TODAY |

Piecing together a 101-year-old mystery - from the Flanders killing fields to NZ


When I saw the email from Belgium my heart skipped a beat.   Archeologists had found the remains of a Kiwi soldier who had vanished into the mud of World War One a century ago. 

The remains of an unknown solider were traced back from Belgium to New Zealand. Source: Sunday

Could this be my Uncle Tommy who went missing in the hell of Belgium’s killing fields?  And how many other Kiwis would be wondering if it was their uncle?

As it happens, this young man whose remains turned up belongs to the Walker family.

Like my family and thousands of others, the Walkers never forgot their Uncle Jack, the fresh faced young man who went over the top and never returned.

Jack was one of an estimated 200,000 missing soldiers still lying under the mud of Flanders fields.

Most will never be identified.  But through brilliant detective work, the Belgians traced Jack all the way back to Auckland.

Belgian documentary makers asked SUNDAY if we could help them get Jack’s people onto their programme. We gladly assisted.

What followed was probably as good as any collaboration between Belgians and Kiwis since the war itself.

Turns out Jack still had a family in Auckland and the news their boy had been found brought raw emotions to the surface.

Never mind he vanished 101 years ago. This family never forgot their lad.

I’m old enough to understand their feelings perfectly.  

As a kid I remember my grandmother listening to the Diggers Request Session on Radio New Zealand at 5.30 on a Sunday. 

I’m sure she was hoping to hear word of Tommy, who was a favorite. The signature tune It’s a Long Way to Tipperary would be the signal for us to gather round the wireless. 

Stoic old diggers would talk about "the gaps opening up in the lines".

For that read mass slaughter, mud, blood and the whine of bullets as boys from Otago to Auckland dropped in droves.  

Nana, sitting in her blue dressing gown, was listening, grim faced. Her stepson Tommy, a private in the Otago Rifle Brigade, was a favourite with his younger sisters.

He was just 22-years-old when he became one of over 800 Kiwi soldiers mown down in one hour at Passchendaele.

Tommy’s body was never found.  He was last seen wounded and heading back to the dressing station.

In one of my last conversations with my mother, she described Tommy as "full of mischief and fun".

She sighed as she told me he never wanted to go and fight.  No wonder my granddad turned against compulsory conscription.

All we have left of Tommy is a photo of a young man with a shy smile, looking ill at ease in uniform.

What made Jack stand apart from Tommy and so many others was the amount of information his family still had: albums of photos, and newspaper articles from before the war showing this young man was an adventurer with enormous talent.  

We watched him come alive as we interviewed his family for SUNDAY, and browsed through his letters and photos from the front.

Then just as we got to know him, we saw how he finished up, as discovered by the Belgian team, in the mud of Flanders.

We followed their painstaking reverential work as they strove to give just one unknown soldier his identity back.

Something all of us with a missing uncle can share in.

See how the Belgians cracked the mystery of the unknown soldier this SUNDAY on TVNZ 1 at 7pm.