Western Front Experience
I arrived in Paris full of anticipation about finally going to the Western Front, to see the place on earth where many of our brave souls fought and where too many paid the ultimate sacrifice.
I picked up my car, as I left the airport and headed out toward Amiens, it took all my concentration to remain focused on driving on the other side of the road. I was rubbernecking all the way along the motor way, seeing signs that had names on them that until now I’d only read about.
I arrived in Amiens in the late afternoon and headed out as soon as I could. I was fortunate to happen across a portion of the Australian 2018 Western Front Choir at the Amiens Cathedral. They were performing a concert, and it was one of the most beautifully haunting sounds I have ever heard. It was pure luck that I walked into the cathedral at that time but I am glad that I did.
Up early the next day I headed off to discover the battlefields. I was fortunate that I managed to be ahead of tour groups by 15 to 20 minutes at each of my stops. There is much to be said for going on battlefield tours, the information that the guides pass on is a great source of education, but to find yourself standing alone at the memorials in Thiepval, Mouquet Farm, Pozieres and Villers Bretonneux causes a change inside you.
The thing that struck me first was the short distances between the villages, even though I’ve studied the battle lines on paper, I seldom paid ‘real’ attention to the actual distance on the ground. Standing on a point, looking out across the undulating landscape, seeing the next position with your naked eye and trying to comprehend the numbers lost was not something I could do. I found myself completely overwhelmed with emotion.
Row upon row of headstones with our proud Rising Sun adorning the top, the inscription reading ‘A Soldier of the Great War’ or ‘An Australian Soldier of the Great War’. I understand that due to the circumstances of war this is the best that we could offer these brave men in death. Nonetheless it was heartbreaking to stand there and think about the thousands of families at home who, aside from being advised of the approximate area where their loved one died, were never to know their final resting place.
The centenary of the Battle of Hamel commemorative service was solemn and dignified paying appropriate respect to those who served and were lost, including other allied nations.
I confess that the actions of the children of Le Hamel, as a part of the beginning of the service, took my focus away from the words being spoken. As a tribute to the Allied nations the children placed 93 flags, one for each minute of the battle, around one of the last remaining trenches located at the memorial. It was a beautiful gesture.
However it was not the gesture of the flag placement that captivated me. It was the children joyfully running through the trenches from one side to the other to place the flags in position. The very same trenches that 100 years ago to the day were the location of such violent and devastating battles.
If the families of our diggers that gave their lives in battle could have seen these small children with the freedom to run through the very trenches that their loved ones fought and died in, I’m sure that they would have felt that the loss of their loved one was not completely in vain.
Later that same day, I had the privilege of attending the headstone rededication of Private Robert Oliver Bowness. Private Bowness lay in an unmarked grave at the Villers Bretonneux Military Cemetery until his grand-niece, Ms Kristine Broadway, with the help of others, identified his unmarked grave. While I felt happiness while witnessing the emotion of Ms Broadway as she finally laid her great uncle to rest, I was still saddened by the thought of the thousands of other families who will likely not have the same closure.
That evening a meeting with the Mayor of Blangy-Tronville drove home to me, more than I already realised, just how fortunate we are as a country. Our men went to war on the other side of the world; not our war, but one for people in distant countries that they did not know. We were sheltered from experiencing the physical horrors of war on our front door step. As such, we commemorate our losses. The people of the towns and villages that our soldiers saved celebrate our efforts.
Blangy-Tronville has named its local school after Arthur Clifford Stribling, a South Australian soldier. His picture hangs in the school and the students are taught about the Australians who saved their village; their intentions are to name streets in their village after Australia and our soldiers. I don’t think there can be any greater tribute to our men.
As an Australian, listening to the Mayor relay how important it is for history not to be forgotten, I was so proud of those who fought so valiantly, and grateful that this small village is ensuring that their sacrifice has been and will be remembered into the future. There is a comfort in knowing that the Australians who died in Belgium are remembered and have been embraced by the country they died saving.
I had been told that Tyne Cot was a sight to behold but I was not prepared for the number of headstones and the numbers of names on the memorial and, yet again, the all too familiar ‘A Soldier of the Great War’. So much loss is impossible to understand. There are 34, 984 names at Tyne Cot. These men were killed in the 15 month period between 17 August 1917 and the end of the war. Only 20,000 less than had been killed in the first 3 years of the war.
Hill 60 was my next experience. Twenty of my footsteps is all there was between the German front line and the French front line in December 1914. I walked through the forest, saw the crater that was left by the explosion, and tried to imagine how this stunning, luscious, green forest could have been anything other than the serene place it is today. Try as I might, despite what I have read and pictures that I have seen, I could not replace the sounds of a peaceful forest with the sounds of war – a sign of how blessed a life I live, that we all live, thanks to those who fought an unimaginable war.
Each evening since July 5th, 1928, a Last Post Service has been held at the Menin Gate. This is to ensure that the people of Ieper, and the world, never forget the sacrifices made by so many to defend their country. At 8pm every single night of the year, one of the main roads through the town is closed for up to an hour to enable a service to be conducted to honour the dead. Between 4 and 8 buglers from the Ieper fire brigade play the Last Post in unison, an incredible sound.
The Menin Gate Memorial, this formidable structure that troops marched through to defend the ‘Ypres (now Ieper) Salient’, bears the names of 54,896 soldiers who died from the beginning of the war until 16 August 1917 and have no known grave. With over 6,000 Australian names on the ‘Gate’, our countrymen make up over 10% of the total numbers.
While attending the 90th Anniversary of the Last Post Ceremony at Menin Gate, the 31,902nd service, I heard someone say that the German Army could not be sure exactly how many men they lost in the war. Was human life so disposable that they were just given a gun and helmet and sent off?
My heart grew heavier with every ‘unknown soldier’ headstone that I read over the course of my four days on the Western Front and even though we don’t know where many of their final resting places are, they at least have their names recorded – every one of them mattered, and still do to this day.
VC Corner was my final stop. Not a single headstone to be seen. They are not needed. I am by no means a religious or spiritual person, but there is something spiritual about VC Corner. You feel it as you enter, you feel it as you look at the roses, as you gaze upon the stone crosses in the ground and as you read the names of the men listed on the panels. 1,709 Australian men were killed in the attack at Fromelles, they have left their mark on this land and it is impossible not to feel their presence.
I recently had a conversation with Bob Kearney – South Australian Vietnam veteran and author – in that conversation he altered my way of thinking about death. It’s not just one life that is lost when someone dies, it’s an entire lineage that is lost, completely erased from this world. What might our country have looked like if we hadn’t lost so many men in World War I? It will forever remain an unanswerable question.
The distance and numbers of lives lost in the Great War can be read about and talked about, but until your feet stand on the ground that our men fought and died upon, you will never get a true sense of the magnitude of our nations sacrifice.
‘Lest we forget’ – we say it often. I know that I never will.