It was a grey and wet day when my brother, my niece and I drove off the ferry in Calais, France to begin our journey visiting the battle sites that were such a turning point for our nation. The weather seemed completely appropriate given the sombre scenes which went on here a hundred years ago, and the lives of New Zealand soldiers that were lost on the soils of the western front.
I don’t know whether it’s being the daughter of an army Major, a former Anzac service attending Girl Guide, or just the fact that I am such a staunchly proud New Zealander, but for me a major priority of visiting Europe was to make a pilgrimage to the sites where so many great New Zealanders had served, making the ultimate sacrifice, many giving up their lives, and where so many others no doubt at least left parts of their hearts and souls behind.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of standing in such peaceful, quaint and beautiful surroundings and imagining them as they had once been – muddy bloody battlefields, the place of nightmares, misery, and terror. But just standing there and being, nearly a century later, you could still feel so acutely the enormity of such a huge loss for such a small nation.
In Belgium we visited the townships of both Passchendaele and Ypres, stopping at an excellent War museum, as well as the New Zealand memorials in each town, Tyne Cot cemetery and Messiness Ridge cemetery.
Tyne Cot is now the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world in terms of burials, there are 520 graves of New Zealanders, 322 of them are unidentified.
Messines Ridge is a pretty special place for New Zealanders, and this is where the focus of Anzac Day commemorations on the Western Font is for Kiwis. It was here on the 7th June 1917 that New Zealand forces reclaimed the village from the Germans in the battle of Messines. The memorial commemorates over 800 soldiers of the NZ expeditionary force who died in or near there in 1917 and 1918 and who have no known grave.
The day also included a visited to a smaller cemetery and memorial in Polygon Wood. When I first saw the NZ cemetery here I was surprised by the random layout of the graves, as most of the Commonwealth ones I had seen so far had been in clear cut rows. Some reading soon informed me that this front line cemetery was made during the war, with the random layout of the graves painting a vivid picture of the dangers involved in the hasty burial of the dead under the constant threat of sniper and shell fire. Reading that brought a whole new level of meaning and feeling to what I was seeing, standing there in what is now such a tranquil environment it was so hard to imagine what it must have been like for those men burying their fallen comrades in such horrendous conditions.
With so much on our agenda we didn’t have a lot of time to visit many of the Australian memorials, but at Polygon Wood the Australian and NZ memorials were very close together, allowing us to take a moment to acknowledge the other half of what makes up our Anzac identity. While the Commonwealth cemeteries of course hold graves of soldiers from all the Commonwealth countries, knowing our New Zealand soldiers are surrounded by their Australian brothers in arms gives me a silly sort of sense of comfort.
It was nearing the afternoon of our Belgian explorations when my brother asked me if I knew what had happened to all the German soldiers, something I hadn’t even considered until that point. While of course they were the enemy, their soldiers were just like our own, fighting their country’s battle. After a little investigation we soon found our way to a German cemetery where thousands of names and head stones marked the devastating losses they too suffered.
There were wreaths of poppies around many of the memorials which surprised me, but on closer inspection I found they were from allied countries, acknowledging and remembering the loss of not just their own, but all those who fell fighting. One I read from the British army stated “sons and brothers all, united in death, but not forgotten”. It was incredibly touching to see, and I’m so glad we took the time to visit here to remember all those who were lost, and show our respect.
I was so impressed by the beauty of the cemeteries and memorials, and how well they are kept. It’s such an honour to see the care and dedication that must go into them, and so fitting for those fallen heroes for whom they’ve become their final resting place.
But despite the special care it still saddened me so much to think of the way these men, and boys died. The horrendous conditions they spent their last days in, the way they were in many cases like lambs to slaughter. When I saw the names, and the ages, I couldn’t help but think of the young men and women I’ve been in court to see sentenced to jail terms for various crimes, or think about the horrendous problems we have back home with violence, murders and domestic abuse, and wonder how and when we got to this point as a nation. I couldn’t help but shake a lingering feeling and question in the back of my mind, has something happened along the way to make us lose pride in who we are? When you see for yourself that all that remains of so many people is a sea of white headstones, many of which aren’t even able to hold the names of the unknown faces that are buried there, you can’t help but question how anyone could throw away or waste a second of their life, or anyone else’s for that matter.
After spending the night in the French city of Lille, the next day we travelled to Le Quesnoy, a small French town that was liberated by New Zealanders in 1918. The town had endured 4 years of German occupation before a group of kiwis and a ladder took them on and won. By the end of the action the NZ division had taken some 700 enemy soldiers captive. Unfortunately we were visiting on a Sunday so the small museum with photos, documents and other memorabilia wasn’t open. But the memorial itself to the New Zealand soldiers at the end of Rue Nouvelle Zealande was very moving. Tucked in against the fortification, it’s been placed near where Lieutenant Averill scaled the ladder on the 4th November 1918. To see the tributes to our kiwi men so far from home in such a sleepy little French town was pretty special. While I had read and heard the story of this liberation before, there’s something about actually being there and seeing these places through your own eyes, I felt very proud and honoured to be there, and to walk the streets and garden that are named in memory of those heroic Kiwis.
