It began the moment we got off the train in Amiens. A photographic display of diggers in the Great War with the French and Australian flags flying side by side. I got a prick behind my eyes to see Australia being honoured so far from home. I had no idea what was to come.
Adelaide cemetery, Le Victoria Pub, cafe Melbourne. Australian flags in greater numbers than I’ve seen since Australia Day last year, in Australia. Diggers hats and khaki army uniforms, the rising sun emblem. A plaque above the entrance to the primary school – “Do not forget the Australians”. I did not know.
Before we left home I decided I wanted to be somewhere special for ANZAC day. I read my grandfathers journal and letters home from the war where he was a signalman and although they were heavily censored, there were some place names in France of which I made note. Amiens, Peronne, Villers-Bretonneux. I did a minimal amount of research and based on the one fact that, in addition to being ANZAC day the 25th of April is the anniversary of the Australians winning the village from the Germans, I decided I wanted us to be at Villers-Bretonneux this ANZAC day. On the spur of the moment Matt’s parents, Michael and Christine, decided to join us.
I feel ill-equipped to adequately convey the feeling here in the Somme region the day before ANZAC Day, the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli. The sun is shining, the canola fields almost glow yellow and over the gently undulating hills church spires can be seen between tall leafy poplars. The countryside looks serene and beautiful. In every direction, however, the natural landscape is interrupted by monolithic monuments and cemeteries lined with stark white headstones. Red, white and blue flags flutter from the heights of most landmarks and in front of many less notable. The Tricolore flies in stately unison with the Union Jack, the Southern Cross, the Maple Leaf and others but it’s the small Australian Flags waving valiantly from almost ground level that really signal our presence in this place today. Many have come to these fields sown with so much Australian blood, and they honour the diggers by leaving small flags in the ground. We are everywhere.
Walking the fields around The Somme, reading historical accounts and being able to place the front lines and identify the battlefields has given me a clearer context for what happened here in 1915 and 1916 and Australia’s place in that history. In turn, I have a greater understanding of why our national emblems adorn many shop fronts and why so many place names from home find themselves attached also to places here in a small pocket of Northern France. I have found it deeply moving.
The very early morning of the 25th of April was drizzly. Throughout the 3km walk from the car to the National Australian Memorial it gained weight and by the commencement of the Dawn Service at 5am the rain was heavy. Just as it should be, we decided as the cold and wet soaked into our socks and ran down our backs. Incredibly, Zoe fell asleep during the service, the hypnotic sound of the rain on her plastic hoodie having gotten the better of her. The grey dawn broke as The Last Post was played from the memorial’s tower and we all tried to remember.
The walk back into town seemed longer and although we talked about the soldiers and the months of hardship they endured, the girls just wanted warm chocolate milk in their bellies and dry socks. As we walked, Michael struck up a conversation with a local woman and we experienced directly the gratitude of the people of Villers-Bretonneux through an invitation. Lydie, who had been living in the town for 25 years and had never attended the dawn service, decided that this was the year. She wanted to host some Australians and it turned out that we were the lucky ones. We were asked back to her home for a cup of tea and some breakfast with her family, an invitation we readily and gratefully accepted. Hot drinks, lovely food, her friends and family and the seven of us, sitting around talking broken French and English with an ease that belied the mere minutes we had been acquainted. Offers of a washing machine, fresh clothes, a place to sleep – unbelievable generosity extended to us so genuinely by these people who had also been up before dawn to remember the ANZACs. As we were leaving and expressing our gratitude to these wonderful people Marc, Lydie’s husband, shook our hands and in turn expressed their gratitude. It is important, he told us, that we remember; that the people of France and Villers-Bretonneaux remember and are grateful to the Australians.
I left with a lump in my throat, a great sense of gratitude and an overwhelming feeling of national pride.
Lest we forget.