ZONNEBEKE – On another Anzac Day turned lonesome by the global pandemic, solitary actions showed all the more how the sacrifices of Australia and New Zealand during World War I are far from forgotten.
While global attention turned at dawn on Sunday to the beaches of Turkey’s Gallipoli where the two emerging countries crafted a sense of nationhood from the horrors of war in April 1915, all along the front line in Europe, small ceremonies highlighted gratitude for the so-called Anzac troops over a century after the war ended.
Unable to take part in the reduced official Gallipoli ceremonies, New Zealanders Matthew Henry and Tom Letty were still there in Turkey for their own tribute at the Lone Pine cemetery for a “Last Post" bugle call.
“It was a pretty heartfelt experience — actually standing there in the cemetery and thinking about what these guys must have gone through over a hundred years ago,” said Henry, 31.
It is not only Australians and New Zealanders honoring their own. The people they defended do likewise too, from such famous battlegrounds as the Somme in France and Flanders Fields in Belgium, some 2,750 kilometers (1,700 miles) west from Gallipoli along the immense front line where Anzac troops fought.
In western Belgium, Johan Vandewalle is leading a team of volunteers there that has almost finished a 40-meter long memorial to slain brothers, based on an Australian soldier named John “Jack” Hunter whose remains were located decades after he died in the hands of his brother.
Born 60 years ago on the frontline of the Passchendaele Battle, Vandewalle has been steeped from childhood in the terror of the 1914-1918 global conflict that claimed 14 million lives — 5 million civilians and 9 million soldiers, sailors and airmen from 28 countries including nearly 60,000 Australians and at least 16,000 New Zealanders.
Vandewalle’s playgrounds as a kid actually had soldiers still buried underneath, and the early fascination with the war turned into a lifelong passion to do justice to the fallen. He turned into an amateur archaeologist seeking to make sure that any body that was still dug up could be identified.
He immediately knew that when roadworks uncovered more bodies in 2006 there was something special about one soldier wrapped in a rubber ground sheet, hand across his heart. After he was hit by the Germans on Sept. 26, 1917, Jack Hunter’s brother Jim found him dying and buried him near a marker so he could recover his remains later.
In a war in which villages and woods were razed by relentless shellfire and turned into unrecognizable mudlands overnight, Jim never recovered his brother’s body, and found that hard to live with.
His niece Mollie Millis, 94, who lives in Brisbane, Queensland, said that on his deathbed Jim “called out his name when he passed. He always wanted to find him but the landscape in Flanders was so altered.”
Vandewalle’s efforts to identify Hunter ended at Millis’s doorstep, and Mollie’s DNA provided the proof that Jack would indeed find a dignified resting place in 2007 at the Buttes New British Cemetery, Polygon Wood, close to where he died. “I will forever be grateful to Johan for taking such good care of Jack,” Millis said.
So touched was Vandewalle by the story of the Hunters that he started building the memorial to slain brothers, overwhelmingly based on private funding. It now awaits a bronze statue to arrive to complete the works.
To Millis, it shows the bond uniting people half a world away, even a century later.
“It is wonderful that Johan has managed to create a memorial for all those that lost brothers in the war. He worked so hard and over so many years and we consider him a true friend of the family,” Millis said.
Even if she lives many more Anzac Days, a visit will not happen. “I would love to see the memorial finished but I am too old now to travel that far.”
Vandewalle realizes his work is only a drop in an immense ocean of grief. “This memorial is only the story of one set, one little story of the war. And there are so many more.”
Close to the Somme in northern France, Villers-Bretonneux was also sight to a horrific battle where Anzac troops died, and no local has forgotten.
“Last year, when the Australian bushfires were at their worst, the local residents raised money to send back to Australia,” said Gillian Bird, Australian Ambassador to France. Those ties that were forged in terrible circumstances a hundred years ago, continue and endure."
So much so that, official or not, authorized or not, more tributes were set for Sunday.
“We will never forget them and we, at Villers-Bretonneux, we organized commemorations on the sly,” said Mayor Didier Dinouard.
Associated Press journalists Virginia Mayo and Mark Carlson contributed to this report from Zonnebeke, Alex Turnbull from Villers-Bretonneux and Mehmet Guzel from Gelibolu, Turkey.