Supplied courtesy of the © Robinvale Sentinel
It was with a sense of wonder of what was before me that I boarded the plane.
I was going to Villers-Bretonneux in France for Anzac Day.
Anzac Day never held any real meaning to me before, sure I understood that men had been killed, and on Anzac Day we remember the sacrifices they made, but these people were far from the life I knew, and their deaths weren’t real to me.
The reality of war and what it must have been like didn’t really sink in until I was standing in a trench, now covered in grass, but that was once covered in mud, slush and dead bodies, in freezing cold below zero weather getting frostbite.
That was when I realised what Anzac Day is all about and the pain and suffering war brings.
One percent of Australia’s population was killed in and around the area I was standing, I wondered how many soldiers fighting for their country had died in the very trench I was standing in?
The rows upon rows of trenches that still scar the landscape force the realities of war into your mind and make you feel both proud and ashamed of the men who fought during the war years.
There was no evidence of the “glory” of the men in uniform, just old men who drink themselves silly trying to forget their friends falling around them, and not getting up.
There was no glory for the soldiers, at least not until they were dead! and the only glory for the families left behind was a telegram saying how bravely their fathers, husbands, sons fought, and that hardly compensated for the loss of their loved ones.
The countryside of Villers-Bretonneux has so many stories to tell, and although there may not have been any glory for the men who fell like flies, a drive through the country can show you the respect and honour they are given 70 years after their death.
One memorial was in honour of one man: “I.C. MacKenzie, R.A.A.F. Pilot Officer killed in action.”
The plaque didn’t tell the full story of his bravery but as with all the memorials someone knew the story behind them: His plane was in trouble, the rest of the crew bailed but he continued to attempt to pilot the plane so it would not crash into the civilian homes they were flying over. He succeeded in getting clear of the houses. but was killed in the landing.
The tribute won’t do him much good, but at least his family know that his sacrifice was appreciated. A common sight in France is memorials paying tribute to individuals and to entire divisions. Included was a list of places they fought in before they were wiped out. It makes you think how many men must have been killed for there to be so many memorials, you couldn’t drive more than a couple of kilometres without coming across one.
One of the most frightening parts about it is how close to my age many of the ‘men’ were when they were killed. 1 can’t imagine the kids I go to school with fighting battles and consequently being killed. What made people so young want to fight?
During the war years people found hope in many things and particularly in the church.
In the village there is a church. On top there is a statue of Mary, holding baby Jesus above her head. It was believed that when the statue fell the war would end. It fell three days before the armistice was signed.
Whether someone was tipped off about the end of the war and knocked it down or whether it just fell, no-one knows. It is now restored and remains a symbol of hope.
As we were driving along, one of our group spotted something under a cross with Jesus on it. We backed the bus up to have a look. There, laying in the grass was ten or so unexploded bombs. The farmers still dig them up in their paddocks and we had come across one of the many dumping spots. The bombs are all placed together on the side of the road and eventually someone picks them all up and disposes of them.
An interesting fact that we learnt, is that the land that the memorials are on is actually owned by the country, of the nationality of the men it is in tribute to.
The line upon line of headstones identical except for the personal details are surrounded by beautiful shrubs and flowers. The grass that grows amongst them is so well kept and even that it almost looks fake.
Each headstone symbolises the death of a young man that someone knew and cared about.
The Flanders poppies that were sold years ago for the men who were incapacitated during the war are still sold today for the families of men who were killed at war.
These poppies were not only a landmark of death, but also a symbol of hope.
Anzac Day in Villers Bretonneux is not so different to the ceremony in Melbourne, but if anything it is even bigger, and there is more feeling; the people seem to care more.
The French army, navy, airforce and military band all put on a display. There were Australian soldiers there as well as some World War One Australian veterans.
Six jets flew over in salute at the end of the ceremony, then the whole town went to the town hall for the final celebrations.
There were people from all over the world at the ceremony including many other Australians. A mystery was solved at these celebrations: Last year on Anzac Day, a man appeared, played the bagpipes and then disappeared without a trace; no-one knew who he was or where he came from. He turned up again this year and his name is Albert. He had his pockets full of badges and buttons that he dug up on the battlefields. He gave me one that was off a World War One Australian uniform.
He is half Scottish, half French and is in desperate need of bagpipe lessons!
At the start of this story, I wrote mainly of the sadness of the country, but France is also a beautiful, fun, fantastic place.
My visit to France helped me to understand a lot of things that most people my age show no respect for. The trip was probably the best thing that ever happened to me and certainly the most educational.