GUARDIAN 8: Johan Durnez

It was under the Menin Gate in Ypres that Belgian schoolteacher Johan Durnez first spoke with a visiting Australian. In the years to follow, that meeting had mushroomed into a wide network of new Aussie friends and being awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia.

Johan’s house boasts a large Australian flag at the window, and his wife Hilde extends his enthusiastic welcome. I am not surprised when Hilde calls out ‘Aussie, be good’ when a small white dog comes bounding out to welcome us, dressed in a bandana also featuring the Australian flag.

This couple’s connection with Australia began in earnest when a visiting Tasmanian introduced himself, in May 1995.  

‘I was taking photos at the Menin Gate,’ Johan explains. ‘I noticed [someone wearing] one medal that I did not have yet in my collection. It was the French medal of the Somme. That man noticed I was pointing my long-focus lens towards him. After the service he came across the road.

‘He said, “I’m from Hobart. Do you know where Hobart is?” I had no idea, and I was too scared to say that the only time I had seen that name was on a bag of onions in the supermarket. He suggested I teach our students something about Australia in the First World War. Well, he kept sending me information, more and more information.’

That first Tasmanian visitor, who was travelling with an Australian War Memorial group, morphed into a new community of Australian friends.

‘Then from one after another, it started. Oh, we have friends, can they come and say hello to you?’ Johan says with a grin. ‘They come from the other side of the globe and are looking for a place where their ancestors have been. We know the places here, we know people here. So, why would we not help?’

It is a pursuit that brings a heart-warming pleasure to the couple.

‘I think being on the place where you know your grandfather or great-grandfather fought for other people must be very special,’ Johan says. ‘We get a lot in return – the feeling that you can help people. I am not a tour guide. I just try to help Australians who come to commemorate their ancestors.’

It is this dedication to Australian–Belgian relations, and his contribution to promoting the role played by Australians during World War I in Belgium, that led to Johan being invested with his Medal of the Order of Australia by Australia’s then Governor-General Quentin Bryce in 2013.

Johan smiles fondly at Hilde across the luxurious velvet box holding the medal that sits between them at the table we have settled into for our chat. Nodding, she encourages him to reminisce about the day the secondary schoolteacher was awarded for the nearly 20 years he has volunteered his time helping Australians delve into the history of their ancestors.

‘We did the investiture at the Ypres Town Hall,’ he says. ‘We brought a group of students along. They were impressed when the Governor-General came into the Hall along with the Australian Ambassador and Mayor of Ypres. For days after they talked about the lady in the Town Hall.’

Students like these have benefited from school projects Johan runs, teaching them about Australia by taking them to visit local battlefields and cemeteries.

‘Making a trip, exploring the fields, visiting some cemeteries, is very good for them,’ he says. ‘And then, as I got more and more contacts in Australia, we also brought them the stories of Australians.’

Johan says he feels a bond to the Australian spirit of mateship.

‘I feel connected to the Australian spirit of helping where you need to give help and not. If I give help here, I can get these benefits from it,’ he says. ‘This is more the Australian spirit and I like that.’

It is a link that has escalated over the years simultaneously with a bourgeoning comprehension of the role Australian servicemen and women played here during World War I.

‘When we were children all these were just English cemeteries. Everyone who was wearing khaki was English. We didn’t really know that there were Canadians, that there were New Zealanders, that there were Australians,’ Johan says. ‘As a child, one of the stories I heard many times was that of the first English soldier that was killed in action in our town. It was actually an Australian, but we only found it out at the end of the 1990s.’

It seems the emergent recognition that Commonwealth forces were comprised of diverse nationalities simultaneously commenced with the first of the Australian visitors.

‘The first Australians that I saw was 1993,’ Johan says. ‘They came as a group of veterans and war widows from the First World War to visit the battlefields in France and Belgium. They were all more than 80, early 90 in age. The next main connection to Australia was when they brought the Unknown Warrior from Villers-Bretonneux to Ypres before they took him back to Australia.’

To mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War I, the body of an unknown Australian soldier was recovered from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux in France and transported to Australia to represent all Australians killed.

‘We decided to go to the service. We have a deep feeling of respect towards those people who came to liberate our country and we wanted to pay our respects. That was very different from now. There were about 20 people under the Menin Gate on one side, and on the other side there was a Guard of Honour from Australia. It was silent in the main square. All you could hear was the very slow-turning engine of the ambulance and the shoes of that Guard of Honour on the slow march.’

Johan says those intimate rituals have now faded under the weight of the growing number of sightseers, especially at The Last Post ceremony every evening under the Menin Gate.

‘When you went to The Last Post in the 1980s, the bugles sounded the call to attention,’ he says. ‘Then all fell silent. The cameras went down and people stood to attention. Everyone took part in the service of commemoration. Today they sound the call to attention. First they have to explain this is a service, please do not applaud after the service. Then, all the cell phones go up, all the cameras go up, the tablets.’

Today, Johan seeks quieter encounters for his visiting Aussies in search of a grave and to honour their ancestors. 

