French, Australians and Belgians came together to fight the World War I Western Front battles. Forty-six thousand Australians died and more than 150 000 were wounded in the Battles of Pozières, Bullecourt, Messines and Passchendaele.
When the war ended, they separated to return to their respective homes.
In recent years, the simple words ‘Lest we forget’ have become a call to action as vast numbers of Commonwealth visitors have arrived in the European villages that bore the brunt of those battles.
They are reunited to share a past long not spoken of.
French voices floated gaily in white puffs in the chill as locals greeted one another and doffed hats.
They meandered between 14th-century stone walls surrounding the Sarlat village markets, where a slight whiff of Christmas was tentatively emerging.
It was November 2008 and the weather was quickly changing into the cold that marks the desertion of tourists and the arrival of the local festive season.
Suddenly, the French ambience was shattered.
Aussie voices blared out over the cobblestones.
Then I listened more closely.
The voices had lifted an octave, excitedly talking about a World War I Western Front battlefield tour they had just completed.
I wandered over to the coffee shop where two men and two women, all sporting grey hair under beanies and scarves, had steam puffing out of their mouths along with their accents. I politely asked them why they were interested in touring battlefields.
One gentleman with leathery skin, suggesting long Australian summers, told me his grandfather did not return from World War I and he wanted to see where he was buried. His companion, equally weather-beaten, lifted his chin, raised an eyebrow and announced it was important to remember, or it could happen again.
I also raised an eyebrow. Having worked as a photojournalist in some pretty challenging locations around the world, I am not convinced humans will ever end their fascination with war.
In fact, I felt a little battle fatigued from recent projects in various African nations. This village of Sarlat had been the location of an ongoing personal photographic project sneaked in between that edgy development work. And, I was seeking another assignment.
I had spent time peeking behind Sarlat’s ancient walls to catch a glimpse of what lay beneath the tourist façade. These walls were now decorated with an exhibition of my resulting photos and it was time to move on – hopefully in a way that could link my home Australia with France, where I was eager to spend more time. So, when more steam emerged as they all started talking at once about Remembrance Day commemorations on the Western Front, with a sparkle in their eyes, I sniffed a story idea emerging from the cold.There was a lure to what these folks were telling me that I did not understand.
The passion of travel I understood; I had been at it since my parents first hoisted me out of the comfort of daily school routine aged eight to ‘go travelling’. A year later I was full of the wonders of India, Malaysia, Europe and America. Travel, as they say, is rarely glamorous at the time. The glamour arrives in hindsight when we reflect on where we have been. Reflection brings the joys and excitement that remain long after we have resettled into the routine of everyday life.
So, on that November day when I first stumbled across ‘battlefield tourism’, I was intrigued. A European holiday based on war?
I asked those Australians where they had caught their bus tour. They told me it left from Lille further up north.
I jumped on a train to go see for myself.
A few weeks later in Lille, France, a mini-bus bearing a splendid array of colourful Aussie icons hurtled up to the gutter outside my hotel, leaving no doubt it was there to collect me.
‘Cobbers Battlefield Tours’ was emblazed across the van in between a perky-looking kangaroo and the Aussie flag. It was a rather bright rainbow of enthusiasm that was a little incongruous given the theme of the day ahead.
I was joining a group of Australians in France, with an English tour guide.
The cultural combination had begun.
Colin Gillard started the first Australian tour company on the Somme, where he has spent about 30 years assisting Australians ‘following the Anzacs’.
The young couple huddled in the back were searching for mention of a great-grandfather who never returned from the war. Colin was quick to reassure them that he would help them find the name on a memorial later in the day. Watching the young couple clasping hands and smiling gently at each other, I wondered whether I would be thrilled if my lover brought me along on a day like this.
We joined the crowds wandering along trenches now covered in soft grass that was starting to fade to a duller grey under the November skies, giving just a hint of what would have been endured by those who fought there.
Large monuments reached high into the sky, dotting the countryside as though each government was eager to ensure the size of their memorial was adequate compared to the others. They were massive constructions climbing out of farmlands and covered with the names of those who died.
