E nga waka (distinguished representatives)
E nga mana (esteemed guests)
Tena koutou katoa (greetings one and all)
I would like to acknowledge the following:
Ms Olga Cogen, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of the Kingdom of Belgium
His Excellency Mr Leasi Papali’l Tommy Scanlan, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps
Thank you, Rear Admiral Ledson. You have vividly described the unprecedented events of the day, a hundred years ago, when our New Zealand troops proceeded up the long slope of the Messines Ridge under artillery and machine-gun fire, to the ruins of the little village at the top of the hill. I want to pay further tribute to the New Zealand Division which fought there.
It took the New Zealanders less than two hours to cross through No Man’s Land and up to the village which was their target. ‘You are a different being, fears seem to vanish once you are going on,’ Bob Belt wrote to his family. ‘It seems nothing to stop and bandage up your wounded mates, and help them back to a point of safety in a shell-hole.’
Once they reached the ridge, the New Zealanders immediately had to dig new trenches to defend themselves against artillery fire and expected counter-attacks. Cyril Molloy was there with an Otago infantry battalion. He said, ‘Our faces were black as soot, with little rivers marked in where the sweat ran down, making us the queerest, roughest lot imaginable, but weren’t we proud.’
Another young soldier up on the ridge that evening was John A. Lee, who later became a distinguished author and a Parliamentarian. When his men came under fire from a machine-gun post, Lee and two of his mates rushed it and captured two machine-guns and forty German prisoners.
Messines is regarded as a very successful military operation but we should never forget that this success came at a terrible price. Three thousand of our troops were wounded in the battle and 700 more were killed, mainly by German artillery in the days after the initial attack. One of them was Bob Belt, who had told his family about stopping to bandage up his wounded mates as they advanced up the ridge. After he reached it, Bob was hit by a shell and died some days later. He had just turned 25.
Today we remember men such as Bob Belt. We also mark the close relationship between New Zealand and Belgium – at the heart of which lies our participation in the First World War. While that relationship has developed to include wider political, economic and defence matters, the events at Messines, and later at Passchendaele, created a legacy of the warm relationships between our countries and our people.
As the sun rises in Messines, in a few hours’ time, Belgians and New Zealanders will be preparing to attend an early morning commemoration at the Messines Ridge British Cemetery, which includes a New Zealand memorial to the missing from that battle. Later, at sunset, a second commemoration will take place at the New Zealand Battle Memorial in Messines.
Here in New Zealand, and in Belgium, let us commemorate those who fought at the Battle of Messines. And let us celebrate the ongoing friendship between our two countries and our people.