Messines: Forgotten Fields

By Adrian Schofield

A modern app guides Adrian Schofield through battlefields of World War I's Western Front.

The New Zealand battlefield memorial at Messines. Photo / 123RF
The New Zealand battlefield memorial at Messines. Photo / 123RF

Standing in the beautiful New Zealand memorial park at Messines in Belgium, it seemed I was the only one who had come to mark a little-known anniversary. Exactly 99 years before, the soldiers of the New Zealand Division had swarmed up over the hillside in front of me and recaptured the village from its German occupiers.

I was not entirely alone as I walked past the towering New Zealand monument. A team of gardeners buzzed around trimming hedges, mowing grass and pruning trees, part of the regular maintenance that keeps the park in immaculate condition. Two old concrete pillboxes sit at the edge of the lawn, the last witnesses to the Kiwis' dramatic attack on June 7, 1917.

Soon I had more company. A car scrunched to a halt in the carpark, and a trio of Englishmen joined me in contemplating the former battlefield. Remarkably, they also knew about the anniversary and had come here to commemorate the occasion.

It turned out they were from the village of Cannock in Staffordshire, which has a special link to New Zealand.

Many of our troops were based there during World War I and they built a large-scale concrete model of the Messines battlefield near Cannock for training purposes.

The men I met were part of a team that unearthed the Messines model after it was lost for years. Because of this, they knew every inch of the real battle site and were eager to show me where the action unfolded.

So there we were, three Englishmen who had never set foot in New Zealand telling a Kiwi all about a significant event in our nation's history.

Terrain that was once the Somme battlefields where New Zealand soldiers fought in WW1. Photo / Supplied
Terrain that was once the Somme battlefields where New Zealand soldiers fought in WW1. Photo / Supplied

This is one of the great things about touring New Zealand's World War I battlefields. There is still plenty to see, and the memories are very much alive.

Messines has a statue of a New Zealand soldier in its main square, and a large map of New Zealand has been inscribed in the plaza in front of the town's church.

Of course, one reason there was not much fuss over the 99th anniversary is that everyone is focused on the upcoming centenary events. We've already had the Gallipoli 100th commemorations, and now it's the Western Front's turn.

For New Zealand, the first big centenary will be September 15, marking the date of our entry into the infamous Somme campaign of 1916. This will be followed next year by Messines in June, then the 100th anniversary of the catastrophic Passchendaele battles in October 2017.

With so much attention on the Western Front right now, many Kiwis are venturing forth to see where it all happened. The New Zealand government has recognised this, and has created the Nga Tapuwae app to help tourists make sense of the sites. Information panels have also been built at key points to supplement the multimedia presentations on the app.

I recently spent six days on the Western Front battlefields, using the Nga Tapuwae app and some of the New Zealand-produced guidebooks to follow in the footsteps of our fighting men. I also wanted to visit the graves of some of my relatives who died there, and to pay my respects at the cemeteries where thousands of New Zealanders lie.

The wealth of information now available means you can do a whirlwind tour of the New Zealand battlefields, or delve deeply and spend more time there. Because there are vast numbers of English visitors who tour the World War I sites, the main areas are very well set up for tourists.

Ypres in Belgium and the Somme in France are the two areas of most significance. They are about three hours apart by road, so it's possible to visit both on the same trip.

Our troops were heavily involved in the massive offensives that occurred in these two places. At the Somme in 1916, the New Zealand Division mounted a successful attack as part of the larger British campaign, followed by three weeks of grinding progress. Another obelisk-shaped monument sits on a high point of the New Zealand battlefield, visible for kilometres.

Cemeteries nearby contain many of the graves of about 2000 New Zealanders who died on the Somme. One of the most significant of these is Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, which also has a wall inscribed with the names of hundreds of our missing with no known graves.

Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada in France. Photo / 123RF
Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada in France. Photo / 123RF

Further north in Belgium, the New Zealand attacks at Messines and Gravenstafel in 1917 also achieved all their objectives - something of a rarity on the Western Front. Although to modern eyes it is hard to fathom how these patches of quiet farmland could be worth so many lives.

The division's run of success came to a halt on the slopes of Bellevue Spur, in front of Passchendaele. Here, on October 12, 1917, the New Zealanders were stopped by a muddy quagmire, barbed wire, and murderous machinegun fire.

Casualty accounts vary, but with about 900 dead in the space of a few hours, this ranks as the worst disaster in New Zealand history - military or otherwise. Looking over these crop fields on a beautiful summer's afternoon, the app helped me picture the torn, desolate landscape from 100 years ago. It struck me that we should really have a memorial here, as well as those that mark the sites of our victories.

While visiting the Passchendaele battlefield, I stayed at the excellent Varlet Farm B&B outside the village of Poelkapelle. One of the farm's fields actually sits on a corner of the New Zealand sector, where the owner now plants potatoes.

The farmer's family has worked the land here since just after World War I. Reminders of those years still turn up today, in what is known as the iron harvest.

He tells me he has discovered seven unexploded shells while ploughing this year, after finding 17 last year. Once he had a cartridge from a shell blow up under his plough.

He usually picks the shells up and puts them aside, then calls the police to come and collect them for disposal. I ask if he's concerned about his safety working in the fields and he shrugs it off as "part of life here".

I saw several bits of shrapnel and other rusty iron left over from the war lying in the fields. I also nearly ran over an old artillery shell that a farmer had left beside a particularly narrow road, so it's a good idea to keep an eye out.

Go and see the battlefields if you're planning a trip to Europe. We've all seen the poignant World War I memorials that are a feature of most New Zealand towns, but the sites where these events took place are even more moving.


Details about New Zealand's Western Front centenary services can be found at Unlike at Gallipoli, there is no ballot - anyone can attend.

NZ war grave at Messines. Photo / 123RF
NZ war grave at Messines. Photo / 123RF

Varlet Farm B&B near Passchendaele is an excellent accommodation choice.

At the Somme, a few good B&Bs are the Silent Picket at Martinpuich, and the Avril Williams Guest House at Auchonvillers.

Make sure to visit some of the museums near the battlefields. A few of the best are in Ypres, Zonnebeke, Albert and Peronne.

The Canadians have some remarkable memorial parks that are the best places to see fields of old trenches. One is at Vimy Ridge, roughly between Ypres and the Somme, and another is at Beaumont-Hamel on the Somme.

Before you leave home, go to your local RSA and get a couple of dozen Anzac poppies. You can buy the British-made ones over there, but it's great to see the distinctive New Zealand version at the cemeteries and memorials.

What to read

The Nga Tapuwae app is highly recommended. You could do the whole tour just using this. It is free to download on GooglePlay or iTunes, and you can use it offline.

A guidebook to the New Zealand battlefields is helpful. The Western Front, by Ian McGibbon, is a good slim volume that covers the highlights. From The Uttermost Ends Of The Earth by John H. Gray has much more detail but it's also quite bulky to carry around.

For evocative accounts of New Zealand's involvement, try On My Way To The Somme by Andrew McDonald, and Massacre At Passchendaele by Glyn Harper.


Getting there: Cathay Pacific has return Economy Class fares from Auckland to Paris.

- NZ Herald

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