Monday, November 28, 2011

The Western Front

And so to the Somme. Those of you who might know me quite well, know that I'm a bit of a World War I junkie (is that possible?) and have been a little obssessed with the Western Front for some years now. So it was a bit of an emotional morning getting ready to visit the sites I have read about and thought about and written about.

We woke in the Etap Hotel in San Quentin (the Etap hotels are a chain, and they are a bit like IKEA as a hotel, there is very little space, beds that sit on top of one another and a shower that is a glass cubicle in the corner that has a shower head that changes colours as the water pours out - you shower in a rich rainbow of reds, purples, blues and greens). We woke late, a problem of the time change between England and the mainland of Europe. But by ten we were kind of on our way and heading for Villers Bretonneux. This is a small town in north east France, quite close to the Somme, where Australian soldiers, in April 1918, fought the Germans out of the town and then held the line. It was a kind of important moment in the war, and the Germans failed to make any more gains from this point onwards. The people of Villers Bretonneux were so grateful to the Australians who fought for their town that they have maintained a relationship with Australia ever since. Driving into the town was a little odd. I had read about this town for years, and have written about it in fictional terms, but it is really bizarre driving into a town that is in a completely foreign landscape but that celebrates images and symbols that are utter familar. The town flies two flags, the French and the Australian. The main street is called Rue de Melbourne, and there is another street that runs off this called Rue de Victoria. There is a museum which has a motto on the side 'Never Forget the Australians' (this was closed for renovations when we were there). Next door to the museum is a school called the Victoria School which was built from funds raised by Victorian school children after the war. There are Australian flags all over the walls and the ceilings, drawings of kangaroos and wattle. I understand, though we didn't see or hear it because it was a Sunday when we visited, that the children sing Waltzing Matilda every morning. There is an ANZAC cafe, a Victoria cafe, a Koala Club and a childcare centre called 'Les Masupials'. These people remain the custodians of a story and a history that we have either semi abandoned, or don't care about. The plague that tells the story of the Australians and Villers Bretonneux says that this is one of the most important moments in Australian history but you would never know that in Australia. Outside the town is a huge memorial to the Australians who fell here, beautifully built and maintained. Flowers on some of the graves. Dignified and sombre. When it was opened and dedicated as a site, the entire French cabinet came, as did the President of France and King George. We sent the deputy Prime Minister.

It is a strange thing. We celebrate Gallipoli (probably rightly) in deep and important ways. Every Australian school child knows about Gallipoli. But we don't know about Australians on the Western Front and their successes. We are woefully ignorant of not only the sacrifices but also the amazing bravery and the reputation Australian soldiers have in this part of the world. And it is not only in Villers Bretonneux. We drove down the road to Pozieres and here again, a great memorial to the bravery and fighting of the Australian soldiers. And in the main street, a cafe called Le Tommy which is a private museum to the Australians here. The manager and owner collects and displays all kinds of information and artifacts from World War I, and the Australian experience in particular. He sells book marks with information about Monash, and photocopied sheets about Australian individuals who fought. He also accepts Australian dollars for the food he sells. But why him? Why not us in Australia? Why aren't we fascinated and - dare I say it - proud of these efforts.

The Canadians are. Just to show some kind of contrast. The Canadian government bought a section of the Somme battlefield in 1919, the sector where Canadian soldiers fell most thickly. This section has been kept as is for over ninety years. They have preserved the trenches as they were so you can walk around and see the Allied trenches and their relationship to the German trenches; what each side could see of the other. What it might have looked like for the Germans when all those men poured out of their trenches on July 1 1916. And visa versa. The Canadians have a little museum and information booth. It is staffed by young Canadians who apparently apply for the roles and know everything about the action and can walk you around the site.

It rained when we were there. It was fitting. It was a moving experience, seeing the depth and width of the trenches, seeing the proximity of the trenches, knowing that the site is filled with bodies from all nationalties.

The Somme area doesn't look like a rich region. The towns are a little down at heel and, partly because it was a Sunday, quiet. But I wonder if this is not about money or resources but about the great weight of a huge grief that these people choose to hold. They maintain the graves, and they sing the songs, and they tell the stories. It must be emotionally exhausting.

Having said that, I still can't work out why we don't tell these stories ourselves. It seems very wrong.

Paris became increasingly irritated that he hadn't learned the stories at school, that he didn't know that the Australians had been successful heroes on the Western Front. Zelda and Niccolo followed us around faithfully but were not entralled. Those Niccolo did do most of the footage. He decided, as he was filming us walking around the Villers Bretonneux memorial, that he wanted to be a film maker. 'What are your impressions?' he kept asking as we walked around. I wanted to be quiet. But there was not choice.

It was an amazing day. I went to sleep in the car on the way back to San Quentin. Could barely make it out to have some dinner and walk back to the hotel.

If you are ever near the north east of France, I recommend seeing some of this, particularly the Canadian memorial at Beaumont Hamel (which is the preserved trenches describe above).

This is our last moment with the Western Front. We are now, as Myles said, moving off to World War II. A cook's tour then.

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