On a sunny spring day in Australia it can be difficult to imagine the horrors of the muddy battlefields of the Somme, but that is just what many of us will be doing tomorrow at 11 am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month – Remembrance Day. A day for remembering those who died in war, in particular World War I, it has always had a distinct resonance for my family given my paternal family history in relation to the first World War. My grandfather and all of his brothers were among those who signed up for service (a fact I’ve always found a little surprising given our bog-Irish background). They all survived Gallipoli, they were all seriously gassed later in the war, my great-uncle Patrick was awarded the Military Medal, my grandfather was injured and taken prisoner and my great-uncle Nicholas was killed on the Somme at Pozieres.
Early on a chilly January morning of this year, my husband, son and I caught a train from Paris to Amiens and met up with a guide from Terres de Mémoire for a tour of the region of France which cost our country and my family so dearly. The dismal grey weather and icy winter wind seemed only fitting for what was a fascinating, but deeply sombre day as we visited some of the most significant sites of WW I.
One of our first stops was at the dignified and profoundly melancholy Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, solemn and sad in the sleety, cold rain. From there we moved on to a much happier place, the Victoria School in the village of Villers-Bretonneux. Much of the town was destroyed during the war, after which the school was rebuilt with donations from Australia, Australian school children and a large donation from the Victorian Education Department. The gratitude of the locals is tangible, with subtle and not-so-subtle reminders for the students everywhere.
After a break for lunch (kangaroo on the menu in the bistro of the very charming town of Albert) we visited the imposing Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme battlefields. This massive memorial can be seen for miles around and, shockingly, bears 72,194 names of United Kingdom and South African forces, officers and men, who were never found. From there we moved on to one of the battlefields which has been left intact. Newfoundland Memorial Park was purchased by Newfoundland after the War and was named after Canada’s Royal Newfoundland Regiment, which had provided one battalion of 800 men, almost all of whom perished in the course of one short morning. Few of the bodies were recovered making this place both a museum site and a graveyard.
The folks at Terres de Mémoire are thorough and had asked me for the details of my relative who was killed, presumably to make it easier to find great-uncle Nicholas’ grave. I was surprised to find that they had gone much further than that and had researched his service record and his role in the battle at Pozieres. We were taken to what is now a potato field and the exact spot where his body was recovered was pointed out to us. The trenches of the time were maze-like and utterly confusing and occasionally soldiers became lost – it seems that this was the sad and wasteful fate of my uncle. He rests now in the care of France, as close as he will ever get to home – in the Australian section of the Serre Road Number 2 Cemetery.