Australia

Australians travel to Belgium to honour war hero relatives

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To mark the centenary of Armistice Day, hundreds of Australians have ventured overseas to pay their respects to those who fought in the Great War.

Polygon Wood is a short drive from the Belgian town of Ypres.

It’s a lush forest, eerily quiet, even when there are dozens of tourists visiting.

But a century ago, it had been razed. The trees all but destroyed in fierce shelling.

Allied troops would win the battle, but at a cost. There were 5,770 Australians killed.

Polygon Wood
Polygon Wood in Belgium.

For Sydney woman Frances Bluhdorn, it is a sacred place. Her grandfather Louis Bluhdorn fought here and survived.

His three cousins, the Seabrook brothers, were killed at Passchendaele in 1917. It was their first and only battle.

The Seabrook brothers
The Seabrook brothers.
Australian War Memorial

Like many visitors to this site, Ms Bluhdorn was amazed so many signs of the conflict are still here; German bunkers and trenches are hidden among the foliage.

“It’s so emotional, it’s so moving and I don’t know how to feel about it,” she told SBS News this week, ahead of Armistice Day.

“It’s so calm and peaceful and soothing here, such a contrast to what my grandfather would have experienced.”

Frances Bluhdorn
Frances Bluhdorn's grandfather fought in World War One.
SBS News

The vast majority of those buried at Polygon Wood are unknown soldiers. But some headstones bear names, including Lieutenant William Osmond Frost, an Australian.

He was killed in action in Belgium in October 1917. His great-nephew Phil Bryden came to pay his respects, spending a few minutes at his grave.

“There’s a lot of headstones here, it makes it really special to pick one out that is particular to you or is in your lineage,” he said.

“It’s still overwhelming the number of headstones wherever you go, whether it’s up here or down in the Somme. A lot of young men lost their lives and didn’t get to go home.”

A lot of young men lost their lives and didn’t get to go home.

Phil Bryden
Phil Bryden at his great uncle's grave.
SBS News
 

David Paul’s grandfather, Harry Hartnett, survived the conflict and documented his experiences in his war diaries, which were later published as a book entitled Over the Top.

Mr Paul says visiting the places you read about in military histories is vital, if you want to try to comprehend what the troops went through.

“It brings understanding, mostly, of what the place was like,” he said.

“It’s such a long way from home. It’s hard to explain really, it does give me comfort, I just found it very interesting to see these places which are etched in our history. Not just written in books, but in our own personal history.”

‘Remembrance Tourism’ is a major industry in Western Belgium and Northern France.

There is some concern among locals that visitor numbers will drop once Armistice centenary commemorations are completed this year.

But many Australian tour guides believe the increased popularity of genealogy will keep interest in the Great War alive.

“A lot of people on the tour who are 60-plus, this is their first experience, they’ve now stopped and done the family history,” said David Wright, a veteran leader of Western Front tour groups.

“There’s no father or grandfather to talk to anymore so they’ve come over here to try to find out what they can.”

Local officials, including Ypres deputy mayor Jan Breyne, agree:

“One hundred years is just a mark in history. But what happened in history, it goes on.”

“The significance of our friendship [between Australia and Belgium] will not disappear.”

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