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  • Alan

Kiwis at the Western Front

Updated: Apr 24, 2022

In between housesits, in mid-April, we based ourselves in Lille, NW France and spent two days looking around various Western Front Battlefields from WW1 – the first day was in/around the Flanders region of Belgium and Day 2 was spent in France.

We focussed on the New Zealand memorials and as always in such surroundings, we reflected on the stories behind each soldier – the mind boggles thinking about young men travelling for six weeks in a boat from New Zealand to fight in faraway lands in utterly chaotic conditions for King and Empire.

New Zealand is indelibly marked on the landscapes of Belgium and France (among other locations in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East) and will never be forgotten even as new generations come along and one word we felt as we went around was ‘pride’ and another was ‘gratitude’.

New Zealand suffered heavily in the First World War. One-tenth of the population served. Out of a population of less than one million people, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force suffered 59,483 casualties of whom 18,166 died. Fighting on the Western Front, in France and Belgium claimed 12,483 lives.

It was an incredible two-day experience and there are too many adjectives to describe the range of emotions, as we took in the physically beautiful surroundings that were also the utter carnage that forever taints this small part of the world.

As we approach ANZAC Day 2022, we will remember them…..lest we forget….

Part One

The Western Front from a Kiwi Perspective – Day 1

In Flanders Fields Museum

Belgium – we crossed the almost invisible border from our base in Lille, France and our first stop was the town of Ypres and the wonderful ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’.

The website describes their reason for being as “…..conserving the link with this war past. Because the nature of War does not change over time, the museum considers presenting this war story to be a universal and contemporary message of peace and therefore a social mission…” The Museum’s permanent exhibition features four themes ‘a Great War, ‘the things’ ‘the people’ and ‘their stories’

As a scene setter, the museum provided us with a fascinating insight into how this part of Belgium was impacted by the events of 1914-1918. Unsurprisingly, the most poignant parts were those relating to ordinary people and their stories. Visitors have the option of choosing an individual and their story then being revealed at different points in the exhibition.

I chose a Kiwi, Arthur Earl Collie

Arthur Earl Collie was born in 1893 and was the son of William and Lucy Collie, Dunedin, having emigrated to New Zealand from Scotland. After school he worked as an ironmonger, but on 14 August 1914 he was certified to join the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Arthur left New Zealand on 16 October 1914 and arrived in Alexandria on 3 December 1914. From there the journey continued to the Dardenelles. In Gallipoli, Arthur could not fight because of an attack of Dysentary. He was taken to Malta for care and later to the UK yet he returned to the front where again he was unable to fight at the battle of the Somme due to illness.

On the night before the start of the Mine battle of 7 June 1917, Arthur Collie and the Second Batallion of the Otago Regiment were waiting as a reserve unit near Messines. However the 23 year old did not survive the night though the exact circumstances in which he died are unclear

Cemeteries and Memorials

Next stop was the Nine Elms Cemetery in Popperinge - among the 270 New Zealanders buried here is Dave Gallaher. David Gallaher (born 30 October 1873 in Ireland) was the captain of "The Originals", the first New Zealand National Rugby team to be known as the All Blacks. Although exempt from conscription due to his age, Gallaher volunteered to fight in World War I, and apparently altered his date of birth to 31 October 1876. He saw action at Ypres, and was fatally wounded by shrapnel during the Passchendaele offensive on 4 October 1917 leaving behind his wife Nellie and a daughter.

A cemetery and a New Zealand Memorial within 10 minutes’ drive of each other were next:

Tyne Cot Cemetery is the largest military cemetery of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the world. Almost 12,000 soldiers are buried here, of which 520 graves are of New Zealand soldiers. 12,000 white crosses, row on row. As we stood in awe, a nearby farmer was ploughing his field – it was surreal….

On the Memorial Wall, are the names of the 34,957 missing soldiers who fell after 15th, August 1917 (see Menin Gate below for the reason why) . A central apse in the memorial wall forms the New Zealand Memorial. It bears the names of nearly 1,200 officers and men of the New Zealand Force with no known grave.

The Graventafel Memorial is located on the corner of a crossroads in the countryside. It commemorates the New Zealand Division’s participation (as part of an ANZAC force) in the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October 1917 (the day Dave Gallaher was killed) which successfully pushed forward the Allied trench line in the early part of the Passchendale offensive…..only to be followed by an inadequately prepared attack eight days later on 12 October 1917 when New Zealand suffered its greatest number of casualties in a single day – 846 dead and 2000 more, injured or missing.

