The Western Front – Day 2

After the bus saga of yesterday, we reluctantly boarded our coaches for a 9am departure today. We were split into two groups; the band members, who would visit two more important war memorials, and most of the supporters, who would visit the Villers-Bretonneux Primary School for the morning. Our plan was then to meet up together again at around 1.30pm before traveling to the Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.

The journey started quite humorously; Neil was mistaken as a Porter in the hotel lobby, the bus relocated 10 metres up the road without Tracy so she attempted hitch-hiking in France, Craig was called a lady, Tom was seen offering Rescue Remedy pastilles on the bus and the driver asked about them in French, but the only word we could make out was ‘Viagra’, the Blue/Option 1 Bus thought they could perhaps sell their blue band jackets to raise money for a well-earned pub crawl, and Elsie (the non-drinker) almost bought a delicious-looking bottle of fresh orange juice, which was actually a vodka orange mix.

Our first solemn service for today was at the First Australian Division Memorial at Pozieres. Australian War Memorial information indicates that Pozieres was the scene of ‘bitter and costly fighting for the 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions in mid-1916.’ The Germans had prepared themselves well in Pozieres, building bunkers and digging between the cellars of people’s homes in order to create a web of underground tunnels throughout the town. Faced with heavy and ongoing attack, the First Australian Division regained the town on 23 July 1916, and by the time the 2nd Division relieved them, the 1st Division had suffered 5,285 casualties. After two further attacks, the Australians again suffered terribly with 6,848 casualties, however they managed to seize further German positions beyond the village. In what was the final attempt by the Germans to retake Pozieres, the 4th Australian Division endured a massive artillery bombardment and defeated a German counter-attack on 7 August 1916. War records show that: ‘In less than seven weeks in the fighting at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm, three Australian Divisions suffered 23,000 casualties. Of these, 6,800 men were killed or died of wounds. It was a loss comparable with the casualties sustained by the Australians over eight months at Gallipoli in 1915.’

At Pozieres, Monique Lawless played The Last Post for her first time, with the band feeling incredibly proud of her involvement. About one kilometre down the road from this memorial, some of our supporters were laying poppies for our local soldiers in the Pozieres Memorial Cemetery. Although many Australian soldiers are buried here, the memorial itself does not bear any Australian names. The Australian soldiers who fell in France and whose graves are not known are commemorated on the National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.

High up on the ridge beyond Pozieres, our Battlefield Guides pointed out the commanding Thiepval Memorial and Anglo-French Cemetery, which would be our next stop. This memorial carries the names of almost 73,000 British and South African men who have no known grave and who fell on the Somme between July 1915 and 20 March 1918. Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November 1916. The memorial, which stands at 140 feet high, has 16 piers on whose faces the names of the missing are inscribed. It stands on a concrete raft 10ft thick and 19ft below ground and is the largest British war memorial in the world. Beyond the memorial lie the beautifully-manicured and aligned graves of 300 British soldiers on one side and 300 French soldiers on the other side, in recognition of the joint nature of the 1916 offensive. From the top of the hill hear the arrival area at Thiepval, you can see across the farmland the devastating fields from Pozieres to Mouquet Farm ridge that, according to WWI Historian Charles Bean, are: ‘more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.’ At this memorial, Barb and Terry Heskey had the privilege of laying the wreath on behalf of the band while Leon Salter played the Last Post during our solemn service.

After leaving this incredible memorial and education centre, we traveled to Villers-Bretonneux to meet with our supporters who had spent the morning with the school children at Villers-Bretonneux school. When the French village of Villers-Bretonneux was almost destroyed by the Germans during WWI, children from Victorian schools in Australia donated a penny to help rebuild the school and the residents of the village promised that they would one day return the favour. When the children of Villers-Bretonneux heard about the Black Saturday Bush Fires that had devastated Victoria, they wanted to help and the village raised $21,000 to donate to the bushfire appeal. On a large sign in the quadrangle of the school in Villers-Bretonneux are the words: ‘Do not forget Australia.’

