Armistice Day - a time to remember the battle of La Basse-Ville

By Nicki Harper -
Add a comment
REMEMBERING: Dominique Cooreman, author of the book, La Basse Ville 1917: New Zealand Voices from Flanders Fields, is paying her respects this Armistice Day, as she does every year. PHOTO/DUNCAN BROWN
REMEMBERING: Dominique Cooreman, author of the book, La Basse Ville 1917: New Zealand Voices from Flanders Fields, is paying her respects this Armistice Day, as she does every year. PHOTO/DUNCAN BROWN

On November 11, 1918, at 11am Germany and the Allied forces signed an armistice to end four years of brutal battle, marking the end of World War 1.

It is a tradition in New Zealand to hold a two-minute silence at this time, on this day, Armistice Day, to remember at least 17,000 New Zealanders who died, and more than 40,000 who were wounded during the hostilities.

With a population of about 1.1 milllion in 1914, it was a higher per capita casualty rate than any other country involved.

This agreement to end the war was and still is a commemoration representing a sort of closure.

But, for 1001 New Zealand soldiers who took part in a conflict in a small hamlet in Belgium in 1917, recognition of their part in the war has taken almost 100 years to materialise.

It is coming to light now thanks to the efforts of Dominique Cooreman, a Belgian national and retired judge, who has published a book of her research into the activity that took place at La Basse-Ville in Belgium between New Zealand troops and the Germans.

This battle was fought from mid-June to the end of August 1917, but it got lost between those of Messines and Passchendaele.

At La Basse-Ville 1001 New Zealand troops died in action, including a significant number of Maori and Pakeha from Hawke's Bay.

Its absence from the history books and New Zealand war records over the past 85 years was partly due to confusion about where La Basse-Ville was located, said Ms Cooreman.

"When people started researching this, they could only find mention that the men were killed in the fields of France and Belgium.

"The locations weren't precise. Or some of the authors talked about people who died in Belgium but their names were also on the list of those killed in France."

As a result many people confused the small hamlet of La Basse-Ville (known as La Basse to some), which no longer appears on modern-day maps, with a place in France called La Bassee.

In addition, French was the official language of Belgium at the time, and hearing French spoken around them the soldiers would write home saying that they were in France.

The army officials would not have tried to identify the countries either, rather looking at the situation as "battlefields" where the men were killed, she said.

"From a British point of view, this conflict did not exist - only the Battle of Pilckem Ridge that started on July 31, 1917 was acknowledged.

"The action at La Basse-Ville was called a feint but it was another example of New Zealanders being colonial cannon fodder."

Her interest in the subject was sparked 12 years ago, while in New Zealand on a sabbatical visit, when she heard the story of Charles Rangiwawahia Sciascia of the Wellington regiment, killed in Belgium and not in France as people were told by the officials.

"I realised that Charles would have been the same age as my oldest son when he died, 25, so my first connection was as a mother thinking of the grief that would be caused due to his body never being found, in a country on the other side of the world where he was never even buried."

A subsequent quest to uncover the truth about Charles in 2004-2005 resulted in her stumbling across more and more men whose stories were largely unknown by their families.

In the years since, she has been commuting and living between Waipawa and Belgium, on a mission to find out more about these men, to give them a voice.

"I have been to all the countries where the soldiers went, trying to depict what it was like for them and trying to bridge the Belgium/New Zealand divide that existed 100 years ago."

Even though she has already published the book, which was launched just before Anzac Day in Waipawa this year (from where seven men perished in the conflict), she is driven to continue her research, gathering information that she hopes to add in future.

Part of her motivation stems from a desire to promote a process of healing, one that her own family is still working on achieving.

"In Belgium, part of my family lost everything - the Germans set fire to their house - the whole experience left people bitter.

"On my mother's side, I only discovered recently my grandfather was a spy for the French and the English - my mother died two months ago on September 11 - her brother did not even acknowledge his father was a spy until recently when shown legal proof.

"I was hoping by writing this book to bring closure for my family, as well as those New Zealand families - to help them understand what happened."

Above all, she said it was for the battle and the soldiers involved to be formally recognised.

"I have a deep connection to this event and the people involved and want to give something back - most of these men don't have graves but they are part of my soil - they have been food for our souls and bodies - they have made a sacrifice that needs to be honoured."

As a former judge in Brussels for 20 years, she said the work was a continuation of what she had done all her professional life.

"I wrote the book with the same rigour as I did with my job where things had to be proven in court.

"I'm not an historian by training but I have been seeking the truth and interviewing people, and trying to put right what has been done wrong."

She said with children and grandchildren of her own, she felt it important to learn from the past in order to avoid mistakes being made in the future.

"Armistice Day is about saying never again."

Ms Cooreman is still meeting and interviewing family members as they come to light.

She wants to unearth the names of all the men who died there, acknowledge what happened and make this part of military history accessible and readable.

Any further details she intends to include in another limited hard-back edition of the book that is being put together to be released next year, the 100-year anniversary of the battle.

To obtain a copy of the book or to pass information on to Ms Cooreman email labasseville1917@gmail.com

For more articles from this region, go to

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

Have your say

1200 characters left

By and large our readers' comments are respectful and courteous. We're sure you'll fit in well.
View commenting guidelines.

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 24 May 2017 03:31:00 Processing Time: 383ms