Thursday, April 27, 2006

ANZAC Day in Belgium

It seems I need to enter the landscape of a story to begin to understand ...

I grew up with a Gallipoli veteran; my grandfather was a soldier who after being shipped off the bloodied beaches of the Gelibolu (Gallipoli) Peninsula, found himself fighting in Flanders, Belgium; the place where his horse took the full brunt of a shell that injured him.

He never spoke of the war. We were never taught of it in school ... the so-called Great War never really entered our consciousness while growing up in the 70s. However April 25th would roll round every year and the RSA (Returned Servicemens Association) would sell the little red paper poppies, march through the streets to Dawn Services and gather at war memorials around the country, to lay wreaths on the war momuments in every small and large town throughout the country; remembering the war dead on ANZAC Day.

To not teach us of the reality of war was and continues to be a mistake; it's a lesson that everyone should learn from ... the tragic, horrendous, and often anonymous loss of so many young lives in World War One should have been told over and over to every generation. If only those war veterans had been invited to tell us their truth instead of being encouraged to swallow the horrors of what they had seen.

One of the only positive outcomes of that particular war was the resulting 'birth of nations'. The battleground of Gallipoli was a proving ground for New Zealand, Australia and Turkey; each found their own powerful national identity. New Zealand and Australia finally began to throw off their previously strong connection to 'mother England', and the Turkish Republic rose up from the ashes of war, with Ataturk as their president.

The reality of the Gallipoli campaign went something like this. It took 269 days ... 8556 New Zealanders arrived on the beaches, 4852 were wounded and 2721 were killed. And the Kiwis weren't the only ones to die there, 8709 Australians, 33,072 British, 10,000 French and 87,000 Turks fought were also killed.

The New Zealanders and the Australians, who were by then known as the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), left Turkey to the Turks and were diverted to Europe's Western Front in April 1916. And so it was that the New Zealand Division arrived on the flat lands of Flanders in November 1916 and were still there when the Battle of Mesen was launched June 1917.

Yesterday, the New Zealand Embassy in Brussels took a bus full of Kiwis to the ANZAC commemorations here in Belgium. It was delicious to find myself surrounded by quiet Kiwi conversation; possibly quiet by virtue of the 7am departure from Brussels. We arrived in Mesen (Messines in French) in time for the 9am parade through the streets to the Messen war memorial where a small wreath laying ceremony took place. Afterwards we continued on to the New Zealand Memorial, situated up on the infamous Mesen Ridge via Nieuwzeelandersstraat or New Zealanders Street.

The Battle of Mesen ... it was only a name that I knew, nothing more. History tells us that the Germans had taken the village of Mesen, situated up on the 'high ground' ... 30-40 metres above the lowlands that Flanders is famous for; a height that gave the German army a massive advantage.

And so it was that the Allies settled in, periodically attacking while secretly digging deep shafts in under the 10 kilometre long German frontline; filling 21 chambers with enough explosives to create the largest explosion pre-A-bomb.

After a series of synchronised explosions beginning at 3.10am on 7 June 1917, Allied soldiers attacked the disoriented Germans who had suffered massive losses and Mesen was retaken within hours ... however 700 New Zealanders were killed, 3000 were wounded.

Proof of the ferocity of battles fought in the area can be seen in the contemporary Iron Harvest of local farmers today ... each year at least 200 tons of live shells are dug up or rise to the surface naturally. Live shells are detonated in controlled explosions by the Bomb Disposal team but there are also the gas shells which are far more dangerous. Pre-1970, the Belgians were putting the gas shells into concrete and dumping them in the sea ... environmental awareness stopped the practice but has left them with a problematic stockpile that numbered 27,000 shells in 1998.

Our guide took the bus via her farm to let us view their most recent iron harvest down at the gate, awaiting pick up by the bomb disposal unit or Dovo in Dutch. Her husband had just dug up 31 large shells. Ninety years later and the bomb disposal unit still has controlled detonations of old shells twice daily, five days a week.

The Battle of Passchendaele was another 'name' I knew, without context. This is a battle that is famous as a defeat, providing New Zealand with its bloodiest day ... 845 kiwi soldiers were killed and 2,700 were wounded but thousands died there.

Our guide put the battle in context for us ... there was an 8km front line, they fought for two weeks in the wettest rain in Belgian history while under bombardment from a well-prepared German army who fired approximately 4.2 million shells atthem.