Clumps of bare trees clustered against screaming winds, and I imagined the soldiers huddling together in a desperate respite from cold and death. Fallen leaves lay rotting on the ground where I imagined bodies did the same, the stench of body parts now replaced with clean dirt and living trees.
There were signposts along the way, indicating that many Australians recently attended Remembrance Day commemorations there. Tatty fragments of flags were shoved into the tops of memorials and in the dirt around graves. Torn pieces of French and Australian flags clung grimly to flagpoles standing side by side.
Then, beside the road, tucked in between the monuments and in sight of numerous buses lumbering up and down, there stood a cartoon of an Aussie Digger advertising the ‘Lee Tommy’ restaurant. This was a sign of a different sort: one that indicated great commercialisation opportunities were emerging with the centenary of the war.
Colin seemed genuinely thrilled when we found a plaque mentioning the great-grandfather of the young man on the tour with us. He explained that this was an important part of his job: to find the location of these fallen men for his visitors. The young man proudly posed for a photo snapped by his shivering girlfriend in the rain. In the age of the selfie, a photo is taken as evidence of a mission completed. I wondered whether these two would now move on to a warmer, more romantic location, and for how long the memories of this day would stay with them.
I wanted to escape the sadness for the warmth of my hotel room and a visit to the brightly lit Christmas markets back at Lille.
But the tour went on. We ambled around the Villers-Bretonneux Australian National Memorial that dwarfed those seeking refuge from the sheets of rain battering its solid walls. We heard about the battles of Pozières, Bullecourt, Messines and Passchendaele that the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) fought from March 1916 until World War I ended on 11 November, 1918. More than 46 000 young Australian men lost their lives and more than 150 000 were wounded.
Shocking statistics like these demand attention. Indeed, Australian society was unquestionably changed forever because of what happened here. It continued to haunt men and women for many years and passed its trauma on to the generations that followed.
However, I had thought passion for facts like these lay with those few, like our tour guide Colin and the famous author John Laffin, who dedicated their lives to wandering into the secrets of the battlefields, unearthing horrors to relate on tours or write in books.
This used to be the foray of returned servicemen and women, or those with a bleak fascination with all things associated with war. Visiting these places augmented ploughing through thick textbooks full of browbeating statistics and strategies that fly at you until your eyes glaze over.
But this was different.
Somehow the Digger had developed an iconographic status in Australian society, and in recent years thousands of families had travelled to World War I battle sites to seek records of relatives who served in that first AIF.
Huddled in the cold van I wondered how this battlefields tour had become part of the great European travel experience: a couple of days hearing about death and destruction, tucked in between eying off the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. I understood the excitement and anticipation of a great travelling adventure – a gasp of delight as a famous icon emerges before our eyes – but here I was mooching about barren fields, biting winds cutting up through my feet and pinching my cheeks.
The usual feelings of excited anticipation and thrills were not present on that dark November day on the Somme. I felt a strange mixture of guilt and anger at the loss of life, and that I did not want to be there listening to the English tour guide droning on about numbers of deaths and battle strategies of the ‘Great War’.
It was depressing.
I was given little chance to pose questions to the young couple as Colin continued his constant stream of information. It was a quiet day between us passengers. Not much was spoken – just Colin’s impressive memory for statistics and battle strategies. It was clear he is genuinely passionate about what happened here and feels great compassion for the men and women impacted by it. In a business becoming more and more competitive this would remain his difference. His empathy.
Nearly a decade later I would again sit with Colin on the Somme, when he explained why he would leave after the final centenary commemoration in 2018, never to return to his World War I Western Front battlefield tours again.
‘Amiens memorial park grounds’ read the signpost.
A screaming crow broke the heavy silence for a moment, before descending back into stillness.
A ute sped by, kicking up dust.
Then, more silence.
Memories of that dark day in Colin’s van five months earlier rushed back as I stood and gaped.
There were no soft voices floating across like a gentle cloud from clusters of people reading memorials and graves here.
This sign bravely stood, rather forlornly waiting for some attention.
