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.