Today marks two months since I left my home and began my journey to the other side of the world; to visit the country I had been wanting to see for as long as I can remember, to meet new people who would become my friends, and to commemorate the sacrifice our New Zealand soldiers and families made one hundred years ago.
When we were in France, walking around battlegrounds, memorial sites and cemeteries, I was incredibly thankful for the research I had done before going. It meant so much more being able to be at the places and know their significance. I had already learnt so much during my history research internals which I based on the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Being there on the very battlegrounds I had read about only deepened my understanding of the suffering and loss which occurred during the Great War.
It certainly added another element to have found out about my great-grandmother’s cousin Frederick Reginald Ashworth who was a gunner in the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. He died at the Somme on New Zealand’s first day there, and has no known grave. He is commemorated on the wall to the missing at Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in Longueval. We went there for a commemoration service on September 15th, and it was a huge honour to find his name on the wall and put a poppy beside it.
After this ceremony, we were privileged enough to (briefly!) meet Prince Charles. We spent more time waiting for him to arrive than we did in actually talking to him, but it was pretty cool to meet him in person.
While we were in France we spent three days at a French school. I went to Lycée Guy Mollet and it really was an eye-opener. French schools (or at least this one) are so different from New Zealand schools (or at least Waimea College). We spoke in about eight different English classes about New Zealand and the Shared Histories project, and the students and teachers were generally pretty interested. When I went with my host sister to her English class the teacher asked the students if anyone had anything to ask me, and I ended up answering their questions for the entire lesson! Although perhaps that was just their tactic to get out of doing work… :)
On one of our days we visited the Carrière Wellington (the Wellington Quarry) where New Zealanders helped to dig an underground hide-out for more than 28 000 soldiers before the Battle of Arras in the 1917 Spring Offensive. It was an incredible tunnel which we got to walk around, and it was amazing to think that thousands of soldiers lived down there in cold, cramped conditions for months on end.
Before I left I thanked my host dad for having me to stay. He said: “that’s okay, we owe it to New Zealanders.” I was actually incredibly shocked, humbled and proud to hear him say that. Throughout the entire trip I was really proud to know that so many men and women (soldiers, miners, nurses and doctors) from our small, far away country had made such a contribution to our Allies in Europe during World War One. These days, I think in many ways their contribution is felt and appreciated more by those on the other side of the world than by us here in New Zealand.
Thinking about the trip I know it will be something I will look back on for years with pride and joy. Much of our journey was about learning about our strong historical connections with France, and we certainly did that. However, the people I met – the other young ambassadors and my host family – I will never forget, and I have begun friendships that will last for years to come. It was these people that made the trip so memorable, and I would like to thank them all.
I would also like to say a huge thank you to the Richmond-Waimea RSA for their sponsorship.