I had driven from my home in Brisbane, a three-hour road trip to Stanthorpe here on the Granite Belt in Queensland.
That day in Colin’s tour bus had stayed niggling at the back of my mind, forcing me to poke about at the edges of those terrifying great tomes of war statistics written about the Aussie Diggers on the Western Front. Just before my eyes glazed over and I set the books aside, one interesting fact leapt out. All around Stanthorpe, names of towns and local areas reflect battles on the Western Front in World War I.
I had jumped in my car to go see for myself.
The woman in the Stanthorpe Visitor Information Centre peered out over her glasses and briskly requested my postal address. Having had that vital statistic gleaned from me, I asked her to point me in the direction of the links to World War I. She blinked at me. A large sheet of maps was pulled forward and I was directed to the Returned Services League (RSL) on the other side of town.
A blast of air conditioning was welcome as I stepped onto the RSL’s garishly printed carpet. It was later explained that bright patterns can hide a multitude of sins (and stains). I asked for directions to the signs and links to the World War I areas. I was directed up the road to the museum.
I detoured after seeing a sign promising me a drive along ‘Armistice Way’. Heart quickening, I encountered Memorial Lane, Bullecourt Lane, Passchendaele State Forest and Pozières School Road.
‘AMIENS ROAD’ screamed across the top of a wooden post with arrows pointing in opposite directions: Amiens to the left; Stanthorpe to the right. It could barely be read through messy powerlines with their black tentacles stretching in all directions.
Potholes attempted to slow my excited drive towards Amiens State School.
An old Queensland-style building stood quietly high on stilts, keeping it above floods and hopefully capturing a breeze for the children working in the classrooms. With its soaring altitude, the Granite Belt hosts wild hailstorms that tear up the landscape during hot summer months, before dropping to near zero in winter, making it the coldest place in Queensland.
A nearby sign explained ‘The Soldier Settlement Story’. A group of World War I soldiers returned from war to rebuild their lives in this Pikedale Soldier Settlement. The community they established was based on the Amiens Branch Railway, with all railway sidings named after the battlefields where men from Stanthorpe and the Granite Belt died and are buried today: Fleurbaix, Pozières, Bullecourt, Passchendaele, Bapaume and Messines.
A chunk of stone with a memorial to the families involved is held together with a bit of old wire and rough wood – a far cry from the monuments of Europe. As though to point out the bleeding obvious, a nearby water tank on stilts balances near the bright-orange Australia Post and phone boxes. Clearly, I was not in Amiens France any more, but the surprising similarities continued – as did my drive along this ‘Settlement Way’ tourist track.
A little further on, and Pozières State School boasts it was established in 1921, a small monument dedicating the facility:
To The Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Men of the First Australian Division Who Fought in France and Belgium 1916–1917–1918
These country roads were so silent.
I found myself yearning for voices: someone to explain how this silence must have been deafening after the noise of warfare, the stillness painful after the constant action and exhaustion of the Western Front – as painful as the impact of this harsh heat upon many of the injuries, both physical and mental, that accompanied these men home. And then there was the impact upon their families: the wives who faced a stranger over the dinner table each night, and children shushed and told not to talk about ‘that’ and to never ask questions.
I cannot talk to the families who resettled post World War I in this community created for them – they are long gone.
Just as European holidays are only truly appreciated in hindsight from within the toil of daily routine, so too had the emerging centenary of World War I and those remarkable days spent on the Somme, Flanders and Stanthorpe tenaciously refused to leave my imagination.
However, I did not want to add to the statistics of war; I was seeking voices to bring the Diggers to life. I decided to explore how the memories of World War I were commemorated across cultures: those of Australia, France and Belgium. I wanted my photos to examine cultural juxtapositions to highlight similarities between these cultures’ experiences of war – the concept of cultural identity linking my photographs captured in locations of the French and Belgium World War I Western Front battles with similar works created in the Granite Belt, Australia, where Diggers were resettled after the war.
But this story is not about a place or a war, but of the people found there. The story of the Diggers at war is too well known, too well documented and too often written about. A general library catalogue search on the term ‘Diggers Western Front’ returns a staggering 20 000 results.
