On the Road to Passendale

Posted on June 13th, 2013

As the 100 anniversary of the First World War approaches many people are making the pilgrimage to the Fields of Flanders where so many New Zealanders died. A new online map has been created to assist in finding the plots or memorials to the fallen Read more here 

 Passchendaele Bristow is named for the place where his great, great uncle died in 1917. He submitted a story for the Suburban Newspapers competition and subsequently laid a wreath at the Passchendaele Society Remembrance Ceremony in 2012.

His family recently visited Passchendaele and share their story here:



The story of our family trip to Passendale, to find the grave of our great, great uncle John Balero.

After reading my cousin, Passchendaele Bristow’s story in the paper last October, I was inspired to visit Belgium and go to the grave of our Uncle John Balero.

On the first official day of summer, with blue skies overhead,we set off from Bruges to West Flanders. On the onehour drive, the town and motorways fell away to be replaced by crop fields, Belgian Blues and quaint farmhouses. We stop when we see our first sign for Passendale and I decide to take photos of all the signs to send back to cousin Passchendaele. (I find later that this is the Flemish spelling for Passchendaele).

We make our way to Polygon Wood and the Buttes New British Cemetery. Set in a peaceful part of the countryside, with the occasional donkey braying and chickens clucking, it is hard to imagine today that this is the site of so much bloodshed. The kids and I spread out and we walk through and look at the name on every gravestone. I hear them say “here’s another New Zealander, here’s another one…” We eventually find the name John Balero listed under Rifleman on the right hand side of the New Zealand memorial. A sign at the top says “Here are recorded the names of officers and men of New Zealand who fell in the Polygon Wood Sector September 1917 to May 1918 and whose names are known only to God.” 

As I stare at that wall of all those names and especially John Balero, tears well in my eyes. So many lives lost, so many cemeteries dotted over the countryside. We see an area of bog and mud and describe how the men sat for days and months in the mud, advancing and retreating against the enemy. We think of Uncle John and wonder if he fought alongside his three brothers Martin, Andrew and Michael, we wonder if someone was with him when he died, and we wonder what it was like for his mother Margaret, father Andrew and his sister Annie (my great grandmother) when they heard the news of his death. As we go to leave we notice a number of ferns, especially a silver fern with a koru and we are glad to see this small part of New Zealand so close to our soldiers.


We visit the Langemark German Cemetery to see the contrast to the Commonwealth graves. It takes 20 mins and we arrive to see rows of black graves this time and walls and walls of names. There is one mass grave, which holds 25,000 bodies. We are told that Hitler visited here during WWII.

From there we head to Ieper (Ypres) to check into the Menin Gate House. We meet Benoit, our host and he informs us he is the MC tonight at the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony. With thousands gathered to watch the ceremony we are given a privileged position in the front. Benoit explains there are no New Zealand names on the Menin Gate, all the NZ soldiers that died in Ypres Salient are recognized at Tyne Cot Cemetery. As I listen to the sound of the bugles playing the Last Post and read the names of the Gurkhas, Scottish, Australian and English soldiers I am overawed by it all. I marvel at those taking part in the ceremony, a ceremony that has happened every night since 1928 (only exceptions being during WWII).  I listen to the words of the Ode to Rememberance, “at the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.” A little boy, the same age as my youngest son waving a French and UK flag comes to stand with us. In halting French I ask him his name and age and if I can take a photo of him and my son. I marvel at the human spirit, its ability to endure, to fight, to honour and to heal.

As dusk settles upon us we walk the Ramparts to the Lille Cemetery. We find the graves of ten brave Maori Battalion soldiers. We pay our respects to these soldiers and I think of my grandfather who served in the 28thMaori Battalion in the 2nd World War. Benoit had told us that Ngati Ranana had visited from London to pay their respects to the fallen Maori Battalion soldiers. We head back to the apartment and fall asleep with the lights from the illuminated Menin Gate shining through the window at us.

Sunday morning we drive on to Mesen, driving down New Zealand Street (Nieuw-Zeelandersstr / Rue des Neo Zelandais) to the NZ Messines Ridge Memorial.  At the bottom of the inscription is written  “From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth.” Our brave soldiers had to travel so far, literally the other side of the world.

We drove through the beautiful countryside to Poperinge and on to the Nine Elms Cemetery. By this stage the kids were getting quite good at searching for names so we split up once again to find the grave of Dave Gallaher, the first All Black captain. He died on 4 October,1917.

Driving into France, we drove through the town of Dunkirk, famous in WWII for the Battle of Dunkirk, and then on to Calais to board our car ferry. As the White Cliffs of Dover came into sight on the short trip across the Channel, the famous Vera Lynn song plays in my head. My grandmother taught me that song and I could only imagine the thoughts of those English and Allied soldiers as they spotted those beautiful White Cliffs on their return home. As we settle back into our lives we will never forget our special weekend spent in the fields of Flanders.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.

Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

 Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

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