Unexpected email brings joy to dead soldier's family

The headstone of soldier John Stevens at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium.
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The headstone of soldier John Stevens at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium.

The family of a Southland soldier killed in World War I is humbled to know a Belgium woman visits his grave at least once a month.

John Stevens was a private in the 2nd Battalion of the Otago Regiment's 8th Company. Stevens was 26 when he died in Belgium on December 24, 1917.

He worked on Southland farms before being enlisted on March 23, 1917. The serviceman was married with a five-month-old son when he went overseas. 

Southland soldier John Stevens died in Belgium during World War I.
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Southland soldier John Stevens died in Belgium during World War I.

Seven years ago, Marijke Vandevyvere chose Stevens' grave to visit regularly at Tyne Cot Cemetery.

There are 11,961 soldiers buried there, including 8300 who are unidentified.

New Zealand soldiers buried at Tyne Cot total 520, including 322 who were unidentified.

Belgium school teacher Marijke Vandevyvere keeps a close eye on the grave of Southland soldier John Stevens.
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Belgium school teacher Marijke Vandevyvere keeps a close eye on the grave of Southland soldier John Stevens.

Three of Stevens' granddaughters live in Invercargill - Robyn Powley, Lynley Dean and Judith Stevens. A fourth granddaughter, Shirley Fentiman, lives in Dunedin.

Powley said she was overwhelmed by Vandevyvere's commitment to visit her grandfather's grave.

"It's amazing, a young person being interested in a total stranger."

The granddaughters of John Stevens, from left,  Lynley Dean, Robyn Powley, Shirley Fentiman and Judith Stevens.
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The granddaughters of John Stevens, from left, Lynley Dean, Robyn Powley, Shirley Fentiman and Judith Stevens.

The Invercargill City Council received an email from Vandevyvere in August, asking for help to contact relatives of Stevens. She was interested to know more about his background and family.  

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Research by council archives assistant Wendy McArthur put Vandevyvere in contact with Powley.

"It's really great how Wendy has brought us together," said Powley, who has written 60 emails to Vandevyvere since August.

Vandevyvere, a school teacher in Ypres, drives past the Tyne Cot Cemetery every day on her way to work.  

"Seven years ago, I had the idea to visit one particular soldier from then on - someone I would commemorate," she said.

"I was looking for a soldier who drew my attention in one way or another. I wandered a long time in the cemetery and read a lot of headstones, and then I suddenly bumped into J W Stevens.

"He died on Christmas Eve - a day that really should be celebrated was suddenly the saddest day for a family far away in New Zealand.

"From that day on I have visited his grave often." 

Vandevyvere will travel to Invercargill in December to meet Stevens' granddaughters and McArthur and for the 100th anniversary of his death on December 24.

Powley and her husband Chris visited Stevens' grave nine years ago. A researcher at a nearby museum took them to the exact place where Stevens died.

"It was quite surreal," Chris said.

The headstones at Tyne Cot were well maintained, Robyn added.

"They are all looked after beautifully, just stunning." 

Her sister, Shirley Fentiman, and her husband Gary went to Stevens' grave in 2003.

 - Stuff

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