The Western Front – Day 1

Now that we have the Pope, the Mayor and the Minister on board, we departed the hotel at 8am for what will no doubt be two very emotional days ahead. Today we commenced our solemn journey through the Western Front Battlefields of Northern France and Belgium.

We will be visiting three main areas across the Western Front:

  1. Ypres, Belgium, where The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient of WWI and whose graves are unknown. Each night at 8pm the traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate while the local Fire Brigade sound The Last Post in the roadway under the Memorial’s arches. This service has been held daily since 1927, except for the four years of German occupation during WW2. This area is just north of the France/Belgium border.
  2. The middle area, which includes Bullecourt, Arras, Fromelles, Aubers, VC Corner and Pheasant Wood. This area is south of Belgium but north of The Somme, and forms part of the northern border of France.
  3. The Somme – further south, but still in northern France, this area is known as Department 80 in France. It includes Pozieres, Amiens, Villers-Brettoneux, Thiepval and Mouquet Farm areas.

Mr. Mike Lee from the Canberra Brass Band in Australia is travelling with us and has been liaising with the band for months about tour arrangements. Mike organised similar tours in 2005 and 2014 with Eastern Australian Brass. His holiday in France coincided with our tour, thus he changed his plans to be with us for the solemn part of our journey. Our Battlefield Guides, Tim Wright and John Anderson are also travelling with us in two coaches; their knowledge of WWI is simply incredible.

We commenced the day with the world’s fastest return trip to Belgium – around 1.5 hours in total. Despite missing the Menin Gate service last night, it was important to the band that we make this trip as we had been trusted with placing poppies for around 20 relatives of Gippsland’s fallen soldiers in this area. Menin Gate is a stunning, imposing memorial, which forms the entrance arch coming into the township of Ypres. It serves as a roadway as well as an incredible memorial, bearing the names of soliders as high as you can see.   To the right is a stairway which leads to more stone memorial walls which list thousands more names as they wind up and around to the top exit. As the band gathered on the steps, Craig played The Last Post in a stirring and emotional tribute to our Australian soliders, in particular those with links to the Gippsland area. With hardly a dry eye, we then proceeded to locate the names of our nominated soldiers, and each band member was involved in photographing the tributes around the walls.

In what was an overwhelming start to our solemn journey, both Cr. Dale Harriman and Phil Medhurst laid wreaths at Menin Gate along with the local Deputy Mayor. We were also greeted by Mrs. Christine Meul-Devos who represented the Flemish Association of Music, Bands and Musicians, on behalf of a lady named Isabelle whom we had been liaising with and who had laid the wreaths for us at last night’s Menin Gate service.

After placing a poppy and copy of war medals for Private Joseph Edwin Kee, relative of Doug and Sheryl Caulfield (nee Kee) of Traralgon, we received a touching message which read, ‘Our profound gratitude seems totally inadequate. On behalf of our immediate and extended families, thank you so much for affording our relative the recognition he, and his comrades so rightfully deserve. God bless you all.’ Thank you Doug and Sheryl for allowing us to share these humble sentiments.

After returning to our coaches alongside the beautiful canal at Menin Gate following our service, it became quickly apparent that one of the coaches would not start. Most people were asked to alight the coach and push from behind, with the bus engine starting to the sound of whoops and cheers from band members and supporters.

We next visited the Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery in Fromelles; a significant memorial bearing the grave of our President, Phil Medhurst’s Great Uncle Private Thomas Cosgriff. On a windy hill overlooking miles of lush farmland, the band played a solemn service to Private Cosgriff and the other soldiers who are remembered in this beautiful, manicured cemetery. Between 2007 – 2009, around 250 Australian soldiers were located, exhumed and identified adjacent to the nearby Pheasant Wood. Five unmarked mass graves had been made by the Germans during the war, each containing around 50 soldiers. Phil played The Last Post at the gravesite of his Great Uncle in what would have been a proud, overwhelming and emotional moment. We then played Advance Australia Fair and Waltzing Matilda before walking across the road to the site of the original burials at the southern edge of the Wood.

At V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial we performed another touching service and laid poppies in memory of over 400 Australian soldiers buried here, and the 1,299 Australians listed as having no known grave, but all of whom died in The Battle of Fromelles on 19-20 July 1916. Looking to the right of the memorial, we contemplated the land aptly known as ‘No Man’s Land’ which lies between the Australian and German trenches of July 1916. When the remains here were found on 11 November 1918, the official historian of WWI and discoverer of the remains, Charles Bean, noted: ‘We found the old no-man’s-land simply full of our dead….west of the Laies River…..the skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere.’ We also walked along the road beside this land to visit the ‘Cobbers’ memorial at Australian Memorial Park, which depicts Sargent Simon Fraser of the 58th Battalion carrying in a wounded soldier on his back after hearing him call out, ‘Don’t forget me, cobber.’ This statue commemorates the Australians who fought and died during the attack at the Battle of Fromelles and it is situated on the German defensive line. It is not the memory of the military disaster of Fromelles that is remembered here, but rather the courage and compassion of those who risked their lives to help the wounded. At VC Corner we reflected on the vibrant red poppies that are starting to flower in the fields and along the roadsides, symbolic of the devastated battlefields and blood that was shed in the fields of northern France and Belgium in the First World War.

