Exhibition marks Passchendaele centenary

Passchendaele exhibition touring curator Freddy Declerck in front of a photograph of the Buttes...
Passchendaele exhibition touring curator Freddy Declerck in front of a photograph of the Buttes New British Cemetery at Polygon Wood. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Belgium will never forget those who fought and died on its soil in World War 1 if Freddy Declerck has anything to do with it.

The former chairman of the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 has previously toured exhibitions from his native Belgium to New Zealand honouring the fallen.

His latest exhibition, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele,  opens  tomorrow afternoon  at Toitu Otago Settlers Museum.

Planning for the centenary exhibition began in 2013. It has already been staged in four Australian centres, Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Waimakariri. Dunedin is its final stop.

"It is an easy exhibition to pick up and move around.

"That is important for me because I want to bring the battlefield to people who cannot come to Belgium," Mr Declerck said.

There were  many people who wanted to see what happened  during those four years from 1914-18.

"Many New Zealanders, many of them from the Otago region, are now resting in our landscape. A nation who does not take care of these dead is not worthy."

Passchendaele — also known as the third battle of Ypres — began in July 1917 and lasted just over three months. Hundreds of thousands of men were killed or wounded in the battle, in which New Zealand and Otago soldiers played a prominent role. On one day, October 12, 1917, 843 New Zealanders were killed. It was  the bloodiest day in New Zealand military history.

While  World War 1 battles are far distant in time, they are part of daily life for many Belgians. Between 200,000kg and 300,000kg of live ammunition are dug up in Flanders fields every year, and  bomb disposal teams conduct controlled explosions of munitions on a daily basis. Up to 30 bodies are also recovered annually. For most, identifying them is a hopeless task.

"If you are lucky you will sometimes find something with the body, like a cap badge, so that you know what regiment he is from," Mr Declerck said.

An estimated 440 Dunedin men died in Belgium during World War 1. That was a tie which bound Belgium to the southern city, Mr Declerck said.

"We cannot imagine today what they went through then."

- Mike Houlahan

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