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Think Piece: Belgians & Australians; rediscovering our shared history

Thursday 21 July, 2016

Christophe de Nijs_4On Friday 17 June, I was honored to be invited to attend the launch of the Flanders Field Poppy Trail – an initiative of the Honorary Consuls of Belgium and France in Adelaide. I was representing His Excellency Mr. Jean-Luc Bodson, Ambassador of Belgium to Australia who regrettably could not attend due to other commitments on that day. I was very glad to be given this opportunity as the night’s theme was one that I hold very dear to my heart and one that is also very important to my country, Belgium.
I have been in Australia for four and a half years and as I am now reaching the end of my posting in your beautiful country, I can honestly say that if there is one bilateral file and topic that has impassioned me, it is certainly that of the WWI commemorations. Observing, organizing, and in some cases participating first hand in these series of events has been my absolute privilege.

In my opinion, the Flanders Fields Poppy Trail stands out as one of the most impressive series of events organized in the framework of the WWI centennial in Australia, and the  Embassy of Belgium is very proud to have provided support for this particular project. I believe that these commemorative events are crucial to helping Australians and Belgians rediscover and reconnect with our shared history; a history that would otherwise be at risk of being lost and that needs to be passed on to younger generations.

Speaking of common history, few will be aware that the Poppy Trail launch event that took place on 17 June 2016 also marked an important commemorative date in Australia-Belgium relations. It marked indeed the hundredth anniversary of the death of the first AIF Diggers to have perished on Belgium soil during World War I. On 17 June 1916, Private Beaumont Jeffrey Philpott and Private James Jackson Mollison had just come off a scouting patrol in Messines (Flanders) when a combination of gas shelling and artillery fire killed them both. They died on the front line, there on the other side of the world in the muddy battlefields of Belgium, fighting for values that both Australia and Belgium believed were crucial to defend.

The 25th Battalion to which they both belonged, had arrived on the Western Front in March that year. Philpott (26) and Mollison (27), from Darwin and Townsville respectively, had enlisted with many other young men from these towns, who would later go on to face a dreadful fate in Europe. The deaths of these two soldiers were the earliest recorded by the AIF, sadly taking the first two positions on a list that would go on to include a total of 12,749 names by the end of the War and 46,000 deaths across the whole of the Western Front including those killed in France (notably during the terrible battles of Fromelles and Pozières which are being commemorated this week).

If one thinks, as often happens, that the Australians were only involved in battles fought in Belgium from 1917, the story of Philpott and Mollison reminds us that Australian involvement in Belgium started as early as 1916. Australians are very familiar with the Anzac legend and the narrative of Gallipoli, but it seems that the Western Front is sometimes, somewhat less known or acknowledged and yet there were far greater losses experienced by both sides here.

This is certainly true for the Belgian component of the Western Front, which historically was often referred to as (or confused with) France. A striking illustration of this is the fact that the death certificates of Privates Philpott and Mollison indicate they were killed in France. Yet deeper research easily confirms that they actually died in Belgium. Indeed, such generalization of the Western Front as “somewhere in France” was not uncommon.

As the focus of the centenary commemorations now turn towards the Western Front, I believe it is important to shed light on our common history in Flanders Fields, and this is exactly what the Flanders Fields Poppy Trail initiative does.

The heroism and bravery displayed by the Australians in Belgium (and France) between 1916 and 1918 is profound and worthy of recognition. In Belgium alone, the AIF actively participated in important battles such as Messines and the infamous Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 (commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele) during which the Australian casualties numbered more than 38,000 over eight weeks, by far the most costly of the whole war, far outstripping the losses endured at Gallipoli.

In the 100 years since the war, this story of tragedy and loss that linked our countries in a way we had never imagined has transformed into a story of strength, of solidarity and of an enduring friendship of which we can all be very proud.

One hundred years ago Privates Philpott and Mollison, like many others, paid the ultimate sacrifice, fighting for peace in my country. We can’t ever repay their sacrifice or take away the pain experienced by their families and friends who coped with their loss. But we can honor it by remembering them, along with all the sons of Australia who fell in Belgium and France during the horrible conflict of World War I. They are now forever sons of Belgium too, and we shall never forget them or your Country’s sacrifice.

I encourage you to see the films, exhibition, concerts and talks that are a part of the Flanders Field Poppy Trail and thank you for the opportunity to contribute this piece.

Lest we forget.

Please note: The Flanders Field Poppy Trail continues through to 30th August. For full program details click here.

Christophe de Nijs has recently completed a diplomatic posting at the Embassy of the Kingdom of Belgium in Canberra as First Secretary in charge of Political and Economic Affairs. Before being posted to Canberra in 2012, Christophe held several positions within the Belgian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, which he joined in 2009, mostly focusing on the EU’s trade policy. Prior to that, he worked for an EU lobby and as a Parliamentary assistant in the European Parliament. Christophe de Nijs has just relocated to the Belgian Embassy in Morocco where he will be acting as diplomatic Counsellor. He holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration from ICHEC and a Master of Arts in European Political and Administrative studies from the College of Europe.

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