THE EARTH CONT...
As the Diggers eventually made their way back to Australia, they left the European countryside littered with body parts, ammunition and other remnants of war. What was once lush farmland now needed clearing by the families who tentatively returned to see what was left of their homes. They could not move away and resettle in a newly created community. They stayed and built a life on earth that buried the physical remnants of the war, not just the psychological horrors.
It made me wonder about those families in Europe.
I was curious whether I would find evidence of stories of the Australians being passed down through generations of French and Belgian families. Surely they had been too busy trying to rebuild their lives amidst indescribable chaos. Did they want to talk about it? Were their families enshrouded by the same silence I had heard about in Australia? What happened had caused such trauma for the Australians who returned that, when growing up, children had often been told, ‘We don’t talk of the war.’
I wanted to make contact with people on the Western Front – those still living on the stretch of land running through Northern France into Belgium, where World War I battles raged for years. The first challenge was to find an entrée into the community of European Guardians – like those who had welcomed me so enthusiastically in Australia.
I decided to go to Europe and ask my questions in person.
Although, there was a problem: I do not speak French or Flemish.
Peter McLady phoned from London shortly before I flew over. He told me he had found a solution.
Lionel Roosemont was a jolly gentleman fluent in French, English, Flemish and other languages.
Peter had sent him to fetch me from the town of Péronne, situated in the middle of the World War I Battles of the Somme. It was well known for its museum commemorating life in the area during the war, and was a popular launchpad for many on personal pilgrimages seeking to witness at first hand where their ancestors experienced the horrors of war.
I had meandered here by interweaving local trains from Paris. At first, my trips to the region were done easily via the trains, mostly on time, that whizzed energetically around Europe allowing me to jump on and off at whim. There were no uniforms, nor the tension I could imagine from 100 years ago. The blending of the different accents and languages remain. However, instead of different uniforms and voices from the many World War I Allied armed forces that would have been mingling during the war years, there was now the invasion of battlefield tourists that has blossomed to impressive numbers. The descendants of the 46 000 Australians who died, and the 125 000 wounded during the Western Front battles of World War I, were coming.
However, while the visitors from Australia were most welcome, there was a new, more sinister threat evolving that put the blooming tourism industry at risk.
Terrorism started to infiltrate Europe as I began my regular trips to the region. Each visit the sense of alarm slowly rose, changing the European train adventure from the romantic, lazy crisscrossing through European farmlands and villages, to a more tense, high-security experience. Travelling from Paris to Nice, en route to the battlefields in late 2016, there was an evident hush. People spoke in subdued tones of ‘the events’ here – the truck deliberately driven into crowds commemorating Bastille Day in Nice a few months earlier in July, and the bombings across Paris in November 2015.
There were subtle changes. Uniforms begin appearing on train stations as armed servicemen and women joined with local law enforcers to enhance vigilance.
The war today does not know the nationalistic borders of 100 years ago when each metre of land was hard-slogged out in cruel battle. The ration of death and injury was a shocking one for the space of land captured and retained, one of the most notable being the shocking Battle of Passchendaele with its total Allied casualties estimated to be 310 000 for just a few kilometres of land won.
It was now a battle of ideology that cannot be fought on battlefields like the Western Front. Tourism numbers had dropped and there was suspicion from locals. Who could have done these atrocities, and would someone do more? I wondered if it might have been similar during the war years: so many uniforms wandering around, and locals caught in the crossfire trying to eke out an existence within a war zone.
There was a subtle gratitude towards an Australian woman travelling through– a quiet nod acknowledging some of us who had not allowed the terrorists to keep us away. These folks relied on all forms of tourism, and they were grateful for any brave person not deterred by terrorist actions. A friendly gentleman in Ypres, Belgium, clapped a hand on my shoulder one day and told me that the Aussies came to help out in the World War I battles and now, 100 years later, they were coming back to help out with the tourism.
I stopped for a day in Péronne, awaiting tour guide Lionel to collect me. The young man checking me into my hotel was friendly, and eager to tell me about the Australians’ role in the World War I battles that had raged in the area. But no, he told me, his family was not ever involved with the Australian Diggers. He had never heard of any stories about the Australians from his own family’s history. He was only in Péronne for work.
