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Flemish Towns Honour War Dead

  • April 17th, 2007
  • Posted by Sarah West

graves-at-tyne-cot.jpgBetween 1914 and 1918 World War One, which involved soldiers from 32 countries, was raging in Europe and one of its bloodiest battles, the battle of Passchendaele saw the Belgian town of Ieper (once Ypres) completely destroyed.

As Sarah West reports, 90 years on, residents have rebuilt their townships and their lives; and are opening their arms to many who come to commemorate their war heroes.

Twenty million people lost their lives during World War One and of the 60 thousand Australians who were killed more than 36,000 perished in the northern Belgian region of Flanders, in conflicts including the battle of Passchendaele.

Franky Bostyn, Curator of the Passchendaele War Museum, spends his days researching the history of the famous battle and says while the soldiers who fought in Flanders suffered the most awful and adverse conditions of the war, the people who lived in the area before it lost all but everything.

“There were no just shell holes but the shell holes and the craters were in and over each other. It was one immensely vast sea of mud and craters. It was a landscape just like the moon and everyone thought it would be impossible to ever live here again,” he says.

Today the area has been restored to its former glory and although only half the original population returned after the war, those who did rebuilt their communities and are prospering from the commemorative tourism the area attracts.

“Now to the whole West Flanders area, Westhoek area, the former battlefields; there are about 400,000 people a year who come to visit the battlefields so a lot of them have to stay somewhere, they have to eat somewhere so it is very important in terms of local economy and getting even more important. And I also think that tourism is also important in preserving remembrance and in terms also of preserving heritage”, says Mr Bostyn.

Major General Paul Stevens, Director of the Office of Australian War Graves, says that the care taken by the local population is highly appreciated, as memorial sites like the ones at Passchendaele and Ieper are of significant importance to both the Australian public and the Army.

“I think it means an awful lot, when you get here when you can walk the ground, when you can go into the cemetery perhaps your relative is buried here,” he says.

“Or even if you just walk into the cemetery and you see all those rising sun badges on the headstones and you look at the names and you look at the ages and you look at the inscriptions on them; I think it just brings home in a very personal sense the loss that Australia suffered here, but the achievements that Australia made.”

For residents of this small rural community it’s not out of the ordinary to be confronted with reminders of the war in the course of everyday life.

“People live here amongst the shells, they live amongst the cemeteries, they start to get used to lets say the scars that the First World War made here.”

Last year the bodies of five Australian soldiers were found during the construction of a pipeline, and, in October, will be re-buried beside their fallen comrades at the New British Cemetery in the Polygon wood.

Although remnants of war are frequent finds, authorities in Flanders encourage the preservation of this living history of a war that touched so many lives in so many countries.

“Every year still about 40 to 50 remains are officially declared, and now we have to be honest; soldiers found after 90 years are skeletons; you can put them in a plastic bag,” says Franky Bostyn.

“So if contractors, especially from the area, find something they know that archaeologists will come and the police will come (and inquire); so if no-one sees it, all they do is put concrete over it and no-one sees; but more and more they are now declared, and very fortunately so.”

Picture: War graves at Tyne Cot cemetery, Passchendaele.