Flanders to Rome

Nicola Sciascia
Family Pilgrimage 2007

Dominique Cooreman

As told by Linda Fletcher

Adopt an Anzac had the pleasure this week of meeting the woman who inspired former mayor Sonny Sciascia’s Anzac Day speech.

Retired Belgian judge Dominique Cooreman was in Levin to visit Sonny and his family, and she took the opportunity to attend our final meeting for the year and talk to us about her amazing journey following the trail of Sergeant Charles Sciascia MM who died in Belgium in 1917.

It is a journey that has become almost spiritual as she divides her time between her home in Belgium, and her second home in Porongahau in the Hawkes Bay talking to members of the Sciascia family and hunting for information as she prepares to write Charles’s story.

Her interest in New Zealand and its Maori people goes back a long way.

She had the opportunity to visit here when she was 18 years old, but instead chose to complete her law studies. Then came a career, marriage and two children so it wasn’t until 1999, when her youngest son was himself 18, that she came here.

Four years later when Bas finished his bachelor degree in management and marketing in Belgium, New Zealand was his first choice to further his studies, this time in English. His decision gave Dominique the opportunity to spend more time in the country she had found a great affinity with.

It was while on a visit in 2004 that she first met the woman who introduced her to Porangahau and the Sciascia family, which began the search that became all consuming for her and captured the imagination of a group of genealogists in Levin.

During a stay in the Hawkes Bay, Dominique struck up a conversation with a woman in a bookshop in Napier. A chat over a cup of coffee resulted in a return visit for dinner, the first of many the two would share and the start of a friendship Dominique values highly.

Dominique’s new friend wanted to show her some of her favourite places, and it was on one of these visits that she first saw Porongahau. “I stood on the beach and it just felt like I was home,” she said.

In Porongahau Dominique meet Marina Sciascia, whose father was named Frank La Basse ‘after the battle where his uncle died during World War I in France’. The wee lad was born on December 23, 1917 to Frank Tariuha and Doris Atareta Sciascia, five months after Charles died, we now know at the end of the Messines campaign in Belgium.

Marina’s story struck a chord, and back in Belgium Dominique began to search for the village.

It was a little a bit of a puzzle. There was a La Bassee in France, but no indication that a battle had taken place there in 1917. After many months research, which included Internet searches, talking to dozens of people and a visit to the French town she had not made any progress and decided she should let go of her fascination with Charles Sciascia.

Then a friend suggested trying the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site on the Internet, and it was there she found Charles’s name and the details of the Messines Ridge (NZ) Memorial in Belgium on which his name is inscribed. “Such research was all very new to me. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know then about the CWGC website or the information I could find there,” she said. The war graves revelation came at the end of July 2005, and on the anniversary of his death a few days later, August 1, she went to Messines to pay her respects.

“It was very emotional for me. I just stood there and cried, and I knew I had to find out more about him.”

Then followed a search for ‘La Bassée’ in the vicinity of Messines and Ypres where many of the battles of 1917 occurred. It wasn’t very easy. The area had been evacuated during the war and it was hard work finding anyone who had been there.

After literally knocking on doors and searching out older people who would remember or have been told about the war years, Dominique was able to identify the spot known as La Basse Ville, 7.5 km from Messines (Mesen) in West Flanders, and 75 minutes drive on the motorway from her home in Dendermonde, East Flanders

“It’s not really a village. It’s so tiny it can’t even be called a hamlet,” she said. “It’s really just a road, with a few farms, and at the end of the road it becomes Warneton-Waasten. If there was ever a village there, nothing is left now. It’s like it’s been wiped away,” she said.

Later, when she had read the history of the Wellington Regiment in New Zealand in November 2005, she found the description of the La Basse Ville battle, and the record of Charles Sciascia’s death. Then she was 100 per cent sure that what she had discovered was correct.

“It was only in October 2005 when I came back to Porangahau to stay there six months that I told Marina about all that I had found out. She was very excited. We had a meeting with some of her siblings and from there a meeting was organised with the elders of the family in November. I came back to stay with Sonny several times after that.”

Dominique has developed a deep affection for the Sciascia family, as they have for her. They have learnt much from each other. As Sonny told us in his Anzac Day address earlier this year, they knew very little about his Uncle Charlie until Dominique came into their lives and began her search. Dominique now divides her time between Dendermonde and Porongahau, and she can see a time when she will live in New Zealand permanently.

Her son has completed his studies, graduating last Friday from Massey University with his Masters in Management with Distinction. She still has elderly parents, her eldest son and other family in Belgium, but finds herself homesick for New Zealand when she returns there.

Next year Dominique will welcome a Sciascia family pilgrimage to Belgium that is timed to visit the battlefield where Charles fought and died on the 90th anniversary of his death. The tour of Flanders includes the Messines Ridge and Tyne Cot cemeteries and the memorials where so many of our Horowhenua men are remembered, as well as a visit to the area where the Battle of the Somme was fought in France.

I am honoured to be included in the tour party, and for me the visit to Flanders and the war memorials in Messines and Ypres will bring full circle my own journey that began with Sonny’s Anzac Day speech.

Linda Fletcher
Adopt An ANZAC

Dominique with her two sons Christophe (L) and Bas (R) at Porangahau Beach Christmas Eve

Dominique in front of the Memorial in Mesen paying her respect on Charles' death anniversary in 2006

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Nicola's and Riria's portrait images kindly scanned and edited by Diane Taylor
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