Anzac Day preparations and battlefield reflections
24.04.2012 - 25.05.2012 5 °C
Day 9 already. The first two days of the Battlefields tour have flown. Our hosts are just so warm and generous ... they also run a B&B which their tour guests stay at normally, but because there were 28 on the tour most days, the B&B only has four rooms so we were all accommodated in a new Hotel in Ypres (Belgium) for the last two nights and at the Ibis Hotel in Albert the first night as it was the closest accommodation the Villers-Bretonneux site. I think the last time I woke up at 3:45am was when I was breast-feeding Sally ..... so that would be 28 years ago. So, we were all on time for the Dawn Service with the help of an early morning wake up call and our mobile phone alarms for back up.
The Gendarmaries were directing traffic at the site and did not allow private vehicles; as there is no parking at the Cemetry. The coaches were allowed to drop off and pick up only. Actually it didn't take long to evacuate everyone after the service and breakfast afterwards in the tents. It was amazing really that people moved out so quickly.
The cold wind, the stillness, pink and grey of the dawn's rising sun against the foreground of the Rising Sun on the Memorial, with birdsong and the music from the band and choir of Churchlands Senior High School band certainly is a breath taking experience. On arriving in the dark, we were given badges and an Order of Service from the Australian soldiers on duty and had to find a spare seat in the dark ..... the small torch I had helped a bit. I would like to have been closer but I did have an aisle seat which must have been about thirty rows from the front. For those of you who saw the telecast, I was on the left-hand side facing the memorial .... the same side as the breakfast tents. The introduction by the Australian Ambassodor to France, Ric Wells, had just started when I took my seat then followed the prologue by Vice Admiral Ray Griggs (Chief of Navy). Looking up to the memorial in the darkness, I saw the bugler at his post in the 32-metre Memorial Tower. It was cold on the ground, it must have been freezing for him in the tower). Principal Chaplain Stuart Hall prayed the Prayer of Remembrance and the Prayer For Peace before the choir sang "Thine Be The Glory". Teenage Australian school students from different State's participated in the ceremony with a confident young girl from Roseville College reading from the Old Testament, Wisdom 4: 7-15. The Commemorative Address was provided by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs Warren Snowden, whose four great-uncles served here. Some historians believe the battle fought at Villers-Bretonneaux changed the course of the war. Etched into the walls are the names of more than 11,000 Australian soldiers who have no known grave. There are 770 graves of Australian Diggers, as well as other Commonwealth soldiers involved in the campaign.
The French Government Representative gave an address; but the most moving aspects were the readings of letters by the Anzac Spirit Prize recipient, a young student from South Australia and the Western Australia President of the War Widows Guild. The letters were poignant reminders of the tragic losses felt specifically by the mothers who hoped that their sons would return but who died of their wounds here.
The official wreath laying ceremony took place, then the Ode of Remembrance by Corporal Kylie Walters from the ADF. Finally the Last Post rang out from the Tower and the dawn sprayed its light on the proceedings. It is estimated that 3,500 people were in attendance ..... the one minute silence was astonishingly moving followed by the Reveille and our National Anthem, and the Final Blessing.
Members of the Public were invited to lay floral tributes. I had the thistle from Mum's floral arrangement, a poppy and two Australian flags tied together which I placed at the foot of the Memorial. Later, when the dignatories had dispersed, the public ..... mostly Australians and British, milled around the foot of the memorial taking photographs from the official podium. I asked a young Englishman to tke my photo in front of the flag and I took a photo of the thistle on the memorial.
The French locals provided coffee, biscuits and small croissants for breakfast and it was time for more photographs of the visit before waiting for our guide and coach. Then it was off to Saint Quentin and Peronne to visit the cemetries there and then to Bullecourt for the 12:30pm commemorative service, again with Warren Snowdon and the choir and band from the Churchlands Senior High school. Bullecourt is a 40-minute drive from Villers Bretonneux and by the time we arrived the weather was really poor. It had started to rain and was bucketing down for the entire proceedings. The poor students had no protection from the rain, nor their female conductor!!
What has struck me about this battlefield tour is that the war occurred in what were farming villages, no bigger than a population of about 30 or less homes. Mouquet Farm is just that ......... a farm on a few acres .... not a village at all. The area was always a farming area and what were once battlefields are again being used for crops. As farmers till the land, shrapnel from WWI is brought to the surface. We visited a strawberry and leek farm where the farmer had a table of shell casings and other item dug from this plots. A "live shell" when found is placed at the side of the road where a disposal crew come to remove it!!
On the Tuesday afternoon, we visited the Villers-Bretonneux school which was rebuilt with the help of donations from Victorian school children in the 1920s and carries a plaque in English and French: "This building is the gift of the school children of Victoria Australia to the school children of Villers Bretonneux, as a proof of the love and goodwill toward France. Twelve hundred Australian soldiers, the fathers and brothers of these children, gave their lives in the heroic recapture of this town on 24th April 1918 and are buried near this spot. May the memory of great sacrifices in a common cause keep France and Australia together forever in bonds of friendship and mutual esteem."
The Musee Franco-Australien is on top of the school. I felt it to be quiet and reflective, devoted to telling the story of the Australians in France and Villers Bretonneux through photographs, documents, flags, uniforms and testimony. There is a collection of Australian memorabilia — letters, photographs, battlefield souvenirs and a kangaroo!!
Memorials for the fallen are dotted between the towns, villages and fields of the Somme. We visited those of significance to the members of the tour. We had a couple on the tour and the wife's grandfather had been warded a VC and so we visited the locations of his contributions durin the war. Puppa was a Pioneer which meant he was in the support groups and would have been stationed in many of the areas we visited. Both Annette (tour guide who did a lot of research for the other members of group as well as for me) and from my own research, have been unable to find any exact locations of his service. I know Puppa's wasin the field hospitals at Etaples and Abbeville. But now I have a much better understanding of the locations and how close the villages are to each other, I can do further research.
Ending this now and will start a new posting with days the Menin Gate Service and days three and four of the tour. Thank you for reading this and for your comments. Much appreciated.
Love to all, Lyn xxxxxx