The Belgian who became an Australian hero Author: Michaël Torfs

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Sun 26/04/2015 - 10:29 Michaël Torfs Have you ever heard of the Zonnebeke 5? The central character in this story is Johan Vandewalle, a Fleming who lives near the Polygoon Woods in Zonnebeke where he has a pub called "ANZAC Rest". His life changed drastically in 2006, when he excavated the remains of what turned to be Australian soldiers. Vandewalle even became a local hero in Australia due to his detailed work and determination.

We meet Johan Vandewalle in ANZAC Rest, a pub and meeting place on a street corner on the edge of the Polygoon Woods, north-east of Ieper in Zonnebeke. The place is filled with memorabilia from his trip to Australia, and from the dead Australian soldiers whose bodies he excavated back in 2006.

Somehow, Johan Vandewalle had felt it coming. He knew that workers would be digging in the area in connection with a new gas pipe. He told them to alert him the minute that would bump into the remains of fallen soldiers - something that happens regularly in the area.

He got a call, came to the scene - just a couple of streets from the pub - and insisted with the local police that he would excavate the bodies carefully in order to protect them from possible battlefield scavengers. Vandewalle did so with due respect, unearthing the remains of 5 soldiers - hence the 'Zonnebeke 5'.

Three of these could be identified as Australians through DNA research, a first at that time. One body was covered with a kind of plastic sheet. When he took away the sheet, the eyes of the fallen soldier looked straight at him. "It was then I knew I had a mission to complete", Vandewalle explains.

Johan Vandewalle

A dramatic tale of two brothers

Johan Vandewalle, an amateur archaeologist who specialised in trench warfare, was informed that one of the victims was John "Jack" Hunter, who perished while on mission for Australia's 49th Batallion in September 1917.

There was a particular story behind his death: John died in the arms of his younger brother Jim during the battle near the Polygon Woods. He had seen that John had been badly hit and tried to drag his brother back, away from the frontline. However, his brother died in his arms. He wrapped him in a sheet and buried him, hoping to find him back at a later stage and give him a proper funeral. This turned out to be impossible.

Jim continued to believe he would find his brother back before he died. In the end, the body was recovered, but at a stage where Jim had passed away himself. Vandewalle thought it was his mission to do what he could to compensate this injustice just a little bit. (photo: the side wall of the pub depicts the story of the two brothers on the battlefield).

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The headlines in Australia

The case made the headlines in the Australian press. Vandewalle was promptly invited by the three families of the 3 Australian victims that could be identified. He was received in their villages as a real hero. "I was the right person, at the right place, at the right time", he used to say about the discovery.

The story of the Hunter brothers is a big one in Australia. TV crews have travelled to Belgium to bring the story, and a reconstruction will be made of their journey some 100 years ago (via Plymouth and France to Flanders Fields).

"I want to reunite these two souls"

Johan Vandewalle made his business a special place to welcome visitors from Australian and New Zealand in particular. The place is full of photos and memorabilia from both countries. Vandewalle shows us a giant picture of John Hunter.

His mission is still going on, as he hopes to install a special monument to honour the two brothers. "I want to reunite these two souls!" The monument will of course also serve to honour all fallen ANZAC and war soldiers in general. It should be ready by September 2017 to mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. "This will be one of the most special commemorations you have ever seen", Vandewalle says. "After all, this is a very special story, wouldn't you say?"

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