Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Day 30 - Anzac Day - Villers Bretonneux, Australian Corp Memorial Le Hamel, Adelaide Cemetery and Victoria School and Museum

Wednesday 25th April 2012
From our itinerary: 

After breakfast at 03:00, we travel to Villers Bretonneux, where we join the Dawn Ceremony at the Australian National Monument.
Following the service we return to Villers Bretonneux for an energizing coffee and snack break before we visit Adelaide Cemetery to discuss the battles in this area in 1918.  We have an appointment at the Victoria School museum at 11:00 hours and we stay in Villers Bretonneux to attend the town ceremonies afterwards.
We explore the area where Pvt Popham  was wounded in April 1918.
Before we return to the hotel we will see the Le Hamel areas where General Monash and the Australian troops were so successful on July 4th 1918.

It’s no hardship getting up at 3 am. We’ve been awake for ages. Hubby set two alarms…and botched it, but better early than late. It’s no matter really because I was awake anyway.  The alarm goes off at 2 am and again at 3am. We are dressed and I’ve got my thermals on under my Jeans. I was going to try to look a bit respectable but in the end staying alive is the priority and it’s forcaste to be very cold and windy and rainy. Those among the group who are getting auto updates from Veterans Affairs are reporting a text message saying that old, young or infirm visitors should seriously reconsider whether they need to go to the memorial service.  Yeah right. Not one of our group has the slightest intention of missing it. We don our clothes that it's OK to get wet and potentially muddy. Our fellow travellers with elderly parents have them rugged up like the michelin man. We all pack a day bag with a change of clothes so we can get warm and dry after the service if we need to.  With my extra clothes I’m too hot so I peel off the upper body stuff and slip on a T-shirt to eat brekkie in.  All the younger ones are on deck and though I am not late, others have finished eating and are off getting their gear together to make a speedy get away by 3:30 am. i made sure I was ready to go before the eating bit.  Staying in Cambrai we’re a bit of a distance to Villers Bretonneux so we have about 50 minutes or something driving to the site.
We pile in the car and the car crunches out the gravel of the driveway and slips into the dark of night.  There’s just nothing like the early start on Anzac Day in the dark.  Bill encourages us to try to get some shut eye on the way and is promptly assured that this is, ahem… an unrealistic expectation. We’re running on adrenaline and all feeling fairly boyant, though we are taking care to leave V alone for a while.. she’s not a morning person and  we were warned yesterday.  It’s silly frivolous banter for a while then when it’s clear we’re really not going to settle down, Bill puts on a CD of information about the Battles relevant to today and this keeps us occupied and gets us into the frame of mind for the service. ...by the morning of 25 April 1918 the men of the AIF, with some assistance by British units, had virtually surrounded Villers–Bretonneux. It took the rest of that day and into 26 April to completely secure the town and to establish a new front line east of it. This, the second battle of Villers-Bretonneux had been a remarkable achievement and a clear-cut success for the AIF. It marked the end of the great German offensive on the Somme which had begun so successfully on 21 March 1918 and, as the historian of the 5th Division concluded, ‘Thereafter, no German ever set foot in Villers–Bretonneux save as a prisoner of war.’
As we enter Villers – Bretonneux there is a clear presence from the gendarmerie, we are waved in the directions we are to go, various roads are blocked off.  Chris and his entry/ parking permit are ahead. At the critical junction a gendarme waves us away from heading up to the memorial with Chris's vehicle to drop passengers off. Bill has no option but to start heading to where he has been pointed.  We decide we’ll just get out now and walk up from here. Before we can do so an Australian official comes over at a jog and asks Bill if he’s just dropping people off.  This confirmed he apologises for the mix up, he was off dealing with a coach when we pulled up.  He directs us up to drop off at the memorial.  Phew. I wasn’t worried walking, but it turns out it would have been a long walk and uphill all the way.  As we alight from the car Bill tells us that we should look for Chris’s car right in front at the end of the service. He’s allowed to park right there due to the elderly passengers he is responsible for and who have special permits etc. We will all fit for the run down the hill.
