Reminders from souvenirs
By Howard Chamberlain
In my first article for Kapiti Independent News I wrote about my trip to the Western Front as being a series of daily adventures and spoke a little of Paris, of Clairière de l’Armistice (where the Armistice was signed on 11 Nov 1918) and Arras where the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company worked for a long time. (To find this first article, scroll down to October 29.)
Looking through my souvenirs of the visit to Great War Western Front in France and Flanders caused me to think about some of the other things that emerged from that visit.
Nothing like being on the ground
One can see many pictures taken during the war years, but being “on the ground” added real depth to what I had read and learned of this area from other people.
I tried to keep notes and photos of this visit. It made me think of the waste of life, ruination of property and complete lack of respect for people and ask for what was the war really fought?
Perhaps it could be said greed, desire to build an empire like the British or French, control over people, and the personal ambition of a number of people on both sides.
There were many things on which to dwell.
Memorials to the fallen
What about memorials both to New Zealanders and others on the Western Front?
There are seven New Zealand Memorials to the Missing mainly in the Ypres battlefield salient. Around 300,000 soldiers are remembered on memorials to the missing in France and Belgium. These are men who were killed in action but have no known grave.
The front-line trenches stretched for 440 miles (708 kms) from the Swiss border to the North Sea. Our Centennial Tour Group was not able to do more than cover a short sector round Arras, Ypres, Passchendale, Messines, Albert and Poperinge.
The line of defences created by both sides moved very little during the war and many bunkers, trenches and land disturbed by heavy shelling and bombing are still visible. Some bunkers remain in the cemeteries where men died trying to wrest these defences from the enemy.
Some years ago the French and Belgian authorities created “Red Zones” which still contain much dangerous ammunition including explosives, gas canisters and so much lead that in some areas water is not drinkable because of the toxic leakages and contamination.
There are fences and warning signs telling people not to enter. (See on the left.)
It is not hard to find Memorials. Some are small and sit right beside the road and others are very large like Thiepval (WF 0803) and Tyne Cot.
There are memorials to British, French, German, Australians, Canadians, Indians, Moroccans, South Africans and many others. Some memorials are for individuals and others for a regiment or a division.
Three examples of memorials to individuals are to Corporal Leslie Wilton Grant, VC, recognising his gallantry in the fighting at La Basse Ville on 31 July 1917 (WF 0883) and to Sergeant Charles Rangiwawahia Sciascia, (WF 0879) an early All Black, who was killed on 31 July 1917 on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele.
His family was heavily engaged in raising and securing funds and obtaining stone for this memorial.
A quite different memorial is to Eliane Cossey who worked at the La Poupee Café in Poperinge. The plaque by her statue reads, “To countless soldiers from all corners of the British Empire she was known as ‘Ginger’ because of her bright red hair and cheerful vivacity. She embodied for many a reminder of human dignity and life that they carried into the hell of the trenches as a spark in their hearts.” This statue was placed in 2015.
When walking in the garden at the Ariane Hotel, where our group stayed in Iepre, I noticed a life-size sculpture of two women who were dressed somewhat like nurses.
These I found out later were two British ladies, Elsie Knocker and Mairie Chisholm who made their own way to Belgium in 1914 to help wounded Allied servicemen. This memorial was dedicated in 2014.
Cemeteries in the Ypres area
Wherever one travels in the Ypres salient one can find memorials. Each cemetery is a memorial to the men and women who lie there and to all the unknown men and women who died.
It is possible to stand in one cemetery and see one, two, or three other cemeteries by looking around the immediate area. From Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, which has a New Zealand Memorial to the Missing, one can look across the road and lower down a slope to The Thistle Dump Cemetery where 38 New Zealanders have been laid.
A sad fact is that 68% of those who are buried here are unidentified because their bodies were recovered three or more years later and the then difficulty in then identifying them.
Why was it called Thistle Dump Cemetery? A Dressing Station was located here and a trench called Thistle Alley ran up the hill just to the right of the cemetery.
Men who died at the Dressing Station were buried here. It was also probably used as a small supply dump as it was sheltered from the German view by the contour of the land. It was used as a Front Line Cemetery from August 1916 until February 1917 and after the Armistice a further 56 graves were added.
New Zealand graves in 240 cemeteries
New Zealanders are remembered in 240 cemeteries in France (135) and Flanders (85) ranging from one grave in several small cemeteries to 519 (322 unidentified) in Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium.
The New Zealand Apse in Tyne Cot remembers 1176 New Zealanders who have no known grave. Not far distant is Buttes New British Cemetery which also commemorates 378 all ranks of the New Zealand Division who died in the Polygon Wood sector between September 1917 and May 1918 and have no known grave.
New Zealand is also represented by the memorials at Longueval (WF 0556), Messines (WF 0899), and s’Gravenstafel (Passchendaele) (IMG_9921).
Our Centennial Tour Group visited these three memorials and Glyn Harper and Bob Beelen gave detailed talks about each of these and relating it to maps. They then showed where our troops came from by looking over the country to attack these positions which were held by the Germans.
Hard trying to imagine what it was like
It is very hard looking across this now very pleasant countryside to imagine –
~ the fury of machine gun and artillery fire searing through our infantry ranks
~ the foul weather and thigh deep mud
~ the lack of logistical support for our troops
~ the failure of senior commanders to take account of what the troops had to bear.
As mentioned earlier there are many memorials and each has its own memory for a family, a regiment or major unit.
My own thoughts tell me of the sacrifice of young men, some still boys, and older men who reduced their age to get in to uniform and sacrificed their lives for something in which they initially believed. We must hope and ensure that we as a country do not get dragged into another conflict of this nature.