April 27, 2007

Anzac Day in Mesen/Messines

On this year's ANZAC Day, we decided to go to Flanders fields to commemorate the Battle of Messines in 1917 (which actually took place on June 7). The New Zealand embassy in Belgium organises an annual wreath laying ceremony in the town of Mesen, where the NZ troops won a battle at great cost against the Germans. All very official and ceremonial, including representatives from various traveling RSA members and local dignitaries.
Not much in the way of personal tributes was allowed for, but Ewen managed to place a wreath made by his mother on the memorial site. His maternal grandfather was actually stationed in the area for most of the war and took part in that battle and luckily survived to tell the tale and to later marry Ewen's grandmother. Many people were interested in the story behind it and his letters will be published early next year.
We got to know the local historian who showed us around the area and was quite chatty about the whole thing. My main memory was that the local Belgians actually care very little about the Great War history that raged and razed their villages several times over in many cases. Farmers often find unexploded munition and gas shells in their fields and treat them as a nuisance rather than of historical curiosity. The gas shells especially are still quite lethal!
We stayed at the Peace Village, a newly built accommodation facility for groups and people interested in the area. The management had forgotten to turn on the hot water tap so cold showers were had by all in the morning - surely a trifle inconvenience compared to the hardship the boys in the field had to endure in the War!

A more formal report for the Waiheke Island newspaper Gulf News is online here.

In the afternoon we visited Ieper, which has an extensive war museum called In Flanders Fields. Very evocative in its depiction of the war horrors and thankfully free of all that gung ho usually associated with war memorials.

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