We alight into the crowd of people making their way in the cold up through the rows of graves to row upon row of white chairs facing the memorial. There is a large screen erected to better display the detail of what is happening at the podium and two banks of scaffolding where the cameras are set up to broadcast the service live to Australia.  The time difference means that at home people can attend their local dawn service and march, then watch the services at Gallipoli and finally the service in France on the television.
We’re nice and early and we settle in for a fairly lengthy wait until the service begins. Somehow we have managed to miss the people handing out plastic rain capes and programs so hubby heads back and gets these as well as commemorative pins for us all.
Although it is very cold, the weather is holding and the forcaste dreadful rain and wind have not eventuated as yet.  Stars are visible in the sky. It is cold but clear this morning.
The Dawn Service as conducted in France is quite different from our local service at home. It has a more religious emphasis. Our local services are really quite secular by comparison.  There is no standing and turning to the east or west, so some of our usual ritual is missing, though services vary from community to community at home.  For some reason I don’t really understand there is less participation here today.  The audience seems less confident about their responses following the ode. Perhaps it is the unaccustomed formality.  As we all sit quietly and the dawn light begins to brighten the sky to the east there is a beautiful dawn chorus.  I feel further away from home now at this moment than at any time in the whole trip.  These beautiful voices of the birds are foreign.  Elements that I have unwittingly come to associate so strongly with the Dawn service in Australia are missing.  There is no magpie song. The smell is foreign. The climate is foreign. The ritual seems foreign.  The dead that we are here to remember, those who lie in unknown graves, or no grave at all, are far far away from home. They left and never came back.  Never will come back.  Never will hear the magpie’s glorious warble again or smell the sweet fragrance of eucalyptus in the air.  These are stock standard sentiments for Anzac Day. I am anything but original. Today is different though. Today I really feel it. Today I grieve for what they sacrificed in a new way. I have wanted to attend the Anzac Day service on the battlefields for so long.  Now, at this moment, I am overcome with the feeling that I never want to spend Anzac Day away from home again. I wish I was at home.  I wish the dead were at home.
By the time the service is complete the cold has seeped deep into our bones.  Everyone around is beginning to struggle. A young fellow in front of me has come inadequately dressed and is sitting shivering violently. He’s thin and I can see his shoulder blades through his jacket.  Order seems to break down as the long series of wreath laying gets underway, the official parties have all finished and random people wanting to lay wreaths are invited up..  People who are cold or anxious to avoid the crush are beginning to just get up and leave.  I sit in my place and say “..hello… people… it’s not over.. it’s not time to go” but no one can hear me. If they could I’m sure they wouldn’t care.  The MC makes a plea for people to respect the site and take their rubbish and plastic rain capes with them when they leave.  I am ashamed to say that many people simply don’t do it.  I am at a loss to understand this.  I cannot understand why you would travel to the other side of the earth to pay respects at this place on this day and then leave crap everywhere.  V and E have wandered down for a look at the memorial unthinkingly leaving the plastic capes they were sitting on, on the chair behind them. I carefully gather up what we all arrived with.  There will be no rubbish left here from our group. That I will personally ensure. We start to go with V & E but I’m just not comfortable about it and turn back, I think we’re still supposed to be sitting down. In the process I lose a merinomink glove. We hunt for it but it’s no good. Someone must have picked it up.  Service personnel who have been here in an official capacity look so cold in their uniforms which don’t seem heavy enough for the temperature here. They are not actually shivering but you can tell that its taking some effort not to. There is an air of creeping desperation to get warm mixed with an adrenaline buzz emanating from the crowd.  We make our way to the car which is parked exactly where predicted, then it’s a wait while the whole party makes it back. The car is warm. It feels so good to be warm. I can’t imagine how the men survived through winters cold and wet and not able to get warm for weeks or months at a time.