It was at VC Corner that we met a lovely Australian lady, Deborah Gower, who is a potter from Mullumbimby in Australia. She is currently completing an ‘Artist in Residence’ stay in the area and she had heard of our visit from locals who had been invited to meet with us in Fromelles. Deborah provided a cross for the children in the band to write on, and she offered to take it back to the grave of Private Thomas Cosgriff for us. She had also made seven small clay crosses for us to inscribe before being fired and taken to a nearby school. Thank you Deborah for your kindness and interest in our journey.

As we departed VC Corner, our coach that had been push started earlier slowly started to fall apart. The electrics were failing, leaving people stuck in the bus toilet in the dark (Roger!!), a high-pitched alarm was stuck on, our hazard lights were on, the bus was only moving at walking pace, and to our dismay, the front door kept flying open and we almost lost our Battlefields Tour Guide, Tim (what a shame it would have been to lose his knowledge out the bus door!) Craig sang in tune to the alarm, Ali played her trombone, and the rest of us just laughed. Craig also chirped in that we needed the RACFrance. We presume that the words coming from the bus driver were French swear words. We eventually came to a stop on a little side road as our driver made some frantic calls to his bus company. Meanwhile, our guides decided to put everyone on to one coach, which meant transferring luggage from one coach to the other so that instruments and people would fit on. Around 30 people were moving luggage, instruments and swapping things around on a small, narrow road between towns, in a scene that must have resembled a National Lampoon’s vacation. Due to insufficient bus seats we had to leave Riawena, Elsie, Kathy, Jacqui and Neil in the dud-bus as we drove off to the hilarious sound of a cornet fanfare.

So far, our planes, trains and automobiles have all failed us. We are just lucky we didn’t go on the ferry from Dover to Calais after all!!

Our one bus-load continued on to the peaceful Bullecourt Australian Memorial Park with its statue of the bronze ‘Bullecourt Digger’. According to Australian Remembrance Trail information, this statue gazes out over the fields of Bullecourt where in April and May 1917, the AIF lost 10,000 soldiers, killed or wounded, in their efforts to break into and hold part of the Hindenburg Line. Here, our supporter Ray Jago from the Sale Brass Band played The Last Post just beautifully, with the wind stirring the flags above and birds chirping in the trees. Cr. Dale Harriman and Phil laid a wreath and we played a number of hymns and anthems. We then drove into town and performed another service at the Bullecourt Slouch Hat Memorial, where the distinctively Australian emblem of a bronze slouch hat is displayed on a stone memorial. In a proud moment for his parents and the band, young Lachlan Wilson played The Last Post at this site to the applause of his banding family.

After departing Bullecourt we received news that a new battery for the broken-down bus would only be around 15 minutes away, so we were hoping that our deserted crew were doing okay without much food or water.

Many band members slept on the journey into Amiens, where we quickly checked into our hotel and then re-boarded the bus again within 40 minutes to head to our Civic Reception and concert with the Amiens Brass Band at Villers-Bretonneux. We met with our lost band members and new bus at an amazing town hall with high ceilings and live acoustics and had a brief massed-bands practise before enjoying a lovely smorgasboard dinner with the two bands and supporters. The Amiens Brass Band opened the concert with a moving rendition of, ‘I am Australian’ with players standing down the sides of the hall alongside the audience, and this, of course, was accompanied by proud singing, some tears and a standing ovation from our band members. Amiens Band performed an excellent concert program with brilliant playing. Their conductor, Mr. Eric Brisse is a world-class French horn player and he also plays tenor horn. The band traveled to Australia to compete in the Nationals around 4-5 years ago. In the second half of the program, our band performed a highly entertaining and mixed repertoire to a thrilled crowd, who supported us with many standing ovations and lots of clapping. The sound within the hall was incredible. And loud! Somehow our band always manages to rise to the challenge in an exceptional way.

Towards the end of the concert we listened to emotional and grateful speeches from the official parties, including the Mayor of Villers-Bretonneux, Dr. Patrick Simon, and the Mayor of Latrobe City, Cr. Dale Harriman, and many meaningful and precious gifts were exchanged between bands, communities and countries. We arrived back at the hotel at around midnight, exhausted after an emotional day and exhilarating concert with a wonderful group of musicians.

**Apologies for the delay in posts. We have been extremely busy with little rest and poor Wi-Fi until Paris. I am trying my best to catch you up on our news :0)  More photos will be inserted into posts when possible, so please keep checking back.

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