William Massey first explored the idea of a New Zealand Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, in the aftermath of our catastrophic losses in World War One. It is, perhaps, a mark of the journey we have taken as a nation since then that we are finally welcoming home our own Unknown Warrior.

In so doing we are forging an enduring link with all New Zealand's war dead who lie overseas.

Some 250,000 New Zealanders have served overseas in the armed forces. More than 30,000 lost their lives in the wars of the last century; 9000 of them have no known grave. By gathering to commemorate this one soldier, we pay tribute to all who have gone to war, and either come back irrevocably changed, or did not come home.

It is sobering indeed to think of the impact war has had on New Zealand families. The man who lies here was one of over 18,000 New Zealanders who died in World War One. Given that our population was less than a million at the time, very few families would have been unaffected.

Subsequent wars including World War Two have taken nearly 12,000 more New Zealand lives.

These are daunting figures. But history is not only in the figures, or even in the major events, the political decisions, the strategies or the battles. To glimpse the full story, we need to look into history's microcosm. We can imagine the sheer terror of being in combat, the raw yearning for home and loved ones, and the profound courage of going on and on with each moment reducing the likelihood of ever seeing loved ones again.

Of the many individual tragedies of war, a few are captured on record. One is the story of a mother in Takaka. In 1917, recently widowed, she received three separate telegrams. From these she learned that her three sons who had gone to war had all been killed within the space of eight days at Passchendaele. Their bodies were never recovered, so she could take no comfort even in the thought that after death her sons were cared for in any way.

Few of us nowadays can begin to imagine how that must have felt. But such stories serve to remind us that war is about living the unthinkable, enduring the unendurable. They remind us that these events had an impact not only on those who served, but also on their families and on the communities of which they were once a part.

Nothing can ever fully do justice to even one life lost in war time. But as of today what we can do is continue to commemorate and honour the ultimate sacrifice of New Zealand's servicemen and women. We can also hope that visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior will be a positive, and even a healing, experience for many.

This is particularly important in a country as physically isolated as ours. Our war dead are not forgotten, but they are far away. Distance can prevent even those whose loved ones have known graves from ever visiting the burial site. So the concept behind the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is to provide a place where people can mourn their loved ones and where others can come to pay their respects.

While we are bringing back one man who died in war, we know that those who remain on foreign soil are being cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and its agents. One cannot go to a Commonwealth war cemetery where our people are buried without being deeply moved - both by the visible evidence of New Zealand's losses, and also by the care which is taken to tend to the graves and to bring beauty and serenity to the surroundings. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission and its worldwide task embody the spirit of co-operation, peace, and healing.

In many ways we seem far removed now from times of war. For young people, New Zealand's participation in large-scale war is something which happened to previous generations. Yet, interest in commemorating those who never returned is increasing. Down through the generations people want to know what happened to their lost relatives. They seek out their graves in far away places if they can, and they come to ANZAC Day as part of ensuring that the fallen are never forgotten.

As well, there is a broader interest in understanding the part which history, including war history, has played in shaping the country we are today and the role we play in the international community. Part of our maturing sense of national identity is the realisation that being New Zealanders is not just about living the best lives we can in the present. It is about incorporating in our nation's memory all that which has led us to where we are today, along with a sense of responsibility to nurture those values for the generations which will follow us.

In being chosen to represent more than 30,000 others who died in the service of our country, the Unknown Warrior has enormous symbolism for New Zealand. All we know of him is that he died on the Western Front, and that he was one of us. We are the future generations for whom he lost his life. In a very real sense he is one of the foundations of today's society.

In participating in commemorative events and seeking to visit the graves of their forebears, New Zealanders are exploring such personal sacrifices - those of ordinary New Zealanders who did not have the right to decide the course of events, but who did their duty according to the imperatives of their time. In honouring their sacrifice, we are sustaining a deep and lasting respect for our war dead.

This is not just an occasion of sorrow, but also an opportunity to pay tribute to our New Zealand servicemen and women who lost their lives serving our nation. We acknowledge that they gave their lives in our country's service, and that all of us today, in some sense, owe them the lives we now lead.

We all hope that there will never be another world situation on the scale of the wars of the last century. But New Zealand servicemen and women continue to go abroad to places of conflict, putting their lives in jeopardy. They serve our country with courage and dedication as they work to bring peace to troubled places. They are highly regarded worldwide.

Armistice Day is about reconciliation and the beginning of healing. It is a day on which to remember that, while the world of the new millennium continues to present enormously taxing problems, it is the spirit of peace and resolution which drives our interactions in the international arena.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior symbolises of the very personal tragedies New Zealanders have endured in our engagement with wars overseas. Let it also be a testimony of pride in New Zealand's contribution; a reminder of the heroism of our people; and a symbol of our ongoing commitment to a more harmonious and peaceful world.

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