The next marker on the map directs us to Tyne Cot Cemetery. We walk towards the back, where a curved wall – the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing – is inscribed with 1,200 names. The narrator draws my eye to three instances of the surname ‘Newlove’ listed in the stone. They were three brothers killed within eight days of each other. Humbled, we stand in silence, listening to the chirping of birds carrying on the wind.
“Where to now?” asks my boyfriend, so I pull out the iPad and select the next trail: Polygon Wood. Off we drive north towards Buttes New British Cemetery where we climb the steps towards the 5th Australian Division Memorial. At the instruction of the app, we look out over the cemetery, our backs to the monument, and press play. The narrator tells us that the grassy hill we’re standing on is, in fact, a huge bunker complex where, in the winter of 1917–18, hundreds of New Zealanders lived in eight-day rotations in cramped corridors; that the fledgling trees of Polygon Wood in front of us was, in 1917, ‘not a wood at all… but a stinking morass of shell craters… [amid] a greasy sea of mud.’ As he reads soldiers’ diary entries, we can almost picture the courageous and fear-riddled men running down the duckboard paths, past splintered stumps of trees, to refill sandbags and repair trenches.
I push my cold hands deeper into my pockets and tuck my chin into the lapel of my coat, thankful for the warmth of the car as we set off towards Polderhoek Chateau, where New Zealanders attacked a German strongpoint.
Here, fixed to a squat brick chimney, is a plaque commemorating Private Henry James Nicholas. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for storming a German bunker, killing twelve and wounding another four. It was on 3 December – my birthday.
It’s time to move on. We follow the narrow lanes through the town of Mesen, or Messines, down Nieuw-Zealanderstraat and pull up outside the New Zealand Memorial. The limestone monument – pointing skyward like a white sword defiantly held aloft – is dedicated to those who fought in the Battle of Messines in June 1917. It stands on sought-after high ground occupied by the Germans, as evidenced by two crumbling German bunkers at the far ends of the garden. The Flemish countryside, now carved into squares by fences, sits below us and we pick out strategic points such as Hill 63 and Ploegsteert – our next stop.