It was then back on the road to head south east to a town called Longueval, it was near here that the New Zealand division joined the battle of the Somme on the 15th of September 1916, and it holds a special place in new Zealand’s World War One military history. The New Zealand memorial lies about a km east of Longueval and stands on the site of the German defence line. If you look west from the memorial you can see Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, and it’s from there that the New Zealanders sprung from their trenches at dawn on that day. Looking back towards the cemetery you can see the open slope that they had to advance up, and seeing the land from that perspective, broke my heart just a little, imagining those men given such a grim task, ripe for the picking by the enemy as they made their way through exploding shells and then eventually a barrage of bullets and gunfire. But despite what eventually became a bitter hand to hand fight, in just a short time the German trench line was in New Zealand hands, and by the end of the day the division had achieved all it’s objectives, forcing back the enemy and clearing the village of Flers.
On that first day 6000 soldiers from the New Zealand division joined the attack. 600 were killed, with 1200 left wounded or missing.
Caterpillar Valley cemetery contains the graves of 5,197 soldiers from the United Kingdom, 214 from New Zealand, 98 Australian, 19 South African, 6 Canadian and two from Newfoundland. On the wall of remembrance are the names of 1,272 New Zealanders lost during the fighting of 1916. It also contains the grave from which the remains of an unknown New Zealand solider were exhumed and re-interred at the national war memorial in Wellington.
Driving through the countryside of both Belgium and France, the number of cemeteries and memorials literally left me speechless. Among the fields of peas, corn, potatoes, spinach, wheat and barley that stretch for miles are rows and rows of white head stones, and walls containing endless lists of names of lives lost.
The statistics for New Zealand alone are staggering, with one tenth of the population serving during the First World War. 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 of those lives. Retracing their final footsteps was an incredibly humbling experience.
After spending a night in Rouen our travels then took us into the domain of the Second World War and the D Day fighting on the Normandy beaches. We drove to Omaha beach, which was one of the scenes of the most bitter fighting, and standing on the beach you can see why. The area is surrounded by huge hills and cliffs from which the Germans fought back against the allied attack. Standing on top of the cliffs and looking down, especially from Pointe Du Hoc, it’s a formidable sight. The fact that the American rangers were able to scale them and achieve their mission of disabling the German guns threatening the beaches is phenomenal, but it’s easy to see why their mission, and that of those storming the Normandy beaches themselves was such a horrifying task.
Nearly 160,000 allied soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy in the early hours of the 6th of June 1944 to commence the liberation of France, accompanied overhead by tens of thousands of airmen. All up around 196,000 allied sailors with over 5000 ships also supported the attack.
At the time of the D Day landings, most of New Zealand’s forces were actually fighting alongside the British and US armies in Italy, so the main kiwi contribution came with air crew serving in the Royal Air Force. It’s estimated 3,900 New Zealanders were on active service by early 1944, flying fighters and bombers, they towed gliders, dropped paratroops, searched for submarines and attacked surface shipping. In fact a New Zealand pilot (RAF Flying Officer Johnnie Houlton) claimed the first allied air victory that momentous day. Airborne in his spitfire just south of Omaha beach he glimpsed a Ju88 bomber, firing at the enemy aircraft the engine disintegrated, the two crew members baled and the aircraft crashed on a roadway, blowing apart on impact. Supreme headquarters nominated it the first enemy aircraft to be shot down since the invasion began, and all down to a kiwi! I loved reading (courtesy of nzembassy.com) that the spitfire actually still survives today, and after being carefully restored is a popular performer at air shows and memorial flypasts in the United Kingdom. Painted in the original colours in which it flew over the Normandy beaches it still carries Johnnie’s individual identity marking ‘V’ which he selected after his wife’s name Victoria. It’s now a two seater, and when it flew over the beaches in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of the landings, sitting proudly in the passenger seat was Johnnie himself.
While our role in the D Day campaign might have been relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, for the US, Britain and Canada, whose soldiers were on the ground, they paid a great price. On Omaha beach the US divisions battled German resistance over a beach littered with obstacles, attacking steep bluffs, and by the end of that first day had fragile control of the beach. On the plateau they reached overlooking the beach now stands a memorial and cemetery for nearly ten thousand service men and women and the nearly two thousand missing in action. With white crosses stretching far into the distance, the area overlooking Omaha beach and the English Channel has now been transformed into a beautiful space, a fitting final resting place for such brave men and women.
It was such an honour and a privilege to be able to visit the sites of our fallen soldiers, made all the more special by the fact I was able to do it with my big brother. It was without a doubt the most humbling and sobering experience of my life, visiting such significant sites on which the identity of our small nation was formed.
The trip has had such a profound effect on me, and I think it’s probably because I wasn’t just learning about world history that I felt far removed from, but instead was learning about New Zealand history, my history, and the Anzac bonds that were formed so long ago. I am so proud to be a Kiwi, and I truly hope our beautiful nation can move forward in a way that’ll make the men whose bodies remain in battlefield cemeteries on the other side of the world, proud of what they fought so hard for.