Happy to be finally driving away, Chris has set his tomtom to Australian voice.  It’s full of “Australianisms” and as we reach our destination we are cheerfully advised to remember our sunnies and don't let the seagulls steal our chips!
Town Hall Villers-Bretonneux. Apparently this decoration is always here
We have a breakfast booking at the local bakery and Bill has established a beach head for us there.  This facility is a stroke of genius.  Out the back of the bakery they have an old lean to shed. Full of random shed crap.  They’ve strung up a tarp to hide something unpleasant on one side. Put out a table and some chairs and we shelter in our impromptu billet while trays of pastries and bread and flasks of hot coffee are brought to us to break our fast. It’s all very rustic. It’s perfect for Anzac Day breakfast, though our hostess seems to find it hard to believe us when we cheerfully indicate we're really loving it. She does look at us a bit strangely.  We’re all enjoying the venue enormously.  We all agree that someone could make a killing emptying out their barn, laying straw on the ground and charging Aussies for a night roughing it in a traditional digger’s billet!
When we’ve had our fill, we offer enthusiastic “merci” to our hosts who seem very anxious to ensure we’ve had as much as we want and are happy with what has been provided.  Now it’s time for a walk out into the village and to get into position for the local ceremony in the town.  We find a spot we’re happy with where we can see the ceremony. 
Across to my left is an Australian family.  I am sure that given my comments yesterday about ridiculous jingoism I probably do not need to do more than describe them.  It’s a mum and dad and two teenage kids.  Each one of them has an Australian flag temporary tattoo on each check. One of them has an Australian flag wrapped around themselves. Another hugs an Aussie flag blanket around their shoulders.  They are all smothered in the Aussie flag.  They carry little flags for waving. They are making a complete spectacle of themselves.  In my opinion the scene is ironic to say the least.  In my opinion the dead that these people are here to remember would be rolling in their graves.  The overwhelming bulk of veterans returning and the communities they nurtured after the Great War were very disinclined to flag waving.  Very suspicious of jingoism.  They’d been caught. Flag waving jingoism was a sure sign the person had not been in the war.  This growing trend to jingoistic remembrance is disquieting to say the least.. and I have to say that in my opinion, for all that the flag wavers are trying to make the scene about how Australian they personally are their behavior and presentation is actually very un-Australian. Anzac Day is not about who is the most ostentatiously Australian. It is about humility and remembrance.  No I’m not tolerant of these sorts of ostentatious “look at moi, look at moi” patriots.  In my opinion they need to take a good hard look at themselves. I’d rather look the other way. Well at least they aren’t wearing “Villers Bret 2012” beanies and scarves in patriotic green and gold.  Got to be grateful for that I suppose.
We jump in the car and get out of here.  My sentiments have previously been made known on the above subjects as we’ve chatted about things over the last few days. Luckily the rest of the group seems to feel similarly on the subject.  Bill asks me with a smile whether I saw the family.  “I did! I hope you appreciate my self restraint in not having immediately erupted into a rant about them when we got to the car!"   I joke.
Our next destination is the Australian Corp Memorial at Le Hamel.  There’s few people there when we arrive having travelled slowly over here with Bill describing the events on the day in relation to the landscape.  It’s been delightfully warm in the car and I really realize how deep the cold penetrated this morning when I have to get out into the weather.  My bones feel cold.  The battle of le Hamel is the text book battle for how to attack an entrenched enemy.  It’s the battle they teach at Sandhurst. Wow. I didn’t know that. Well that says it all really.  Le Hamel was General John Monash’s triumph that earned him his knighthood in the field by the King. Knighthood in thefield hadn’t been done in a long long time.  It was a groundbreaking piece of work where all the elements were covered off and everything went to plan and virtually to time.  They actually took three minutes longer than anticipated to achieve their objective. Minimal casualties.  Naturally we are very proud of this achievement.   What is less known is that this was the first offensive action involving American troops and the first time American troops served under non-American command. Pershing was “not happy Jan” and the US keeps pretty quiet about it now, but that’s the way it was.  It was timed for the 4th of July too for obvious reasons, but most of the American troops that had been committed were withdrawn at the last minute.
