This year's Anzac Day commemorations will look a lot different than we're used to. There will be no Last Post played at Gallipoli, no New Zealanders making the pilgrimage to Europe to pay their respects and, back home, for the first time, communal dawn services are cancelled around the country.
But that doesn't stop us honouring the veterans and fallen Anzacs who fought for our safety. In tribute to them, this story tells of a journey last year to the Western Front, and the modern Kiwi connections keeping the Anzac memory alive.
In a dark, still Belgian museum, a forest of imploring arms stretches towards the ceiling. A backdrop of ghostly trees stripped bare by conflict plays out on a wall behind the anguished limbs.
It is an unsettling and powerful display to encounter. And though the sculpture, which sits in a shallow pool, occupies a cool room in a foreign land, it is intimately connected with New Zealand.
The ceramic work, Falls the Shadow, was created by Auckland artist Helen Pollock. She mixed Coromandel clay for the 18 arms with mud from Flanders, where hundreds of young New Zealand soldiers spent the last night of their lives before the Battle of Passchendaele in World War I.
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Pollock's artwork is part of the permanent collection at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele, which is temporarily closed due to Covid-19, but has online resources dedicated to its collections. The small but striking museum is in a chateau at Zonnebeke, where the Western Front divided Allied forces from the German Army.
On October 12, 1917, the New Zealand Division launched an attack to take the village of Passchendaele, just a few kilometres from Zonnebeke. They had to cross a flooded valley where German troops were protected in concrete pillboxes, covered by machinegun fire and dug in behind coils of barbed wire.
In four bloody hours, the New Zealanders were cut to ribbons, suffering 2700 casualties, including 846 dead.
The story of the immense suffering of that awful day is told at the museum, wrapped in memory and contemplation. Outside the chateau, a recreated trench gives a sense of the cramped conditions where soldiers spent wary hours. Inside, one display releases odours reminiscent of gas which tore at the lungs of the troops. Uniforms worn by attacking armies feature along with letters, documents and fading photographs. Above all, the visitor is encouraged to reflect.
In the chateau grounds, an immense 8m pou maumahara carved from an ancient pōhutukawa has been installed. Created by master carvers, tutors and students from the Māori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua, the pou has been aligned to capture Tūmatauenga (war) and Rongomaraeroa (peace).
One side of the towering carving faces northwest, where the soldiers prepared for battle. The other side looks southwest, towards the people who stayed at home, including those who opposed conscription.
Not far from the pou, flaxes, hebes and trimmed mānuka grow in a memorial garden, where a concrete column pierced with 2700 holes — one for every casualty — stands as an indelible tribute to the dreadful New Zealand toll at the end of a single day of fighting.
Reminders of death are never far, no matter where you move around the front. This is, after all, Flanders Fields, where 12,000 New Zealanders lie buried, some in unmarked graves, and many in the neat and orderly cemeteries, which invite the visitor to step lightly along rows of white headstones.
The fern cut in the gravestones is an etching that could only belong to a soldier from a small loyal land on the other side of the world.
I encountered lots of ferns during a brief visit last year to the front. In the space of three days, as part of a guided coach trip hosted by Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours, our group was immersed in the tragedy of the front.
Some of us were on a mission to see where family members had been laid to rest. My motivation, having written a lot of stories connected with the World War I centennial commemorations, was to see first hand where so many young New Zealanders had gone without a second thought.
The landscape of the battlegrounds has been transformed and the rolling farmland of Belgium and northern France masks the terrible human cost that was paid last century. The countryside shares sacrifice with seasonal rhythms. Our bus would pass tractors turning over paddocks before stopping at memorials where the machinery of war once pounded away.
One hundred years on, farmers still must work carefully lest they disturb history. Every season, unexploded ordnance gets unearthed as implements uncover buried shells. It is called the "iron harvest".
For every square metre of territory on the 700km front from the North Sea coast to the Swiss border, it is estimated that a tonne of explosives fell. One shell in every four did not detonate and buried itself on impact in the mud.
Our driver stopped at the corner of a paddock where a pile of rusty shells and projectiles has been left for collection by a bomb disposal squad.
Journeys from this sector of the front tend to head off from the medieval town of Ypres. Known as Wipers to the Allied soldiers, it was the centre of a thriving textile trade before its destruction in the Great War.
The war raged around Ypres for four years. Troops passed through the city and along the Menin Rd for the frontline.
Winston Churchill wanted the place left as a ruin but the Belgians rebuilt the city with its cobbled streets and striking Cloth Hall, and opened rows of chocolate shops and bars that serve satisfying Belgian beer.
Ypres draws thousands of visitors, many for the justly famous Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate, an immense memorial built on the town's ramparts. The ceremony has taken place nightly since 1928 — apart from four years of German occupation during World War II — usually to large crowds. While Belgium battles Covid-19, the ceremony continues, but the public are asked to stay away.
The fight at the front was a long desperate conflict where armies would wage war over a few kilometres of territory. For the visitor, this battle of attrition makes it possible to visit 20th-century history in 21st-century time.
Tyne Cot, one of the world's largest cemeteries, is just 8.5km from Passchendaele. It has 11,956 graves and a New Zealand memorial with the names of 1200 men who never returned. That is the size of one of our small towns.
It is a tranquil place, for all the memories it holds, and you can sense that the souls who rest here are deeply respected.
Not far away is Polygon Wood. When the New Zealand Division was here last century, there was no wood - just scarred, sodden ground with shattered tree stumps and used shell craters. The trees have reclaimed the land, and a peaceful cemetery commemorates 378 New Zealand soldiers who have no known grave.
It is one of seven memorials in France and Belgium for New Zealanders whose graves are not known.
Before leaving Ypres, we stopped at Langemark, a cemetery for 44,000 German soldiers. Its origins were difficult because the Belgian authorities were reluctant to grant land for enemy graves.
Even today, it is not part of cemetery routes traced by most who visit the front. But Langemark has its own sombre beauty, and a poignancy of its own: just through the brick entrance lies a mass grave for 23,000 troops, including cadets and students who perished in a futile push to break through the front at Ypres.
South of Ypres, the front shifts into France. I followed it to Arras, a stunning city with its own special connection to New Zealand.
During the war, hundreds of Kiwi soldiers dug a network of tunnels in the chalky ground beneath Arras. The tunnellers created an underground city, with a hospital, a light rail system, running water and power. As they carved new tunnels, the soldiers named their caverns after the towns they left behind.
You can experience the work of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company at Carriere Wellington, the Wellington Quarry Museum. A lift descends 20m, where the lights are dimmed to preserve the chilly interior. Graffiti written by soldiers survives on tunnel walls and piles of rusty ration tins, glass bottles and rum jars hint at life after a tough working shift.
At the museum exit, a work by the New Zealand artist Marian Fountain commemorates the tunnellers. Called The Earth Remembers, the 3.5m bronze sculpture surrounds a silhouette of a tunneller in a lemon-squeezer hat.
Inside the monument, the sky is visible through a hole at the top to evoke the moment when 24,000 Allied troops poured out of the quarries at dawn on April 9, 1917, for the Battle of Arras.
Fountain lined her artwork with images of soldiers. They surround and gaze at the visitor, a reminder of the price paid for peace.
Sydney-based Mat McLachlan Tours runs guided trips to the Western Front. Trips are suspended but check mclachlantours.com.au for the latest advice.