It did not take long to become overwhelmed by the statistical material found within the incredible number of books explaining their relevance to this part of Australia’s history. I had been expecting summaries of battle strategies, numbers of deaths, ranks and battalions, but not this wealth of detail.
There were the heavy tomes of data from the likes of the prolific John Laffin, who authored 130 books. They are often seen snuggly propped under the arms of Australian tourists as they march around the memorials in France and Belgium, giving context to what they are witnessing. Many of Laffin’s books deal with military history and give a sense of great pride in the sacrifice of the Diggers. The many years he spent following their steps on the Western Front provide a sense of impressive knowledge and realism to his work.
Then there was the more populist Peter Fitzsimmons with his personal army of researchers following up the rear. His latest offering, Fromelles and Pozières: In the Trenches of Hell, relies strongly on stereotypical images of how he sees ‘Aussie blokes’ and makes no apology for his being nowhere near a qualified historian. Rather, he revels in thumbing his nose at those serious ‘academic’ types and instead relies on his ‘Aussie banter’ style of writing.
In between these popular authors lay the plethora of projects from universities and government departments, family histories proudly self-published, and much, much more. There were the books about the Anzac pilgrimages exploring the travels of ‘young and old, soldier and civilian’ – and even an Australia’s Military History for Dummies, which promises a ‘simple and easy way to get your mind around Australia’s military history’. There were books featuring primary records of war, including diaries and photographs; books examining the development of the Digger legend; books on Digger nurses on the Western Front; books on the role of Indigenous Australians in World War I; and the list went on.
After my initial foray into this immense array of literature, I stopped reading the history books; I left that for afterwards. I decided I wanted to find the voices of people self-assigned to keep these legends alive and have them tell this story. I wanted to discover the facts as told by them as I went.
I wanted to write something different – as an outsider looking in. I wanted to tell the story of those who were in the inner circle, passion shining from their eyes as they told what they knew about the Aussies on the Western Front and their struggles to resettle post war; those who wanted to share it with others like me; those dabbling their toes in, wiggling them about at the edges. We spend a day or two to explore and experience the war histories before battlefield fatigue sets in and we wearily return to our everyday lives a little more enriched for the new knowledge and greatly saddened by it.
After my first dabble into this subculture – my battlefield tour and wandering around the Granite Belt resettlement locations – my everyday life returned, and it was not until 2013 that I found myself back in Stanthorpe ready to begin my project in earnest. The centenary years 2014 to 2018 were fast approaching and offered an ideal opportunity to begin my quest in earnest.
I wandered into the Stanthorpe Regional Art Gallery, showing the manager some of the images I had captured during my initial travels five years earlier. I explained that I needed to expand my project to include interviews with people willing to share personal stories of their family’s involvement in World War I, and also include details of the Soldier Settlement I had discovered remnants of nearby. I needed to find the descendants of those who lived on the resettlement farms, and the people in Australia and Europe dedicated to telling the stories of the Diggers – those hidden within the crowds at annual commemoration ceremonies, and the quiet group of locals walking through the crowds needing more and seeking it out. They were the custodians of the stories I wanted to hear. They were present in Australia, France and Belgium.
The Stanthorpe Regional Art Gallery manager had a perfect solution.
The next day a journalist from the local newspaper (the Stanthorpe Border Post) arrived to interview the gallery manager and published a subsequent article encouraging locals to participate in the project. The gallery would host an exhibition of the final works.
They say your life can change in just one phone call.
In the days to follow I was forced to turn off my phone; the Stanthorpe Border Post had published my mobile number at the end of the article.
I had just had my first experience of the enthusiasm of these self-assigned custodians of the Digger legend. I would soon begin to refer to them as ‘The Guardians’.
From 2014 and the commemorations marking the start of World War I, through all the interweaving battles until the 100th anniversary of the end of the war, 2018, I would march between these three countries recurrently to take my photos, meet local people and encounter at first hand this snapshot of history.
The Guardians are the voices I had been seeking, and they tell this story from Australia, France and Belgium.