I am struck at the Australia Corp Memorial how the landscaping feels Australian. Grasses and rough scrubby bushes atop a slight hillock abutting a sandy gully.  Perhaps the effect won’t be so striking when the leaves on the bushes are fully unfurled but today it looks an aweful lot like the bursaria spinosa scrub that we get near Sydney.  I wander over to the memorial while there’s no one there and take some video of the 360 degree views from the memorial site.  Fancy having taken this in 90 minutes.  Bill has commented on the inclusive flags. There’s five: France, Australia, Britain and the United States… and also Canada.  We’re not sure why the Canadian flag is a feature at this site. Doesn’t worry me. Obviously someone found a reason.
As I begin to return towards the vehicle a large coach has pulled up and a stream of people with flags flying is approaching the memorial.  I’m continuing on my way when Bill pulls me up and asks me have I got something better to do? Or words to that effect. Haha. Oh.  I see. We attend this.  OK.  I head back and join the small crowd.  Words are spoken.  The crowd collectively recites the ode.  Everyone is word perfect. THIS feels more like Anzac Day. Informal. Everyone participating.
Next we head to the Adelaide Cemetery where the unknown soldier was repatriated from for the Grave of the Unknown Australian Soldier in Canberra.  Bill takes us to the grave site where he had lain.  We hear about the process of exhumation and the services that were held before the body was driven down that road over there.  We ask questions about how he was selected.  Bill comments that the Canadians also were quite late in repatriating an unknown soldier and expresses surprise about both. I do my party piece about why Australia left it until the 1990s .. we’ve covered that ground before in the journal. No need to repeat.
By now we’re nearing time for our booking at the Victoria School Museum and we head back there.
 We admire the school hall with it’s Australian art work and carved panels in the walls depicting Australian birds and animals.  
Then we take our turn upstairs and have a good look round the museum.  Out the window we see the famous sign in the quadrangle.  Now painted in green and gold. 
Aboriginal style art work decorates a nearby wall. It is simply extraordinary and humbling. Among the exhibits I am particularly fond of the photograph of local children tending Australian graves in the period not long after the war, and the photo of "Roo de Kanga". As I’m about to leave I am standing in the area near the door and having another look around on the walls. I’m tickled pink to see a plaque placed there on behalf of my children’s school in memory of one of their old boys.  That school is very keen in its maintenance of the hall of valour and memorial grove. One tree for every old boy lost in war.
I believe we did have lunch somewhere. I have no clue where or what now.  After lunch, on our way back to Cambrai we stop along the way and review Uncle Ben Popham’s service record and battalion diary and hear about the action in which he was wounded in a gas attack.  Family stories say that Uncle Ben was a bugler and was responsible for sounding the alarm so was exposed more than most.  He was an invalid after the war, but he did marry an English girl and had 5 kids. Predictably some of these cousins of my mother saw service in WWII.  If memory serves, one was a “choco” in New Guinea… but not in the 39th.
The war diary is written in apparently indecipherable script. I take a look. Ah. It’s written in Queensland script. It’s faint, but it’s very neat, just not the script most people are used to. Mum being a Queenslander I have been taught to both read and write Queensland style as a child. The battalion diary is very detailed and Bill has heaps of stuff for us he comments on how awesome it is. Lots of appendixes with diagrams and information to show precisely what was going on.  It's obvious why this is I say, tongue in cheek.  Oh? The 42nd is a Queensland formation. Of course it is better than the diaries of southern formations. ;o) I tackle the indecipherable text later and it’s very interesting.  In the three pages around the date of the battle they even have someone drown! 
The battle was raging over this field when Ben Popham was injured by gas

Hmm... I think the forming up line was over near this farm

looking ahead towards the town

The objective
It’s been a long day and by mid afternoon we’re heading home to pack it in. It’s been huge.

No comments: