A Visit to Flanders Fields

Trevor Brown from Ngatapa was profoundly moved by his visit to the war graves in Flanders, Belgium.

Trevor Brown from Ngatapa was profoundly moved by his visit to the war graves in Flanders, Belgium.

Buttes New Zealand Memorial.
Passchendaele Museum first aid station.
Flanders fields today.
The Gravenstaffel New Zealand Monument.
Menin Gate at Ypres
Buglers at the Menin Gate.
Grieving parents sculpture at vladslo
Tyne Cot Memorial.
Tyne Cot Cemetery left hand side
Tyne cot cemetery right hand side.
Trevor Brown.

I ARRIVED in Roeselare, a town in the West Flanders province of Belgium, the only part of the country that borders both France and the Netherlands. There they speak Flemish, a very distinct Dutch dialect.

My Belgian friends and hosts were Dieter and Kaat, who had previously visited us here in Ngatapa. That evening I learned that Dieter had plans to show me the highlights of this part of Belgium starting with the World War 1 cemeteries.

The following day the sun was shining and our first stop was at the Passchendaele Cheese Museum (De Oude Kaasmakerij), which had been a cheese factory from 1949 to 1963. It is now fully restored and a popular attraction. Adjacent is a cafeteria where we later had lunch.

Our next stop was the nearby memorial at Gravenstaffel, dedicated to the officers and men of the New Zealand Division, who fought in this sector during the Third Battle of Ypres (the Battle of Passchendaele) in October 1917.

From there we drove to the Passchendaele Museum at Zonnebeke which contains a comprehensive display of World War 1 relics and models of the various battles. We walked underground along corridors with various rooms used as living quarters, workshops and first aid stations, and then outside through trenches. Of course the ground is dry these days, but one can imagine the quagmire during winter of 1917 where more than 400,000 soldiers perished for a territorial gain of only a few kilometres.

At lunchtime we headed back to the restaurant at the Passchendaele Cheese Museum Cafeteria for an interesting meal of beer and cheese.

Our first stop in the afternoon was at the Polygon Wood where there are two cemeteries — the Buttes New British Cemetery and Polygon Wood. The Buttes Cemetery is known as a concentration cemetery, made between November 1919 and March 1920 by Army Grave Concentration Units who recovered more than 2100 isolated graves and unburied bodies from the local battlefields. Most of those buried here in the cemetery’s neat plots and rows died in the 1917 fighting but almost 1700 could not be identified. The New Zealand Memorial commemorates 378 Kiwi soldiers who have no known grave. Most died in day-to-day occupation of the trenches hereabouts between November 1917 and February 1918.

Across the road is the Polygon Wood Cemetery which is a front line cemetery of just over 100 graves made during the war. Sixty of those buried here served with the New Zealand forces. Also here is the Battle Memorial to the 5th Australian Division who captured this ground on September 16, 1917.

The last cemetery we visited that day was Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world in terms of burials. There are 11,961 Commonwealth servicemen of World War 1 buried or commemorated here, 8373 unidentified.

Tyne Cot Memorial

The Tyne Cot Memorial commemorates nearly 35,000 servicemen from the United Kingdom and New Zealand who died in the Ypres Salient after August 16, 1917 and whose graves are not known. I was completely overwhelmed by the number of headstones and the huge expanse of this cemetery. It was a very emotional experience and memories of that visit still bring tears to my eyes — such a huge waste of humanity in its prime.

From Tyne Cot we drove several kilometres to the town of Ypres (known also as Ieper). It was late afternoon and we dined at a café adjacent to the Menin Gate, a memorial to those missing in the Ypres Salient who have no known grave. The memorial is located at the eastern exit of the town and marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of town that led allied soldiers to the front line.

We waited until 8 pm when the last post was played under the gate. Apart from the four years that the Germans occupied the town during World War 2, the Last Post has been played here every night since November 11, 1929, more than 30,000 times.

The wait gave me the opportunity to search around the memorial — the walls were covered with the names of 54,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth forces. There were only about 80 New Zealand names here, those who served with other forces. Missing New Zealanders are commemorated elsewhere at nearby cemeteries.

The Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate is the emotive expression of the Belgian people’s gratitude to all those allied soldiers who fought to defend their country during World War 1. That evening, an officer recited the story of an English soldier who gave his life here in Flanders Fields. There were over 100 people there to view this touching ceremony.

As we drove back to Roeselare, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted — a day I will never forget.

Strategic vantage point

In the morning Dieter drove me to meet his friend Jean-Pierre, who lived on a small lifestyle farm near the city of Diksmuide. On the way there we passed through the town of Hooglede which was occupied by the Germans during World War 1. It was a strategic vantage point for the German army as the town is situated on a rise which enabled the Germans to use the church as a lookout.

While having a beer for morning tea (a Belgium custom it seemed), it was disclosed that there was a German War Cemetery nearby, so off we went to investigate.

Vladslo Cemetery, which is concentrated — ie graves had been moved here after the war ended — has 25,638 German soldiers buried there. I saw a large sculpture “The Grieving Parents”, created by Kathe Kollwitz in memory of her son Peter who was killed in October 1914, aged 17 years. Vladslo was another reminder for me of the huge waste of life during that war.

That afternoon Dieter and Kaat drove me to Nieuwpoort, a city on the North Sea Coast. This part of Belgium had been frequently inundated by the sea in the past and is now protected by stop banks. Historically Nieuwpoort had been an important fishing village, but these days it is a modern seaside city, perhaps comparable to Queensland’s Gold Coast. However there is still a fishing industry based there.

After walking along the pier at the mouth of the Ijzer (Yser) River, we went along the beachfront pavement fronted with high- rise buildings, shops at ground levels and amusement rides etc for children.

As we left Nieuwpoort, we visited the King Albert 1 Monument beside the Ijzer River. King Albert was the Belgium monarch during World War One. In late 1914, ship’s master, Hendrik Geeraert opened the lock gates allowing the sea to invade the region and halt the German advance.

The following day we went to Brugge, the capital of West Flanders. The old town is a very popular tourist attraction, but that's another story.

I left Belgium on the train for Paris, much indebted to Kaat and Dieter for their generous hospitality, having had a very eventful and memorable three days with them.

I ARRIVED in Roeselare, a town in the West Flanders province of Belgium, the only part of the country that borders both France and the Netherlands. There they speak Flemish, a very distinct Dutch dialect.

My Belgian friends and hosts were Dieter and Kaat, who had previously visited us here in Ngatapa. That evening I learned that Dieter had plans to show me the highlights of this part of Belgium starting with the World War 1 cemeteries.

The following day the sun was shining and our first stop was at the Passchendaele Cheese Museum (De Oude Kaasmakerij), which had been a cheese factory from 1949 to 1963. It is now fully restored and a popular attraction. Adjacent is a cafeteria where we later had lunch.

Our next stop was the nearby memorial at Gravenstaffel, dedicated to the officers and men of the New Zealand Division, who fought in this sector during the Third Battle of Ypres (the Battle of Passchendaele) in October 1917.

From there we drove to the Passchendaele Museum at Zonnebeke which contains a comprehensive display of World War 1 relics and models of the various battles. We walked underground along corridors with various rooms used as living quarters, workshops and first aid stations, and then outside through trenches. Of course the ground is dry these days, but one can imagine the quagmire during winter of 1917 where more than 400,000 soldiers perished for a territorial gain of only a few kilometres.

At lunchtime we headed back to the restaurant at the Passchendaele Cheese Museum Cafeteria for an interesting meal of beer and cheese.

Our first stop in the afternoon was at the Polygon Wood where there are two cemeteries — the Buttes New British Cemetery and Polygon Wood. The Buttes Cemetery is known as a concentration cemetery, made between November 1919 and March 1920 by Army Grave Concentration Units who recovered more than 2100 isolated graves and unburied bodies from the local battlefields. Most of those buried here in the cemetery’s neat plots and rows died in the 1917 fighting but almost 1700 could not be identified. The New Zealand Memorial commemorates 378 Kiwi soldiers who have no known grave. Most died in day-to-day occupation of the trenches hereabouts between November 1917 and February 1918.

Across the road is the Polygon Wood Cemetery which is a front line cemetery of just over 100 graves made during the war. Sixty of those buried here served with the New Zealand forces. Also here is the Battle Memorial to the 5th Australian Division who captured this ground on September 16, 1917.

The last cemetery we visited that day was Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world in terms of burials. There are 11,961 Commonwealth servicemen of World War 1 buried or commemorated here, 8373 unidentified.

Tyne Cot Memorial

The Tyne Cot Memorial commemorates nearly 35,000 servicemen from the United Kingdom and New Zealand who died in the Ypres Salient after August 16, 1917 and whose graves are not known. I was completely overwhelmed by the number of headstones and the huge expanse of this cemetery. It was a very emotional experience and memories of that visit still bring tears to my eyes — such a huge waste of humanity in its prime.

From Tyne Cot we drove several kilometres to the town of Ypres (known also as Ieper). It was late afternoon and we dined at a café adjacent to the Menin Gate, a memorial to those missing in the Ypres Salient who have no known grave. The memorial is located at the eastern exit of the town and marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of town that led allied soldiers to the front line.

We waited until 8 pm when the last post was played under the gate. Apart from the four years that the Germans occupied the town during World War 2, the Last Post has been played here every night since November 11, 1929, more than 30,000 times.

The wait gave me the opportunity to search around the memorial — the walls were covered with the names of 54,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth forces. There were only about 80 New Zealand names here, those who served with other forces. Missing New Zealanders are commemorated elsewhere at nearby cemeteries.

The Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate is the emotive expression of the Belgian people’s gratitude to all those allied soldiers who fought to defend their country during World War 1. That evening, an officer recited the story of an English soldier who gave his life here in Flanders Fields. There were over 100 people there to view this touching ceremony.

As we drove back to Roeselare, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted — a day I will never forget.

Strategic vantage point

In the morning Dieter drove me to meet his friend Jean-Pierre, who lived on a small lifestyle farm near the city of Diksmuide. On the way there we passed through the town of Hooglede which was occupied by the Germans during World War 1. It was a strategic vantage point for the German army as the town is situated on a rise which enabled the Germans to use the church as a lookout.

While having a beer for morning tea (a Belgium custom it seemed), it was disclosed that there was a German War Cemetery nearby, so off we went to investigate.

Vladslo Cemetery, which is concentrated — ie graves had been moved here after the war ended — has 25,638 German soldiers buried there. I saw a large sculpture “The Grieving Parents”, created by Kathe Kollwitz in memory of her son Peter who was killed in October 1914, aged 17 years. Vladslo was another reminder for me of the huge waste of life during that war.

That afternoon Dieter and Kaat drove me to Nieuwpoort, a city on the North Sea Coast. This part of Belgium had been frequently inundated by the sea in the past and is now protected by stop banks. Historically Nieuwpoort had been an important fishing village, but these days it is a modern seaside city, perhaps comparable to Queensland’s Gold Coast. However there is still a fishing industry based there.

After walking along the pier at the mouth of the Ijzer (Yser) River, we went along the beachfront pavement fronted with high- rise buildings, shops at ground levels and amusement rides etc for children.

As we left Nieuwpoort, we visited the King Albert 1 Monument beside the Ijzer River. King Albert was the Belgium monarch during World War One. In late 1914, ship’s master, Hendrik Geeraert opened the lock gates allowing the sea to invade the region and halt the German advance.

The following day we went to Brugge, the capital of West Flanders. The old town is a very popular tourist attraction, but that's another story.

I left Belgium on the train for Paris, much indebted to Kaat and Dieter for their generous hospitality, having had a very eventful and memorable three days with them.

Your email address will not be published. Comments will display after being approved by a staff member. Comments may be edited for clarity.

Poll

  • Voting please wait...
    Your vote has been cast. Reloading page...
    How do you rate National’s election-year Budget?