Messines (now Mesen)

Along with names like Passchendale, the Somme, Flanders etc, Messines evokes chilling memories of the slaughter that was so much a part of the Western Front. Messines was a significant part of the New Zealand Division’s role in Western Europe.

The town of Messines (now Mesen), one of the smallest in Belgium was the site of the Battle of Messines from 7-14 June 1917 – a combined British, Irish, New Zealand, Australian and Canadian operation.

We visited the Town Square and the statue of a New Zealand soldier and the Messines Ridge Memorial to the Missing. This memorial is located at the entrance to Messines Ridge British Cemetery and bears the names of 839 New Zealand soldiers who died during the Battle of Messines and have no known grave and it also contains the graves of 115 known New Zealand soldiers.

It was getting late in the afternoon but each new site and its history meant we were very focussed on seeing and understanding the background. We walked up and down many rows containing headstones belonging to identified individuals or those with no names that simply indicated the nationality of the person (some related to particular regiment, some not) or at its simplest, a notation on the gravestone that did not indicate name or nationality.

The Island of Ireland Peace Park

Our final stop in that area, was the Island of Ireland Peace Park built to commemorate the he soldiers of the island of Ireland who died, were wounded or are missing from World War1during Ireland’s involvement in the conflict.

.The tower memorial is close to the site of the June 1917 battle of Messines Ridge during which the 16th Irish Division fought alongside the 36th Ulster Division

A bronze tablet on a granite pillar positioned in the centre circle of the park bears the following inscription, entitled:

…”Peace Pledge

From the crest of this ridge, which was the scene of terrific carnage in the First World War on which we have built a peace park and Round Tower to commemorate the thousands of young men from all parts of Ireland who fought a common enemy, defended democracy and the rights of all nations, whose graves are in shockingly uncountable numbers and those who have no graves, we condemn war and the futility of war. We repudiate and denounce violence, aggression, intimidation, threats and unfriendly behaviour.

As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic soldiers when they served together in these trenches.

As we jointly thank the armistice of 11 November 1918 – when the guns fell silent along this western front - we affirm that a fitting tribute to the principles for which men and women from the Island of Ireland died in both World Wars would be permanent peace…”.

As we drove back in the twilight through beautiful springtime countryside to Ypres, it was hard to reconcile the beauty around us to the slaughterhouse that was the Western Front in 1914-1918.

Menin Gate and The Last Post

The final stop of the day was the Menin Gate in Ypres. Historically, the Menin Gate of Ypres was simply a crossing point over the moat and through the ramparts of the old town fortifications, on the road to the nearby town of Menin. It had a special significance for the troops though: it was from this spot that thousands of soldiers set off for the part of the Front called the Ypres Salient – many destined never to return.

This became the chosen site for one of the grandest and most haunting memorials of the Great War. The new Menin Gate was built in the form of a Roman triumphal arch, During the inauguration ceremony, in July 1927, the Last Post was played for the first time by buglers from the Somerset Light Infantry. Since 1928, buglers from the Last Post Association have been playing the Last Post in this very spot every night at 8 p.m., regardless of the number of attendants or weather conditions.

The vast, white, Portland-stone walls of the Menin Gate are engraved with the names of nearly 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers lost on the field of battle but with no known graves. In fact the walls of the Menin Gate were not big enough: a further 34,957 names of the last and untraced are inscribed on the walls of Tyne Cot Cemetery. We were disappointed that The Menin Gate Memorial did not list the names of the missing New Zealand soldiers, in lieu of this was a plaque that noted that the New Zealanders have been honoured on separate memorials within the region. (We speculated that it was because, unlike the other countries listed there, New Zealand did not contribute to the cost of

A decent crowd of around 200 people had gathered beneath the gate that evening, respectfully standing under the inscribed names of those unknown soldiers. As the last of the day’s sun shone through onto the walls of the gate, we listened in reverence as the buglers took their place and the sounds of Last Post echoed around. It’s always a ‘chill down your spine’ moment as the notes drift across from the bugles and this was no exception as we imagined young New Zealand men walking through the gate during WW1, not knowing what to expect…or perhaps they did…..

A young German football team resplendent in their tracksuits stood at one end of the gate as their captain laid a wreath. One wonders they thoughts going through their minds - far removed from over 100 years ago yet inextricably linked to the event in front of them.

Darkness was falling as we drove the 45 minutes back to Lille each in our own thoughts of what we had seen that day. The most overwhelming thought was the stark contrast between the beauty of the Belgian countryside, waking up from its winter slumber and the senseless slaughter of millions of lives in that same area from 1914-1918.

Next Post: Day 2 – NW France and a little known New Zealand contribution to a French city

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