“It's crazy to think someone my age, just 18, perhaps they could be my friends, going off to war, into battle and being killed.”
A young student, born in another place at another time, sitting in the Tauranga Girls' College library, her future secure and assured as much as possible, and she's pondering Passchendaele – contemplating death on an unimaginable scale, the blood and gore, the courage and sacrifice on the Western Front 100 years ago.
And Amanda Yang struggles with the idea.
“Did they really know what they were getting into at Passchendaele? I don't think they did know.” Young men, little more than boys, leaving home for adventure, and dying. The Battle of Passchendaele, New Zealand's darkest day, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres.
“Eight hundred and forty six lives lost in one day,” says Amanda. Putting that into perspective, 106 men killed for every kilometre of the Allied advance.
“That's three classrooms of my friends and classmates killed in the taking of one kilometre.” One kilometre of mud, cloying mud, bodies and barbed wire.
Amanda is a student of biology, chemistry, statistics and business studies at Tauranga Girls' College.
“But I developed a fascination for WW1. And after studying Gallipoli I wanted to learn more of the stories so I focused on Passchendaele.” Bloodshed, destruction, death.
“Maybe because I am not from this country.” She was born in Taiwan. “I wanted to learn about New Zealand's history, what helped shape our national identity.”
And from that research for her internal exams, Amanda was moved to poetry.
‘New Zealand rifles, Walked on, Walked on, Mud and rain and pain, That dragged them every centimeter marched, much closer to the grave, Cloaked by blinding gas, Suffocated, Drained, No respite, No energy left to fight…..'
The imagery of the hell that rained down on the New Zealand soldiers is graphic. “At first I didn't know it was so bad,” says Amanda. “And when I looked into it I felt really sad.”
‘The enemy rattled through belt after belt, While the New Zealanders fell by the score, They fell on Gravenstafel Road tangled in wire, No call to retire, They fought on.'
It's verse-laced with fact. It's also verse-motivated by a personal responsibility.
“You hear the story of Gallipoli and Anzac Day but when I tell people about Passchendaele and the battle, they go, ‘Really? I've never heard of it.'
And she paints an intimate portrait of the Kiwis who went away, fought and sacrificed.
‘They were young, Straight of limb, True of Eye, Stead and aglow, The sons of New Zealand mothers, The lovers, The Brothers, the men and boys from Aotearoa.'
Amanda clearly identifies with the soldiers. “They were very young, perhaps 18.” Just her age – she is still in school uniform. They were in another uniform – a more menacing one. ”And perhaps had never been away from home and suddenly they were pitched into battle. They were just so bright with life and wide-eyed, so new and innocent. And they're mixed up in something so crazy.”
And when she closes her eyes for a moment, Amanda is transported to Passchendaele.
“I am seeing mud, putrid mud. We are stuck and drowning in it. I can see barbed wire and hear the bullets. I can see bodies on the ground, pools of blood and the wounded left to die. Whoa! They're terrified.”
And all the time the hail of bullets and shells, and the stench of death. Amanda poses a perfectly natural question. “Was it worth it?”
And in 10 days Amanda may have some answers – she will tread that hallowed ground where those very New Zealanders fell. Her poem won a Ministry of Veterans' Affairs schools competition. And tomorrow she flies out to Belgium with the defence forces as a youth ambassador at the national commemoration service at Tyne Cot Cemetery.
‘We will gather in the half light at the dawning of the day, In a foreign field, Where row on row the poppies grow, Like a korowai bestowed by Papatuanuku, To cover up our men, To protect them from their foes, A foe who too lies, In a country that is not their own, a generation that will never return to their home, On this day, 12 October 2017, We stand beside them as we could not do in battle, Our men, our boys from Aotearoa.'
“I have thought about it, but I don't think it will hit me until the moment I step on that ground. It will be a cool experience. It will be a sad experience. It ultimately established who and what we are today,” says Amanda.
”I think this will be the main purpose of the trip for me, to educate people. And for us as ambassadors to spread the word about Passchendaele and keep the story alive and understood.”
Perhaps it will live on in her poem.
‘We their people weep again, In Passchendaele 100 years ago today.'
12 October 1917
5:25am opening barrage began
Second New Zealand infantry brigade and third
New Zealand rifles
Mud and rain and pain
That dragged them every centimeter marched
Much closer to the grave
Cloaked by blinding gas
No energy left to fight
The enemy rattled through belt after belt while
the New Zealanders fell by the score
They fell on Gravenstafel road tangled in wire
No call to retire
They fought on
On 12 October 1917
3:00pm another push
This time halted
and the dying slowed
846 sons of New Zealand mothers fell
That darkest day before the dimming of the light
In the dawn eight kilometres gained
At the cost of 846
106 men and boys for every one kilometre won
But what a loss
Of New Zealand sons and lovers, men and boys
12 October 2017
We will remember them
They who were young, straight of limb, true of eye,
steady and aglow.
The sons of NZ mothers, the lovers, the brothers,
the men and boys from Aotearoa
We will gather in the half light at the dawning
of the day
In a foreign field
Where row on row on row the poppies grow
Like a korowai bestowed by Papatuanuku
To cover up our men
To protect them from their foes
A foe who too lies
in a country that is not their own
A generation that will never return to their home
On this day
12 October 2017
We stand beside them as we could not do in battle
Our men, our boys from Aotearoa
Haere rā e tama
Haria rā te aroha i ahau
Aue! me tangi noa
Ahau ki muri nei Te iwi e
He ngākau tangi noa.
We their people weep again
In Passchendaele 100 years today