We thought we knew what to expect ………. little did we know.
On the road from Paris leading to The Somme Battlefields we noticed how flat the terrain was. We could see for miles. The earth was very fertile, so the crops thrive. It was like a patchwork quilt of tilled soil and then patches of those numerous crops. However, dotted in between these organised and colourful crops there are cemeteries with hundreds of graves and very fitting memorials to a time past.
To put it in perspective, as one travels through the Australian countryside, the hills are dotted with homesteads or farmhouses. Well, in this part of the world it is not the case. It is cemeteries that fill the countryside gaps here and they are large and incredibly well maintained. We have visited Ypres, Lille, Vimy Ridge, Polygon Wood, Fromelles, Passchendaele, Villers-Bretonneux, Peronne and many others in between, over the four days we remained in the area. All in all there are more 900 cemeteries and memorials in the area. And we discovered that this is far, far bigger than we imagined. Of course, all the war history came at us again while we were travelling and it was now hard to imagine how anyone did return from the Western Front.
Over the years we have had our history book references, but when it leaps off the page and becomes a reality in the form of headstones and very fitting memorials, it is a challenge to take it all in. Perhaps we owe it to all who passed before us to give it a try. We took with us a couple of Memorial Crosses, kindly supplied by Australian War Memorial. The Memorial Crosses were part of a school program conducted by the AWM. The crosses we had were each dedicated and signed by a student from Mandurah Catholic College in Perth. However, the program included schools from all over Australia. One of the crosses was placed at Polygon wood and the other placed at Pheasant Wood, both on the grave of an unknown soldier, at which time we read the well-known “Eulogy to an Unknown Australian Soldier”.
On our final day we visited Villers-Bretonneux, where the villagers will forever remember the Australians.There we visited the school built by the Australians after WW1 finished. We read their stories, saw their photos and saw the well-preserved memorabilia and evidence of destruction. It very understandably had a strong impact on us all.
I then walked out of the museum and heard children’s voices. . Following that sound, I witnessed the children at play in the school grounds. It was so good to see and hear them playing that I couldn’t resist using the camera. And that scenario would not have happened except for the dogged determination and generosity of the Australians toward that village. There is a large sign in the playground of this school that bears testament to their gratitude which reads “DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA”.
We had with us other Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans all honouring their countrymen for their contribution to the time during the 1914-1918 battles. It was emotional and very fitting for all involved, whether they had family members return home or whether they did not. I will say though that we, personally, cannot take the credit for what our veterans contributed. However, I wholeheartedly support the Australian War Memorial motto over the next four years …. which is “Their Spirit Our Pride”. And now wear the car sticker to display exactly that.
We are proud Australians and very glad that we walked through those years of our history. We will forever remember those gone before us and if we could hold their hearts, we would.