Vaarwel Belgie en dankjewel
( Farewell to Belgium and thank you)
Today is our last day in Belgium. Yesterday we crossed the border into France to visit VC Corner cemetery and the Battle of Fromelles Museum. The museum is solely dedicated to Australia’s involvement in the battle on July 19 and 20, 1916, their first battle on the Western Front. The shocking casualty statistics can be easily quoted or researched, but the poignancy and emotion of the battle, and its consequences, cannot be fully comprehended until these sites are visited. The discover of the ‘Lost Diggers of Fromelles’ their exhumation and subsequent identification (of some), is a moving story.
Today, Thursday, the tour focused on the Battle of Polygon Wood, part of the campaign known to most as ‘Paaschendale. We visited Johan at his cafe, Cafe De Dreve (also known as the ANZAC cafe. Johan is an amateur archaeologist who has, for many years been involved in investigating WW1 tunnels. In addition he has actively participated in the exhumation of bodies, mainly Australian, and their identification. He was asked to assist with the Lost Diggers of Fromelles project.
Of particular note are the Zonnebeke Five. In 2006, while excavating for a new gas line, 5 bodies were discovered. Johan was called in to assist in their exhumation and identification. Though it may sound a little gruesome, the first 4 graves were ‘normal’. That is, probably just buried as quickly as possible with little ceremony. However, when Johan got to the 5th grave, he noticed something different. This body had been carefully wrapped in a groundsheet becoming almost mummified. In addition in wasn’t in the straight line of the others – it was pointed in a different direction. To Australia, or home.
Johan, did further comprehensive research and discovered that the soldier was John Hunter who had been buried by his younger brother Jim. Jim took great care in burying Jack, despite the tumult of war going on around him. Jim survived the war and his last word was “Jack”.
Johan is passionate about these 5, especially John Hunter, but also 2 others who have recently been exhumed and identified. All 7 soldiers are now buried in a separate line at Polygon Wood Cemetery. Johan visits these graves nearly every day, touches them and just says ‘D’day mate’.
He has continued his passion with John Hunter and his comrades, and is now building the ‘Brothers in Arms’ memorial opposite his cafe, which is where they were discovered.
One photo shows Johan with students at the graves of the 5.
The other shows a model of the statue that is being made in Melbourne for the memorial.
Johan will be in Melbourne to do the first mould pour next year. Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits performed at the opening on November 10th, and is returning for the official unveiling of the statue in 2019.
This is an amazing and poignant story, reflecting the sheer passion of one man and his commitment to commemorating Australian soldiers.
And the students got to hear and experience the whole story, including a guided tour of his amazing museum where they handled Lee Enfield rifles and a somewhat primitive and very heavy anti tank gun. Johan then took us through Polygon Wood and gave an explanation, with graphics, of the battle. We also visited ‘Scott’s Bunker’, so named as it was important German bunker taken by an Australian soldier called Scott.
It is primarily a self funded project.
Should anyone wish to donate visit http://brothersinarmsmemorial.org/wp/ for further information.