There were other firsts in area ... mankind continued its ongoing experimentation with death on a large scale. The area has the dubious honour of being the first place to see chlorine gas used however it was only effective for five minutes, and in the course of further experimentation, the highly effective Mustard gas was discovered; a substance which isn't as innocuous as its name suggests, as it remains active for up to eight long and deadly days. It was invisible, adhered to any surface and infiltrated water supplies creating horrendous damage to anyone who came in contact with it.

Back in the present day and we joined the Australian contingent in Ieper (Ypres in French). We followed the march through the town to Menin Gate where the official wreath-laying ceremony took place. 100,000 Commonwealth soldiers fighting in Flanders have no known grave, 54,900 of those men are listed by name on the massive walls of the Menin Gate ... the covered hall of memory .

Ieper was pulverised during the war, nothing was left standing, as was also the case in Mesen. To honour the Allied soldiers who died, Ieper's locals have sounded 'The Last Post' (the traditional salute to fallen soldiers) every night since 1928, as a mark of respect and of gratitude towards those who had given their lives for the freedom and independence of Belgium.

I was intrigued by the two Australian soldiers in the audience ... intrigued because they were dressed in full WWI army kit ... but that's another post.

We finished our journey of rememberance at Tyne Cot Cemetery, one of so many Commonwealth cemeteries scattered throughout Belgium; it's the largest with nearly 12,000 Allied soldiers buried there ... 8.400 of the tombstones are nameless.

It was a sobering day ... much like my trip through the battlefields of Gallipoli.

But ANZAC Day wouldn't be complete without the extract from L Binyon's poem, For the Fallen, quoted at every ceremony:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.


jarvenpa said...

My grandfather was in the first world war, and never spoke of it.
But I remember the little paper poppies for sale in--I think--November, on what was termed Armistice Day, changed to Veteran's Day here in the US. As a child I thought they were so pretty, the little red poppies.
As an adult each story of war, and death, and continued conflict makes me wonder when humanity will grow up enough to put this behind them, to find some other way.
Perhaps when we really grasp the stories?

Dobermann said...

My grandas (both) told very little about the wars when I was a kid, but more and more every year I got older.. Both injured, but still lived normal, full life. My dad's father has lung-cancer (Irony: he never smoked, not even one inhale!) and on the phone he has told lot of stuff from the time BEFORE war and how he felt about having to go to war.

I have to try to get to see him this summer (he lives on the other side of the country..). Every time I ask how he is he just replies "It's good day since I'm awake, isn't it?".

Oh, and thank you for this story, it's always interesting to hear how things were for other countries at the time. I have to admit that I got this weird picture in my mind when you wrote "a bus full of Kiwis".. I'm sorry, but I just had this image of wxcited kiwis (the fruit) making noise in a bus.. lol Stupid, but entertaining.. Sorry. ;)

woman wandering said...

I hope so jarvenpa ... people need to see the reality rather than hear stories of glory. Conditions were so bad out there and still are today.

Lol, sorry for the image doberman ... I think NZers often see themselves as the flightless bird when they talk of Kiwis. We actually stole the Kiwifruit from the Chinese ... they were called Chinese Gooseberries back in my childhood ;)

Make sure you see your granda, I miss them and I was too young before.

Dobermann said...

Funny thing: flightless bird -> kiwi

in Finnish Kivi (v, not w) means rock/stone (small one..) and there's a finnish phrase where flightless birds are referred as stones. lol That's funny..

I know, I know.. I'm bit tired, but in good way.. ..I giggle about everything. ..and it's not the medication! XD

Dobermann said...

Oh,and it's Veterans' day in Finland today. :)

shashikiran said...

South India saw its last battles in 1799 and some small ones for a very few years after that. That means the southern subcontinent has not experienced war for about two centuries. Even when India fought wars with Pakistan, the South only experienced the precautionary blackouts in the night, and that too, for a very short period. Some regions in the South sent out men to fight in North Africa and SE Asia. But the civilian population enjoyed only peace. The people in North India have had a larger engagement with war, though not in the scale of Europe. The psyche of the South Indian would be very different. I cannot tell which experience has strenghthened man more, though I cannot at all wish for suffering for anybody for any end.

woman wandering said...

:) Doberman ... and the kivi thing was interesting.

Hi shashikiran, that's an enviable record of peace. I didn't realise that was how it has been in southern India.