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Anzac Day at Villers-Bretonneux in France

villers bretonneux anzac day service

On 25th April each year L’ANZAC Day memorial meetings takes place at Villers-Bretonneux in Picardy, northern France. New Zealand expat in France, Donna Kerridge reports on the ceremony in the French town that will be a little part of Australia forever…

I was packing sandwiches and flasks of coffee at 1:15am this morning, in preparation for attending the ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corp) dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux, just outside Amiens, Picardy.  Stomachs considered, I left the house at 1:45am with my partner and our two Australian guests. 30 minutes into the journey, we watched in dismay as lightening flashed across the sky.  Rain was the one item we had left off our otherwise, thorough checklist.

The service had, as always, been meticulously planned by the Australian Government Department of Veterans’ Affairs.  Expecting at least 6000 attendees, buses were laid on from major towns in Picardie and instructions were clear for private vehicle users. The site would only be accessible by bus or on foot; five nearby car parks had been set aside for use and directions were included for the walk from each of them – ranging from 31 to 47 minutes.  Using calculated cunning and initiative, we chose to use a supermarket car park, with an average walk time, and away from the more obvious town and railway car parks. Nonetheless, we were still surprised to roll up at 3am to a completely deserted space.

But, in the spirit of major events like music festivals, as we wandered along the streets, more and more groups emerged from side roads and joined us on the trek up the hill, passing the bemused French gendarmes who were manning the roadblocks and urging everyone to keep “a droit”.  Unlike heading to a rock concert, however, the mood was sombre and quiet and there were no Iron Maiden t-shirts to be seen.

The Australian Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux is a stunning site, and never more so than in the artificially-lit cool of the night; we passed by the many thousands of headstones, glowing luminously white and the stunningly kept lawns and flowerbeds to seating in front of the east-facing monument.  The organisation was nothing short of military perfect; we were handed programmes (with both English and French translations), souvenir pins and behold, a plastic rain poncho each. (Phew).

We were seated reasonably near the front by 4am (although at least 1000 people had managed to get there before us, via routes that clearly did not include the supermarket car park…) and started to take in the surroundings. As this is the site of a messy (but victorious) battle involving Australian troops, I suspect that I was one of the few kiwis there.  The air was filled with the voices of as many local French as far-travelled ockers.  The official service started at 5.30 am, but before then we were treated to music by the Australian Army Band and two school choirs all the way from Tasmania; the beautifully executed renditions of Waltzing Matilda, Pack up your Troubles and It’s a long way to Tipperary still did not rouse the sombre crowd and I was forced to change my views of the “no place inappropriate for a joke” Aussies.

Photos of soldiers who had died were projected onto the white stone monument and I mused that with all our amazing digital technology today, you could not take more beautiful photographs than these, taken in and around 1914 to preserve the moment of a proud young soldier going off to war. It was humbling to think these were the images that had been clutched to the bosoms of worried mothers and dewy-eyed sweethearts during those war years (and probably for many afterwards, as these soldiers did not return). From a population of fewer than five million (at the time), 416,809 Australian men enlisted, of which over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.

The service itself was very professional (I have never heard such clearly spoken English) , the stories were interesting, the mutual gratitude between Australia and France was respectful and appreciative and the current serving soldiers gave a very clipped performance. The humanity appeared after all the official wreaths had been laid. The general public who had lost family members were invited to lay their wreaths and flowers at the foot of the monument. At this point, the crowd stirred and people appeared from every direction, some carrying large wreaths between family members, others with hand-made offerings or even what looked like hastily purchased bouquets of flowers from a local service station.  It was the gesture that was important.

In front of me, I had observed a young woman of about 20, who sat alone, burdened with a rucksack and clutching three cellophane wrapped red roses.  Initially, she didn’t move, then finally plucking up courage to ask a gentleman at the end of her row to watch her belongings, she pressed forward with the crowd and her flowers. Clearly in the middle of an overseas adventure, she had altered her itinerary to stop and pay respect to a beloved family member who died long ago; I imagine that she would have been acting not only for herself but on behalf of many relatives who could not have made the voyage.

With the pink sky dawning in front of us, that was when it became clear why we had dragged ourselves from our warm beds 7 hours earlier.  Lest we forget.

(25 April, 2014)

The Battle of Fromelles remembered

Wellington Quarry, Arras 

Donna Kerridge lives and works as a stained-glass artist with a gite in Pas de Calais, northern France.

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