When soldiers ran on to Flanders Fields it was no game and no side won, writes Nicholas Jones

A deflated rugby ball and a couple of plastic poppies mark Dave Gallaher's grave. Scrawls, handwritten in Vivid marker pens, make it look like a memento from a modern rugby match: the sort that a child hangs over the halfway tunnel, hoping his heroes will sign.

"New Zealand remembers," someone has written. "The ultimate player in the greatest team."

The inscription on the headstone, below the Silver Fern, simply gives Gallaher's name, regiment and the day he died — October 4, 1917.

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Even by the standards of World War I, his story is tragic.

Aged well over 40, the captain of the 1905 All Black Originals team, a national selector and coach, left behind a wife and young daughter when he enlisted. Some say his decision was spurred by his younger brother's death in action; Gallaher would later lose two more brothers, serving in the Australian forces.

He was badly wounded in the cheek and moved to Poperinge, Belgium. There, behind the lines, men were sent to rest and spend their pay on drink, food and women. But Poperinge was also a casualty clearing station: there, Gallaher and many others succumbed.

Rows of white headstones greet my guide Freddy Declerck and I when we arrive at Nine Elms cemetery. Only a pigeon's coo breaks the silence.

I expected some sort of individual monument to the great All Black, like the graves of the famous and infamous in Paris' Pere Lachaise cemetery.

That's not the case, and the point is underlined as Declerck reads the headstones of other New Zealanders who died soon after Gallaher: "5th October, 5th October, 5th October, 5th October".

Gallaher, who had earlier served with our forces in the South African wars, was one of about 100,000 New Zealanders who fought in battles that sliced through Belgium in World War I. About 18,000 died.

Dave Gallaher in military uniform. Photo / NZPA
Dave Gallaher in military uniform. Photo / NZPA

Although Gallipoli has come to dominate modern New Zealand's remembrance of the war, two-thirds of our casualties fell here, on the Western Front.

Our shared history is visible everywhere.

The tiny town of Messines was captured by the New Zealand Division in a triumph preceding the disaster of the Battle of Passchendaele.

There's a "New Zealand Street"; familiar ferns and toetoe grow around a memorial outside the town, built around the bunkers from which German troops fired on the advancing 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade.

A concrete map of New Zealand is laid into the footpath outside a church with an 11th-century crypt where Adolf Hitler received treatment for wounds. The future Nazi leader fought elsewhere and was sent to Messines for treatment.

There's a memorial to Samuel Frickleton, from Blackball, who captured two of those bunkers and was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Photographs at the small but excellent Messines Museum show the destruction of the town from shelling — "not a brick left unbroken", Freddy says of the wasteland. In another photo, New Zealand soldiers kneel, taking holy communion from a priest the day before battle.

Out front is a statue of larger-than-life soldiers in greatcoats shaking hands over a football. It's a short drive out of town to the fields where the Christmas truce football game between opposing armies is said to have happened. There, bright pink and yellow soccer balls are left in tribute.

A tour bus is in the throes of a three-point turn on the narrow road. Like us, most visitors base themselves at the town of Ypres, which was destroyed in the war and rebuilt by determined locals, despite Winston Churchill lobbying for nothing to be touched as a memorial to the dead.

The war is inescapable. Our hotel has glass cabinets displaying soldiers' uniforms and gear, we eat dinner below a modern painting depicting gas masks, and at 8pm each night hundreds gather below the Menin Gate war memorial to hear the Last Post.

The Menin Gate. Photo / In Flanders Fields Museum
The Menin Gate. Photo / In Flanders Fields Museum

War tourism started in the 1920s with grieving families coming to see where their relatives died, and is still going strong. There's an office by the Menin Gate for "Over The Top Tours".

I'm lucky to be with Freddy, who started guiding and researching in earnest after retiring from the Navy in 2004, and became president of the Passchendaele Society of Belgium. He focused on New Zealand after being intrigued that so many came from a small country — like Belgium — and died so far away from home.

His knowledge is now the stuff of local legend, and was recognised with the New Zealand
Order of Merit in 2015.

Freddy points out fields, trees and other markings as he drives me around the countryside. That was where the New Zealanders were dug in, that's where this battle was, that rise in the ground is because there is a network of tunnels below.

Neat two-storeyed brick houses dot the rolling fields, with church spires and wind turbines on the horizon. Wild poppies grow by the road, and packs of Lycra-clad cyclists whiz past dozens of graveyards.

Some sites have only a couple lines of headstones, and back on to yards with children's playgrounds. Others, like Tyne Cot, contain almost 12,000 graves (8300 unidentified and 520 New Zealanders).

The war isn't contained within the neat stone walls of such cemeteries. We drive past the spot where a man returned from a funeral to hear his wife's cries for help — part of the house had collapsed into an underground trench.

I'm not sure what Freddy's up to when we pull up to a farm shed. Inside, an old wooden table is stacked with rusted shell casings, grenades and shrapnel. One hundred years after the war, its explosive legacy has returned to the surface on this farm. A Belgian Army unit is stationed nearby — to be called out when farmers find more dangerous relics.

A beer at lunch, jetlag and a terrible sense of direction means my head is spinning with each date, each fact about the New Zealand Division's movements, but it comes together near the end of our tour.

We pull off the highway next to a small Celtic cross and a larger electricity pylon. Standing on a gravel road bisecting the fields, Freddy tells me to look down. We're on a patch of rough concrete that is actually the roof of a bunker — the old German front line in the Battle of Passchendaele.

He points to the spires of Ypres in the distance in front of us, then to those of Passchendaele beyond the fields behind us.

It took 103 days for the Allies to advance the 8km between the towns and cost 500,000 lives.

There are about 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers still buried in the fields around us, Freddy tells me. They move with the clay, sand and earth as it slowly churns below, and about 20 to 30 bodies resurface each year. A couple of months ago, a New Zealand soldier's remains rose, and were buried with the inscription, "Known Unto God".

I think of an artwork displayed at the nearby Passchendaele Museum. Falls the Shadow, by Helen Pollock, commemorates the men who drowned in mud here. A darkened room is filled with a forest of arms reaching up from the floor, fingers stretched in desperation.

The Kiwi artist used a mix of clay — some from these fields, some from Coromandel.

As we turn back to the car Freddy hands me a gift. It's a ball of dulled metal, not much bigger than a pea. Each time he walks his Westland terrier over these fields he stoops two or three times to pick them up. The record for one walk is 18.

"Shot by New Zealanders, or shot on them," he explains.

Our time's up but Freddy suggests one more stop, one he likes visitors to see.

The Langemark German Cemetery is just outside of Ypres.

Unlike the gleaming, bright Commonwealth cemeteries Langemark is dark under a canopy of oaks.

The mood is one of gloom.

Flat headstones have eight or more names inscribed. In the centre, long grass grows on a raised area about 25m by 10m — a "comrades' grave" with the remains of close to 25,000 unidentified men. They are watched over by four faceless bronze figures, one holding its helmet to its heart.

Freddy played here as a child. "No one used to come here," he says.

Today, there's a couple at the other end of the cemetery. Wreaths of poppies have been left at the foot of the mass grave, some with messages scrawled in English.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Etihad Airways flies non-stop from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Abu Dhabi and onward to Brussels. It has code-sharing arrangements with Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia to connect with Etihad flights from Australia.

Stay: Ariane Hotel is in the heart of Ypres, a short stroll to the Menin Gate, and with its own displays of war uniforms and items.

Further information: See visit-ypres.com and visitflanders.com.