On their visit to the beautiful school, supporters told of the excitement that the children had shown when meeting the Aussies and when receiving the gifts that we had taken for them. Sue Hill’s students from St. Michael’s Primary School in Traralgon had written letters and drawn pictures for the French students, and students from the two schools are now hoping to become pen pals. One supporter commented that the children were as excited as Christmas to open their box of treasures, which also included koala souvenirs and kangaroo brooch-pins. Young Brandon was apparently treated like a rock-star and some of the children even gave their prized pokemon cards as a gesture of friendship and respect. Sue, Lee and Sharon surprised all with their French abilities, but on the whole the children were better at speaking English than most of our supporters were at speaking French! It was reported at the school that they receive around 150-250 requests for visits each year, often from government delegates, so we were extremely lucky to spend so much time within the classrooms and school grounds. Our supporters also spoke to the gardener and congratulated him on his good work at the school, and gave him a kangaroo pin, which was received gratefully. The kids loved Mayor Harriman’s golden chains and also signed Bev Jago’s picture storybook about the area.

Following the school visit our supporters conveniently stumbled across a market and Ro surprised all and only bought 6 apples. Some visited the Mairie to meet the Mayor, Dr. Patrick Simon and Deputy Mayor, M. Benoit. Under French law the Mayor marries couples in the Salle de Mariag, a fact that our supporters found quite interesting. They also saw the council chambers and were told that Villers-Bretonneux has 3500 people and 27 councillors.

Although many shops here normally close from 12-2pm, our crew just made it to the boulangerie in time for delicious baguettes and authentic croissants.

Our journey then took us to the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux where we were overwhelmed by the size, the beauty and the significance of our surroundings. High on a hill, overlooking farmland and villages as far as the eye could see in every direction, we were overcome with the consequence of war and the importance of our tour from Australia to France. Here we quietly reflected on the human loss from a war which claimed over 60,000 Australian lives and in which 156,000 others were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. On the night of April 24-25 1918, and three years after the landing at Gallipoli, Australian soldiers had moved up over the fields, which are now occupied by the cemetery and the memorial, to recapture Villers-Bretonneux from the Germans.

The grounds of the memorial are simply breathtaking and consist of a tower, which is surrounded by walls and panels on which the names of the missing dead are listed, a Cross of Sacrifice, and rows of graves on either side of the lush sloping hill surrounding the cross. The memorial lists almost 11,000 names of soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force with no known grave, all of who were killed in France and Belgium between 1916 and 1918. On 25th April each year, and ANZAC Day Dawn Service is conducted at the memorial by the Australian Government Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

At this memorial, we had almost 30 poppies to lay by request, one of which was for our ex-bandsman Ed Cobbledick. Alan was proud to find Ed’s name on the walls of Villers-Bretonneux, and a photo was taken of the entire band in front of his memorial. We also marched from the entrance to the tower playing Waltzing Matilda, with the sound of the band resonating from the long, stone memorial walls. At the tower we played a service of hymns, anthems and marches, and Craig played the Last Post to barely a dry eye. Whilst we continued to locate the soldiers’ names on the vast walls, we also took time to climb the tower and absorb the significance of our surrounds. In a touching and unexpected tribute, Craig stood at the top of the tower overlooking the whole memorial park and played The Rosary, which brought everyone in the park to a complete standstill. The Rosary was played from the trenches by trumpeter Ted McMahon in a performance that momentarily paused gunfire in Gallipoli in 1915. Craig described the opportunity to play the Last Post and The Rosary as an absolute honour and privilege.

Mr. Eric Brisse, the Musical Director of the Amiens Brass Band was not able to be present at the Villers-Bretonneux memorial service, but requested that Mr. Mike Lee read the following touching speech on his behalf:

‘You came from Australia to discover the roots of brass bands in Yorkshire. You came to share our passion for brass music. You came to share the French and Australian friendship which has endured over a century. You will have the great honour to participate at the Ravivage of the Flame and honour the French Unknown Soldier in Paris. You honoured the memory of the 54,896 British soldiers and other countries of the Commonwealth, who died up to August 15, 1917, in Ypres. You remembered Private Thomas Cosgriff and his brothers in arms in Fromelles.

