Sir Fred Allen travelled the world with the All Blacks. But one of his most treasured overseas trips was to honour Kiwi troops who died on World War I battlefields in Belgium. Neil Reid, who was lucky enough to travel with him, remembers.
Sir Fred Allen sipped on a beer, stared intensely out on to the quaint cobbled streets which criss-cross the Belgian village of Ypres, and simply said he was a "lucky man".
It was October 2007 and for the previous two days he had been travelling around the many WWI battlefields and memorials – featuring hundreds of thousands of graves of fallen soldiers – along with fellow rugby hero Bob Scott, veteran photographer Peter Bush, then RSA president John Campbell, and myself.
It was a trip to mark the 90th anniversary of the third battle of Passchendaele; now remembered as the worst military disaster in New Zealand history when almost 3000 Kiwi soldiers were either killed, wounded or listed as missing in action in a single day.
It was a special trip for both Sir Fred and Scott in many ways.
Both had survived near misses while serving their country with pride and distinction during WWII.
Their journey to Ypres and the wider Passchendaele area was also a chance to honour the 10 former All Blacks who died during fighting on the Western Front during WWI.
As he soaked up his surroundings – including the seemingly endless rows of headstones he'd visited over the past two days – Sir Fred stated: "I am a lucky man ... there's no doubt I am one of the lucky ones.
"When you go off to war, you don't know what you are letting yourself in for. Before you go, you don't think about whether you are going to get hurt or killed.
"But reality kicks in once you are on or near the front line. And what these boys had to put up with in the mud on the Western Front is just not worth thinking about.
"If people, world leaders, came to a place like this ... realised the carnage that decisions they make can cause ... I would hope there would be no more wars."
Among the places we visited was the Nine Elms Cemetery, the last resting place of Dave Gallaher, captain of the path-finding 1905 "Originals" All Blacks. Gallaher died on October 4, 1917, during the Passchendaele offensive.
"It was very moving," Sir Fred said of visiting the fellow ex-All Black captain's grave.
"To go to Belgium and and visit the grave of another man who had captained the All Blacks so long ago was very special. And it was a very moving moment."
Our trip to the battlefield had earlier begun at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris after Sir Fred and Scott flew into France at 6am just two days after the All Blacks had bombed out of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
The duo had left New Zealand hours before the All Blacks strode out on to Cardiff's Millennium Stadium turf to play France in their ill-fated world cup quarterfinal against France.
By the time their Europe-bound flight landed in Singapore for a brief stopover, the All Blacks had been downed 20-18 by France.
On their arrival, the duo were slightly worse for wear after having a few consolatory drinks on the flight.
Both were suitably gutted at the All Blacks' downfall but Sir Fred laid the ground rules just minutes after getting into a minivan bound for Ypres; anything he said about the All Blacks of '07 was off the record.
So upset he was at the side's worst-ever world cup finish, he didn't want to get himself in trouble back home for talking of his frustrations. And he didn't want to take anything away from his reason to be in Belgium – honouring those who made the ultimate sacrifice in WWI.
"I've heard people back home saying the All Blacks' loss to France is a tragedy," he said. "But what we will see around Ypres is the true meaning of the word tragedy."
Sir Fred wasn't shy to show his brilliant humour in a bid to break up some of the long and moving days travelling around the killing fields.
That included a story relating back to his time travelling through the UK and France with the legendary 2nd NZEF "Kiwis" Army rugby team in 1945-46 following the end of WWII.
The side met with the Queen Mother at Buckingham Palace during the goodwill tour, with Sir Fred saying the antics of team-mate Ike Proctor had mortified him.
"The Queen Mother spoke to each player for about 30 seconds," he recalled. "She got to old Ike and asked, `Where do you come from?' He told her `North Auckland', and then said, `We used to eat people like you.' The Queen Mother was so sharp that she looked at him, smiled and replied, `Yes, Samuel Marsden told me so."'
To hear some of the legendary rugby yarns of old was a priceless experience; one I will always cherish.
Last night, Bush said the journey to Belgium with the two rugby greats had been one of the highlights of his legendary photoraphy career. Both were among a rare group of ex-All Blacks he described as "close mates".
"I have been lucky enough to go on many All Black tours, but that trip with them to Ypres was special in so many ways," Bush said.
"They were both so warm and informative in Belgium. They made sure we fitted in ... I felt more than privileged to be there.
"I had total, total admiration for Sir Fred. He was a special guy, both in and out of rugby, and I always enjoyed his company."
Provincial rugby: Auckland
All Black playing record: 21 matches, including six tests, between 1946-49. Captained the side in all of his matches.
All Black coaching record: After being a selector between 1964-65, Sir Fred coached the team between 1966-68. The side had incredible success during his tenure, winning all 14 tests.
Further honours: He was knighted in 2010, having previously been awarded an OBE in 1990. In 2005 he was inducted into the International Rugby Board's Hall of Fame
- © Fairfax NZ News
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