It can be rewarding to take time out and pay respects, writes Jude Dobson.
Holiday travel is often very much about you. What you want to do in that down time you've been hanging out for and saving your pennies to enjoy, and the memories you want to make. But sometimes the best holidays are about reflection and thinking of others. If you haven't clocked it — it's 100 years ago today since the end of World War I, the Armistice being signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 at Compiegne in a forest glade some 60km north of Paris.
I'm a bit of a homing pigeon for France. It is of course a most fabulous destination to visit — quaint villages, majestic chateaux, art overload, beaches, mountains, vineyards, wine and cheese. Lots of cheese and every sort of it you could ever imagine. What is not to love?
For me, however, France has also included many visits over the years to the various New Zealand memorials, a fair few of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries and a museum or three. I'm probably one of "those" mums — the one that has the itinerary sorted for a few educational visits along the route. And why not? In my mind it does our children a disservice not to encourage an appreciation of what went before.
There is a sombre beauty in a mass of beautifully kept war graves. And a pretty special moment comes when, as a travelling Kiwi, you find the specific grave you've been looking for and see the name of someone you know of. If you have some context about why they ended up buried so far from home, that's even more satisfying.
If this all sounds like something way too hard to research, there are some amazing bespoke tours out there in which a historian will join you on the road to give you the story of New Zealanders at the front and how the war played out.
Plus, that way you won't get lost or have arguments about navigation with your driving companion. Some travel companies will even help you research your relatives.
I was talking to Stephen Parsons, (House of Travel Palmerston North) recently and he was saying how satisfying it was to help people research their relatives using the war records and find the path they need to follow.
He recalled helping a person in their 80s research a relative at Gallipoli, then was there with them, physically helping them up the hill at the end of the journey.
An emotional moment ensued.
The reality is that most New Zealanders will have a relative who took part in World War I, whether or not they survived it. Of the 16,700 of us who died overseas, 12,500 are on the Western Front in France and Belgium.
Last year I spent quite some time researching my grandfather's war. I never met him — he died when my father was 16 — but we were going to France anyway, so I morphed the northern France part of the road trip to follow his war. It was a pretty amazing feeling to walk where he walked, even see the chateau on the outskirts of a small town that had been made into the British Officers accommodation (he was English) and literally see where he would have slept.
We also visited Carriere Wellington in Arras, which is one of those places you just have to go as a Kiwi. And if you are going to northern France, also add the Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate at Ypres, Belgium to the must-do list.
Close by are many places where New Zealanders fought and died — Messines, Gravenstaffel, Longueval and of course there's Tyne Cot Cemetery. It's the largest of the 960 Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries (CWGC) on the Western Front. There are 198 Kiwis buried here among the 11,900 servicemen of the British Empire. Of all the graves, only 3605 are identified. That tells you something of the ferocity of the battle.
The surrounding lush rolling Belgian landscape was anything but 100 years ago — it was a muddy, obliterated mess that would entomb a great many men. On the walls at Tyne Cot are the names of those not found — 34,996 to be exact (of which 1166 are New Zealanders who died in October 1917, in the bloodbath of Passchendaele). All up, that's more than the population of Timaru, gone.
Le Quesnoy is a destination to add to your travel plans too. This is the town that the NZ Division liberated on their own, on November 4, 1918, a week before the war would end. The fortified town was occupied by Germans for most of the war and the Kiwis elected not to fire over the inner walls to spare the civilians. After a day long, hard-fought battle our men entered by a ladder. A medieval operation in many ways but one the locals have never forgotten. Go for a stroll through the Avenue des Neo-Zelandais, spot Place des All Blacks, walk through the New Zealand Garden and see the NZ memorial on the ramparts.
And most importantly, go and see where our future museum on the Western Front will be — right here in this town in the wartime mayor's gracious residence on Rue Nouvelle Zelande. It's about to be renovated to be our place, our home to tell our stories. Kiwis are very welcome here in this little town.
The Dolores Cross Project gives Kiwis further opportunity to pay respect to those who went before us and paid the ultimate price, so we can have the future we do. Dolores Ho is the archivist at the National Army Museum in Waiouru. She wants to see the graves visited of every New Zealander who lies overseas as the result of war — more than 30,000 of them — with a piece of New Zealand left behind for them. She has started the Dolores Cross Project to achieve just that. Aptly, the name Dolores comes from the Latin word meaning sorrow, grief, pain and sadness. She makes harakeke crosses to cradle the poppy and asks for volunteers to help place the crosses at each grave and document the visit with a photo of the cross placed. She is almost half way there in her mission, but there's still some 15,000 graves that need a visitor.
In July this year I was filming in and around Le Quesnoy for the documentary series I have made about the liberation of the town (watch it on nzherald.co.nz). I contacted Dolores to see who needed to be visited and got sent a list of 20 or so men in Romeries Cemetery (we have 106 Kiwis in this one).
The cameraman and I set to our sad but satisfying duty. Between us we looked on the map of the cemetery I'd downloaded and printed, found our men, and planted a poppy.
We took a moment to thank them for their service and photographed their grave, now with an added touch of New Zealand. One of them — Lewis Evans — I knew quite a lot about from the research I did for the documentary. He was an unsung hero who really deserved an award for gallantry, in my humble opinion. Another, Bernard Ayling, I knew of as the wounded man on the stretcher in an archive photo. I looked at the faces of the men in that photo — their concern wondering if he would survive. Alas, he did not.
It felt good to sit there at their graves for a while; to actively think about them.
I thoroughly recommend thinking of others on a trip, especially if your lovely holiday destination has some Kiwis buried there who were on active service. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has an amazing site that will tell you exactly where all our fallen are (cwgc.org). And visiting some of those sites, seeing some of those museums is time well spent.
It's good to remember the past. It gave us our future. Lest We Forget.
● 10 per cent of NZ went overseas to war: 100,400 New Zealand men left for war from a population of 1,093,000 (1914 census). Another 9200 would serve with other Commonwealth countries.
● Of those leaving from NZ, 58,000 — more than 50 per cent — would become casualties (dead and wounded). 16,700 died overseas:
● 860 from sickness, accidents, protracted wounds, gas
● 640 in Sinai and Palestine
● 2700 in Gallipoli
● 12,500 on the Western Front
To arrange your own personalised Western Front battlefield tour, contact
Find out more about the Dolores Cross Project at facebook.com/DoloresCrossProject or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch Jude Dobson's documentary The Liberation of Le Quesnoy at