You are here today in front of the names of the 10,773 solders of the Australian Imperial Force without a known grave who were killed between 1916, when Australian forces arrived in France and Belgium, and the end of the war. This place was chosen to commemorate the role played by the Australian soldiers in the Battle of Amiens in 1918. The memorial consists of a tower, in front of the Villers-Bretonneux military cemetery, which also includes a Cross of Sacrifice. The tower is surrounded by walls and panels on which the names of the deaths are listed. Words of commemoration are written in French and English on each side of the entrance of the tower. The memorial was inaugurated on July 22 1938 by King George VI and his speech was directly broadcast in Australia. Among the other dignitaries present were the French President Albert Lebrun, who also delivered a speech, and the Australian Vice Prime Minister Earle Page.

This memorial was the last one of the big monuments to the fallen of the First World War to be built, and the Second World War began a little more than a year after its inauguration. It is now the site of an annual service for ANZAC Day, organized by the Australian Government. During the ceremony of inauguration, the King ended his speech with the words: ‘They rest in peace, while over them all Australia’s tower keeps watch and ward.’

It is a sad anniversary this year; it is 100 years since the first ANZAC soldiers arrived in Gallipoli, and then later here, on the Western Front, one year after Franz Ferdinand von Osterreich-Este, the Archduke of Austria fell victim to a criminal attack in Sarajevo, which started the war and which later led to millions of victims.

For the 59,300 Australian volunteers who died for our freedom, please, Lest We Forget.’

Our visit to the Australian National Memorial was a highlight for all in the band, bringing home the enormity of the Australian forces’ loss and the sheer number of men who have no known grave in the fields of France and Belgium. The absolute beauty of this memorial completely juxtaposes the purpose of its presence, and this visit will be something that we carry with us always. Bonnie described feelings of pride in representing our community as well as insignificance due to the sheer enormity of lives lost.

After two emotional and overwhelming days on the Western Front, we felt drained as we headed for Paris, the City of Light. As we traveled through a long tunnel coming in to Paris, Craig commented on all the beautiful lights, which of course were only the tail lights of vehicles ahead of us. Bonnie took the tour guide’s seat in the Blue Bus, making hilarious observations and honing her French skills with the bus driver Willy, who continued to mention the Viagra joke.

With all respect, other events from the past two days included:

  • Tom almost giving himself a heart attack when he entered his hotel room in Paris and upon seeing his own reflection in a mirror, started screaming and yelling.
  • Sharon had entered the bus toilet at the VC Corner memorial as the bus driver drove off to turn the bus around a few kilometres down the road. When she returned, laughing, there were many jokes about the ‘WC incident at the VC’.
  • The bass drum harness fell on Ray from the overhead luggage rack and Phil was heard to comment, ‘That’s why they call it the battlefield tour mate.’
  • Barney’s hat blew off at the Cobbers memorial and looked like it was going to land on the Cobber’s head. Gasps were audible during the silent service.
  • The backseat bandits, Karen, Shirley H, Bev and Jennie were negatively influenced by Jeff. No surprises there!
  • In stories of the St. Pancras Railway Station ‘stopover’, we heard that Vic had been upset with Alex for not buying her the £9,000 bottle of champagne that she had wanted, while Kim and Nelson were thrilled that they only had to press a button to order champagne at the Champagne Bar.
  • Ken was the designated phone charger man at St. Pancras – funny how we all need our mobile phone internationally even when WiFi doesn’t work and you’re stuck at a station for 9 hours.
  • Yes, the French kissing has started….. mostly thanks to Dave who loves the tradition of two kisses for each greeting.
  • The boys have been out already and purchased berets, which are turning up everywhere, mostly in Facebook posts.
  • Whilst mooing at the cows in the fields at Fromelles, Sue M provided strategies about mooing with the right accent – Le Moo.
  • The Mayor, Cr. Dale ‘Do-I-feel-like-a-pizza-or-a-baguette?’ Harriman has had his bling on!
  • And in good news, Rowena found her hole that she had lost in Manchester.

Special thanks goes to Neil Fitzclarence and Jacqui Ingram who moved all the luggage from the broken bus in Amiens upstairs and into hotel meeting room while the rest of us were playing at Villers-Brettoneux last night. This is possibly the reason that Neil was mistaken for a porter early this morning.

Well we are finally in Paris! Everyone is excited and ready to start exploring this amazing city. Tomorrow we have an incredible day lined up, so stay tuned…..


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