The Péronne Historical Museum of the Great War was nearby, built within an old mediaeval castle. It was dedicated to sharing not only what life was like on the front line for soldiers, but also the civilians. The friendly woman on the front counter eagerly spoke to me about the Australian Diggers fighting in the area; however, she knew nobody she could refer me to who actually had family who lived in the area during the war and interacted with the Australians. She told me she was not from this area either; she had come for the work.
Later that evening at the hotel, I met a middle-aged Australian couple. They had come to track the history of the man’s grandfather, who never made it home. I asked if they had met any locals who had family living in this area during the war and met the Australians.
They said no.
Lionel arrived the next morning in one of the tour vans that are seen scattered around the battlefields. He sports a logo Frontline Tours. He took off with a burst of well-rehearsed battle statistics and history, delivered with gusto and enthusiasm for his topic. Villers-Bretonneux was our first stop on this well-rehearsed tour. It was as I imagined a French village should look, with its church steeple easily seen from the surrounding wide green fields.During the war this beautiful village was reduced to rubble, but today it represents the construction of strong links between France and Australia. It is often shortened to ‘Villers’ in the customary Australian habit of shortening names, and it is where the Diggers had one of their greatest World War I victories, although at great cost of life. Some 12 000 Allied soldiers died saving the village.
Australian flags fluttered from above pubs and shops, while kangaroos with boxing gloves glared down from signs. The town hall sported a pair of kangaroos over the entrance, and the main street was named Rue de Melbourne.
Lionel glanced at me a little surprised when I asked him to stop the van in the middle of the village. I wanted to walk the streets. I was curious about what was happening behind the Australian flags fluttering on the walls here. Tourism was often a façade – a show or entertainment put on by local residents to entertain their visitors, like a good roadmap for pleasure.
I wanted to find out how this collection of Australian memorabilia had found its way into this French town that was completely annihilated during the war, leaving its inhabitants to flee, only to return to find shocking remnants of war where their homes used to be.
I explained this to Lionel. He squared his shoulders and agreed to meet the challenge.
We parked the van and took off on foot.
Sighting the town hall up ahead, I led my fearless warrior up past manicured gardens, past the kangaroos and into the old building.
I explained to Lionel that we needed to ask where we could meet some older residents who might have family stories to tell of World War I. Nodding, he plastered a big smile on his cheerful face. A woman sitting at a desk behind a partition looked up expectedly. After a spattering of French, I saw the woman hand Lionel a brochure and she pointed out the door.
It was a brochure of memorials in the area, and the directions were to the Australian National Memorial located just outside town. I gently nudged Lionel back to the lady at the counter. This time he turned back with a grin – there was a Bingo game happening at the Senior Citizens Centre down the street.
Walking outside he glanced back a little longingly at his parked van, but I had already set off in the opposite direction seeking out the Bingo players.
Striding past the row of walkers lined up outside, we arrived 10 minutes before tea. Curious glances were passed our way from the group of people busy with their Bingo cards before them. As they stopped for their tea break, Lionel bravely took position in front of the curious audience.
‘Just explain we want to talk to anyone who has family who lived in this area during World War I and might be willing to talk to us about their family stories of that time,’ I muttered under my breath.
I had no idea what he was saying to his French crowd, but at one stage they all turned to look at me as though at a tennis tournament. I quickly smiled and nodded at them, hoping Lionel was being kind about me. He stopped speaking. Chatter around the room filled it like a gas balloon ready to float off down the street.
Nobody came over to talk to us about their family history.
We stood there like bride and groom on top of a wedding cake, alone.
Finally, one tiny woman wandered over. Lionel had to bend quite significantly to hear what the woman had to say in her light, sweet French. He turned to me eventually and explained her father had been the schoolteacher at Villers-Bretonneux. Her father was responsible for the sign painted across the playground: ‘Do not forget’.
There was a question in his voice that changed to a smile, matching the relieved drop of his shoulders as I smiled widely with an enthusiastic nod at both of them. I had photographed the large sign with children careening madly about under it during my first trip here with Colin – a popular stop on many battlefield tours. The Villers-Bretonneux school was rebuilt using donations from schoolchildren in Victoria, and above every blackboard is the inscription N’oublions jamais l’Australie (Let us never forget Australia).
Madame Ginette agreed to meet us at her home the following morning.
I had met my first French Guardian, and I skipped down the street back to Lionel’s van. He climbed in, no doubt relieved to be able to move on to his beloved memorials and the script he had in mind explaining the battle statistics and strategies.