In 1990, we travelled (frugally) in Europe for several months. Our travels took us to many places, including through the swathes of First World War battle sites in Belgium, France and Germany.
I’ll never forget the shock I felt when I first saw the war grave sites dotted throughout the landscape; the white crosses seemed to go on forever, interspersed with quite a few crescent moon grave stones, indicating the soldier had been a Muslim. This shock was despite a life of solemn reverence for those who had died in or as a result of their war service; my grandfather being one.
In April 1995, we returned to the north of France, and by chance saw a small brochure on a town hall bulletin board advising that there would be an ANZAC Day Memorial Service at Villers-Bretonneux in a few days’ time. The Australian Ambassador would be in attendance, as would other town dignitaries. Our plans were flexible, so we immediately decided to stay in the area, and attend the service.
Driving in to Villers-Bretonneux is an unsettling experience. So much Australian referencing! In rural France! I had always been aware in general of the role of Australian soldiers in protecting this Somme battle area. But it was still a surprise to see so much Australiana so far from home – streets, hotels and restaurants with Australian names. And the school is called the Victoria School, in memory of the many Victorian soldiers who died defending the area, stopping the German advance on 24 April 1918.
The Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux was inaugurated in 1938, and has been the focal point for many Australian ANZAC Day ceremonies over the years. The main tower is flanked by memorial walls listing the names of missing soldiers, as well as the battle honours of the first Australian Infantry Force. I was overwhelmed to be there, it is such a beautiful site, so well cared for.
Attendance numbers at the service were large on the day we were there, with Australian school groups and service groups accompanying groups of local and national dignitaries. I am always moved by the bagpipes – it’s such a mournful sound. And I am not a jingoistic nationalist – the current trend of wrapping Australian flags around everything concerns me. However, I was moved to tears singing the Australian national anthem at that place, knowing the generations of loss that had gone before, not just there, but at every war zone. And that’s the reason I attend the ANZAC day ceremonies from time to time – to remember the losses we suffer, and the futility of wars.
NOTE: The arrangements for attending ANZAC Day services at Villers-Brettoneaux these days are far more complex. (http://www.dva.gov.au/commems_oawg/commemorations/commemorative_events/anzac_day/Pages/france.aspx) And the trees in these photos have since been removed from the site