One hundred years after the bloody fighting of the First World War took thousands of lives in the battlefields of Flanders, a memorial garden has been created at the Australian War Memorial to ensure those Australians who never came home will be forever remembered. 

The region of Flanders, in the northern province of Belgium, is where the men of the Australian Imperial Force fought their most costly battles of the First World War. Of the more than 60,000 Australians who died while serving in the conflict, some 13,000 are either buried or commemorated in Flanders.

The Australians first arrived in Flanders in September 1916, having been relieved by the Canadians after the bitter fighting at Pozières and Mouquet Farm in France. They entered the relatively quiet St Eloi sector to rest and take on fresh reinforcements before returning to the Somme in November 1916.

Returning to Flanders in 1917, the Australians captured key German positions along the Messines Ridge in June before participating in the four-month-long campaign later termed the Third Battle of Ypres. Fighting at Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcappelle, and Passchendaele throughout September and October, the five Australian divisions made some advance but at an immense cost.

Of the 76,000 Australian casualties recorded in 1917, more than 38,000 occurred in just eight weeks during the Third Battle of Ypres. That October saw the AIF suffer more casualties than in any single month of the war, with more than 6,800 dead. The last major participation by the Australians was represented in the fighting for the Passchendaele, where waterlogged conditions helped make the village’s name synonymous with slaughter.

Nearly half of the 13,000 Australians who died during the bloody fighting in Flanders have no known grave. Instead, they are commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, which bears the names of the missing.

As a reminder of the sacrifices made and the partnership forged between Australia and Belgium as a result of these tragic events, a new memorial garden was dedicated today in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

The Flanders Memorial Garden contains soil taken from the battlefields and war cemeteries across Flanders. This was mixed with soil collected by the Returned and Services League from significant military heritage sites in each Australian state and territory.

The garden sits within a formal grass court in the Memorial’s Western Precinct. It is constructed from Portland Stone – the same stone used on the arch and in the commemorative panels of the Menin Gate in Belgium.

Inscribed on the low stone walls is the text from John McCrae’s poem In Flanders fields:

In Flanders fields

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.

Before the ceremony Memorial Director Dr Brendan Nelson reflected on the enduring partnership between Australia and Belgium, and how the garden serves to commemorate those who lost their lives 100 years ago.

“In the Great War, these men and women paid the ultimate sacrifice for Australia, the ideals of mankind, and the hope of a better world. A centenary gift from the people of Flanders, the garden is a reminder of the eternal truths by which we live, and the lives lost for them,” said Dr Nelson.

“As the Unknown Australian Soldier represents the physical remains of all Australians who have died in wars, the returning of this soil to Australia symbolises their spiritual homecoming.”

The evening before the dedication ceremony, members of Australia’s Federation Guard transported five hand-crafted boxes containing the Flanders soil from the Memorial forecourt into the Commemorative Area.

Made from Tasmanian Blackwood, the same timber used to make the coffin of the Unknown Australian Soldier, the boxes were brought past the names listed on the First World War Roll of Honour and placed them in the Hall of Memory. Resting adjacent to the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, they remained in symbolic vigil overnight.

The following morning the boxes were collected by Australia’s Federation Guard and taken to the official dedication ceremony, where they were placed in the garden. The ceremony was attended by the Governor-General, His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd), the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Julie Bishop MP, and the Secretary General of the Flanders Department of Foreign Affairs, Mr Koen Verlaeckt.

The Governor-General spoke evocatively of the conditions faced by those who fought, citing “Australian men interred in dug-outs, trapped under duckboards, crushed by shell-fire; soldiers, cursing the mud with every fibre of their being.” Flanders, he said, was “always a sombre and sacred place … of carnage and courage, of desperate sacrifice and stoic endurance – (is) now a beautiful place.”

Mr Verlaeckt offered his government’s “everlasting gratitude” to Australia for the sacrifice of so many of its soldiers in 1917.

“Many of them rest forever in Flemish soil, far away from their loved ones. Inclusion of soil from Flanders in this garden brings them back symbolically, uniting them with the country of their birth.”

He added that, in the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, “it is of the utmost importance that we create physical anchors of stability that invite our citizens to make time for reflection and remembrance”. 

The strains of “Oh Passchendaele”, performed by the Royal Military College, Duntroon, sounded through the cold Canberra air, and a traditional smoking ceremony was held by Ngunnawal elders to cleanse the site and bless the soil, the symbolic home of thousands.

Next to the Flanders Memorial Garden an interpretive panel features a quote from British Field Marshal Lord Plumer when he dedicated the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial in Ypres, in 1927:

"It can be said of each one in whose honour we are assembled here today: He is not missing; he is here.”

 

Soil Sites

FROM FLANDERS FIELDS, BELGIUM
Tyne Cot Cemetery
Menin Gate Ramparts
Polygon Wood
Toronto Avenue Cemetery
Hill 60

NSW
Anzac Memorial
Garden Island
Victoria Barracks (NSW)

ACT
Woden Valley (Yamba Homestead)
Jerrabomberra Wetlands (Duntroon Trench Warfare& Bombing School)

SA
Torrens Training Depot
Outer Harbour
Keswick Barracks

WA
Fremantle Port
Albany
Blackboy Hill

TAS
Hobart - Soldiers Memorial Avenue
King Island 'Northallerton'

NT
Port of Darwin (East Port)

VIC
The Shrine of Remembrance
Maygar Barrack
Ballarat Avenue of Honour

QLD
Warwick
Enoggera
Pinkenba

Watch

Live stream of the opening and dedication of the Flanders Memorial Garden on YouTube and Facebook
Time lapse of the construction of Flanders Memorial Garden
Final preparations before the opening and dedication

See

Official photographs of the construction of Flanders Memorial Garden