‘You still have people who come to connect with their ancestors,’ he says. ‘When we help those people we say okay, let’s go to a place like Polygon Wood or Tyne Cot Cemetery when the tourists are gone and the pilgrims are there. Tyne Cot Cemetery is beautiful at 8 pm when the tourists have rushed to the chocolate shops and the Menin Gate when all the tablets and cell phones go up.’

The area has transformed dramatically from his childhood days when monuments and cemeteries were just part of his daily environment.

 ‘When you went to the outskirts of our town you could see the shells lying on the roadsides, and we were taught as children that you had to keep your hands off because it was dangerous,’ Johan says. ‘To make us scared enough to stay away from them, they would say, “Look at that man – he is missing fingers.” And indeed, we all knew one or two men who were missing parts of their hands. Officially it had been another working accident, but it was because they were handling old ammunition.’

Teaching his students today about the dangers of war is considerably less risky and, according to Johan, well worth the effort.

‘It takes a lot of your time, your weekends and your evenings to prepare all these things, but if you can give them that experience, that is why you do it. You hope you can teach them something they can take with them in their life. Students remember they came to the battlefields with me. They do not so much remember that I taught them history or lessons in the classroom.’

Leaving Johan, Hilde and the little dog Aussie, I felt a slight empathy with those Belgian students. I too had stepped away from the history books to come traipsing around the battlefields. I resolved to join the army of tourists marching out between the Menin Gate arches into the countryside scarred with its astonishing array of monuments peppering the horizon in all directions.

The war stories of desolation and chaos are no longer evident. Farmlands that buried the shrapnel of war, so dangerous to local children, now encompass hundreds of monuments, memorials and cemeteries.

And, they are many and varied. There are monuments for people who were involved in the military units; the many civilians who were caught up in the war; and the remains of many thousands who died on all sides, left unrecognisable, destroyed or lost. During the years of combat the loss in human and animal lives was horrifically high.

I heard time and again that people had avoided talking about World War I during those post-war years; however, there had been a voluminous assembly of monuments. Across the landscape they reach out of the earth where the bodies once lay, to explode out the top in vast formations. As the shrapnel was slowly removed from the earth, monuments were sprouting up.

They have all been erected with military precision. White stones lead up to flagpoles. Garden beds and cobblestones sit in perfectly straight lines. The infamous Somme mud is replaced with lush grass. Cobblestones guide sightseers, ensuring footsteps do not result in the dreaded sludge, victorious again as it was during the war years. Gravestones and wooden crosses lie in military lines, row after row after row leading out to the meadows beyond. Even the trees line up smartly, standing to attention in carefully choreographed clumps. Statues of Diggers stare down on those staring back up in sorrowful awe.

Yet, there is a vulnerability to the World War I monuments. Drifting through the Western Front there are constant signs of upkeep. Tarpaulins are slapped over crumbling walls and structures as nature tries to take back its place on the fields.

The weight of the surge of tourists impacts paths, roads and gardens, the wear and tear halted by mounds of scaffolding as a legion of workers endeavour to elude potential destruction. Evidence of the tourism influx is illustrated in the immaculate roads and parking bays neatly tucked between the constructions.

Intermingling with the well-ordered terrain are signs issuing orders on what constitutes orderly conduct – no messy confrontations between war tourists here.

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However, personal mementos are compassionately accepted: homespun treasures poked in and around official edifices; printed notes, material poppies and sticks tied together to make a makeshift cross; a flag shoved into a hedge or stuck into walls. Personal tokens left in respect never cause clutter or mess. The pristine environ alludes to a stealth squad wandering in behind the crowds, clearing away personal mementos from one day in preparation for the next. Wire shelves strain under the weight of wreaths deferentially positioned in touching tribute, all miraculously cleared away in subtle respect to make room for the next batch to arrive.

This sensitively creates a setting that is a far cry from the chaos of war. The stories and numbers of dead at each monument and cemetery are devastating. The beautifully maintained gardens are like a breathing space from the sadness, perhaps a slight sign of optimism that things could change – from mud and horror to monuments and flowers.

And light plays a powerful role here. In winter it can be bleak and dark. Under the gaze of bright, summer-blue skies, the Allied cemeteries are a paradox, with colourful flowers poking around pristine headstones like cheeky children playing hide and seek. Wandering through these places on a warm, sunny afternoon, there is a sense of serene respect, with groups meandering in the warmth, sometimes holding hands. Once, a laugh floated out between unsuspecting lips nearby that were quickly clamped shut as heads shot up from fellow visitors; then, an embarrassed drop of the head and shuffling feet of the person who had momentarily forgotten where they were.

The locals working the farms are not on a once-in-a-lifetime trip across the world; they are working around the large chunks taken from their farmlands to accommodate the copious cemeteries. They patiently manoeuvre the Commonwealth visitors.

Coasting down country roads, the sheer number of cemeteries becomes one of the most striking features of the landscape. It is sobering to contemplate the carnage that took place on these fields.

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© 2018 by Louise Grayson