Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Bill English visits Flanders fields ahead of 100th anniversaries

Bill and Mary English lay a wreath at the Menin Gate at Ieper (Ypres) in Belgium. Photo / Claire Trevett
Bill and Mary English lay a wreath at the Menin Gate at Ieper (Ypres) in Belgium. Photo / Claire Trevett

It was a cold wintry day and Flanders fields were dramatically stark and bleak when Prime Minister Bill English went visiting.

At Berks Cemetery in Comines Warnerton where the New Zealand troops were based in World War I a ripe smell of manure hangs in the air.

Trade Minister Todd McClay reveals himself to be something of an expert in animal manure, identifying it as pig manure. It is a rural area and a pig farm is next to the memorial site.

It was quiet when English visited but in a few months things will be much busier as the 100th anniversaries of the major battles are commemorated.

Berks Cemetery is one of many memorial sites that pepper the region which was the front line between Allied forces and Germany in 2017. They are dotted between farms on which garlic and cabbages grow in fields, mostly recently harvested. The most famous battle sites are Passchendaele, Ypres and Messines.

Freddy DeClerck is a Belgian volunteer who was awarded an MNZM in 2015 for his efforts in ensuring New Zealand's role in the war was recognised.

He lives in the area - near a German cemetery, he says, and has come to act as tour guide for English with three other Belgians recognised for their work for New Zealand's war effort. The others are Messines Mayor Sandy Evrard, Benoit Mottrie and Steven Reynaert.

After retiring from the Belgian Navy in 2004, Declerck took a particular interest in New Zealand's part in the war in Belgium - and started organising commemorations as chairman of the Passchendaele Museum.

It was partly because little was known about it, but also because he was intrigued so many came from such a small country far away and died in Belgium.

"Even in New Zealand, most the people there thought the New Zealanders went to France but had not been to Belgium."

1,800 New Zealanders died in the Passchendaele offensive and 837 died in Messines.

He and other local volunteer share trivia with English - about 20-30 bodies are still found every year by gardeners or farmers. Thousands of shell fragments and live ammunition is also still being found, even 100 years later. A bomb disposal squad is based nearby.

Flanders fields are a regular pilgrimage now for people from countries such as England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom felt the cost of the war.

At the Menin Gate in Ypres, the locals ask who English is and say "ah, New Zealand" when told. Such visits are not rare. Despite the disruption, DeClerk says it is welcomed - and not just for sentimental reasons. War commemorations are good business.

"One thing is commemoration, and the other is tourism. Tourism brings money for the people and with that money we can do commemorations."

There are also German cemeteries in Flanders but not memorials. Unsurprisingly, DeClerk says there are few German visitors.

New Zealanders are always welcome and despite the passing of a 100 years, DeClerk says they are still regarded well.

"[The locals] knew very well that all those boys who died, they stayed here. They never could go home. And for people in such a far away country as New Zealand, those mothers could not come to mourn over the graves. And that is something that is still alive here. The people here say 'we are mourning over them'."

- NZ Herald

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