The Digger Who Stayed
When the Armistice was declared, most Australian service men and women couldn’t wait to get home. One exception was a gunner from Adelaide, Charles Atkin, who fell in love in France and returned after the war to live in Villers-Bretonneux.
Atkin was a Yorkshire boy who went to war with the 3rd Light Horse Regiment and became a driver with the 2nd Division Artillery in France.
In Villers-Bretonneux, according to his local newspaper, he ‘fell victim to the charms of a French girl’, possibly while he was convalescing from a mild gunshot wound to the head. After the war he came back, married his sweetheart, Alix, and they had a daughter, Elise.
His first job was digging up shells from the war. Then, walking over the fields where thousands of his comrades had fallen, Atkins laid out the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial Cemetery and tended the beginnings of the gardens.
The ex-digger was formally employed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as a labourer and gardener, and then custodian of the Australian National Memorial.
Announcing the appointment, Colonel Walter Dollman said: “He was so interested in everything. He is a splendid chap, and gave us a lot of information about the war graves and what is being done.”
Construction on Australia’s memorial did not begin until 1936, but the former dairy farmer had plenty to keep him busy.
The ‘lean and lanky Australian’, known as ‘Sharley’ to the locals, was a popular figure Villers-Bretonneux. He also remained a member of the Returned Services League in Unley, South Australia, and wrote to them about his life in France.
When the Australian National Memorial was officially opened by King George in 1938, Atkin was the last to leave the ceremony.
Along with French workmen and families who had built the monument in the countryside, he sat and watched as Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Earle Page walked among the graves, as the sun set over the Amiens plateau, the white stone turning pink.
According to records at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Charles Atkin fulfilled his duties with ‘every satisfaction … taking great interest in the work at the Memorial and being very attentive to visitors’.
Two years later, as another world war swept through the Somme and German bombers were again strafing overhead, he took his family to Gentelles on bicycles with their belongings in two suitcases.
The next day he returned and met with the Deputy Mayor, Dr Jules Vendeville, who was evacuating the remaining townspeople to Cherbourg.
“There was nothing to do but lock the memorial tower and main gate,” Atkin said.
“It was a terrible heartbreak to go. I had never seen the garden looking more beautiful.
“I did not even have time to bury the official papers or retrieve any of my own, my medals from the last war or my uniform.”
He joined seven refugees who had only a loaf and a half of bread, and slept in ditches and cowsheds, as they walked the harrowing 390km trek to Cherbourg on the English Channel.
The family escaped to London and the British Refugee Committee found Atkin a job in Fulham New Cemetery, which he supplemented with factory work. His daughter, Elise, joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army.
Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force sent a reconnaissance flight over Villers-Bretonneux to determine the fate of the Australian National Memorial.
It had been damaged by shell and mortar fire, as the tower was being used as an observation post by the French. This damage was repaired but other holes were left as honourable battle scars.
Charles Atkin and his family returned to Villers-Bretonneux in 1946. He resumed his post at the Memorial and worked there until his retirement in 1961, at the age of 65. He died in 1972 and Alix lived until 1989.