My guidebook suggested that it would be a most humbling experience. It was still early and it was only the shortest detour from the road to Amiens and its majestic Gothic cathedral (the largest in France). It shouldn’t take long. The road ran through the gently rolling farms and fields of the Somme Valley on a sunny spring morning.
I stood alone at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial and I felt very humble and very proud. The lawns were immaculate. The red and white flowers bloomed with life from the manicured garden beds. The plain white tombstones seemingly ran forever in perfectly straight lines. Each represented a young man chopped down in his prime and so, so far from home. Each represented a son and a grandson. Some slightly older probably represented a husband and a father as well.
I read so many of those headstones and wandered up and down the rows in a trance. Behind stood an imposing tower, two flagpoles with the Australian and French flags drooped limply and flanked by two huge granite walls with over 10,000 names – many bodies that were never found or identified.
I didn’t leave till lunchtime and couldn’t drive further than the unassuming village of Villers-Bretonneux. Lovingly called “VB”, it seemed more Australian than Australia. The main street is Rue de Melbourne and one of the main eateries is Restaurant de Kangarou. The school had been built by donations from Victoria. Nearly everywhere had some sense of Australiana. Signs everywhere remind the villagers N’oublions jamais l’Australie – Never forget Australia.
I was told the story by an immaculately dressed local man in a heavily-accented but clear English - a story he told with a passion despite probably relating it many times before. He told the story that his father told him. On the night of April 24, 1918 – exactly 90 years ago – Australian soldiers fought through the town in a vicious war, denying the German soldiers possession of this village that they had won only a few hours earlier. It prevented their march to Amiens and Paris.
The village was flattened, 1,200 Australians and undoubtedly many French and German lives were lost. This gentleman vividly pointed out where various small incidents in the battle had occurred. His recall of detail was extraordinary. It seemed so realistic yet so impossible from today – spring fields, people chatting and going about their business.
We chatted for hours in one of the local bars over a red wine and a beer. His passion never waned.
And every Anzac Day (April 25) – Australia’s day of remembrance for those who fought and gave their lives for our nation – I can so clearly recall this day of images, the endless row of headstones, the granite wall of names, the passion and stories of this unnamed French gentleman.
There is a sign in a nearby museum which reads “They gave their today for our tomorrow”. Nothing could say it better. I have never felt so humble, yet so proud.
I never did get to Amiens that day.
There is a short Youtube video of some official footage of the battle at Villers-Bretonneux.