On Anzac Day 2018, a phone call disturbed me.
I had returned to Australia to finally hit the books – to bunker down and write of all my experiences and people met, all backed up with those history books I had until now avoided.
The phone call was from a journalist seeking to interview me about the centenary of World War I. I asked him where he had got my name from. I could hear his shrug as he muttered something about someone at the RSL.
I briskly pointed out I was merely a journalist telling other people’s stories. He should go find an expert on the topic.
The phone pinged again, this time with a text message and photograph from Peter McLady. He was on the front line at the Villers-Bretonneux Anzac Day dawn service. All morning he was sending me updates as politicians wandered by to shake hands, and visiting Aussies could be seen moving about as though in slow motion under many, many layers of warm clothing.
The next text was from Colin, wondering if I was in the crowd. He was with a group of Australians and was on the outlook for Peter and me.
Later in the day, another message and photo arrived as Peter met up with Colleen and Roger from Amiens, Queensland. They were all in France catching up on this momentous Anzac Day.
It dawned on me slowly: this community of Guardians I had wanted to infiltrate had somehow reached out to eagerly draw me into their midst.
Often, talking with someone – a proud descendent of a World War I soldier-settler, a welcoming villager, an eager historian, a friendly tour guide – I presumed I was an outsider peering in at that world of dedication. I gathered from their increasing friendliness, as I visited over and over, that they were just kindly folks willing to answer all my questions.
The phone call from the journalist had made me mutter and shake my head because I am a journalist. I tell stories, give other people a voice. Yet, had I sailed over the barricades and into the inner sanctum of the war aficionados?
Travel, photography and writing had always been in a way, for me, a form of escape and entrée into different lives, inspired by a sense of hope that, by sharing other peoples’ stories, they might have a voice they might otherwise not have.
My life as a photojournalist started when, aged 19, I travelled solo to the then-named Baltic States, Russia and China to see at first hand what was really happening now the Berlin Wall had crumbled in such international splendour; and then, elsewhere and onwards, to countries that formed in me an awareness of all the potential challenges faced by a woman travelling to unknown places. But this time, my travels were based on my own back yard, my own country’s history.
I have no personal links to World War I that I am aware of – no ancestors that I know of who were directly involved. I have not felt the urge during this journey to research my family history to check whether there were any Anzacs in my heritage. In fact, there have been times when, faced with the horrors of this war, I fleetingly wondered why I hadn’t chosen another, more light-hearted reason for this pilgrimage. Sampling the delights of French versus Australian wines brings forth pleasant scenarios – or Belgian beer versus Aussie brews. There are many pleasurable moments to be experienced in that, I have no doubt.
No, it was what seems to be a human fascination with war that drew me here. I had seen so many impacts of more-recent wars and conflicts during my trips to developing countries. It had made me curious about Australia’s involvement in conflicts, and none was more front and centre than World War I during these centenary years.
I thought I was the bystander, or the eavesdropper, recording other people’s family histories of war. On every stage of this journey, I knew very little discomfort and never sensed I was in any danger; I always felt I was in the presence of friends. From visit to visit I breezed along, collecting new friends as I went. This was a new phenomenon for me. My camera had, for years previously, been something of an apparatus subconsciously used to keep a distance between others and myself. On this journey, I had slowed down for the first time and allowed myself to revisit time and again. I had found a new way of working that brought me a deeper understanding of what I was witnessing and the people I was meeting.
I crisscrossed between Queensland, France and Belgium, ferreting around the edges until I slowly penetrated the community of Guardians. I wandered along the sites of the battlefields as the Australians reunited with the French and Belgians, decades after their ancestors had returned from war . . . or, sadly, lay beneath the earth where they had fallen. I asked questions unearthing the stories of similar hardships after those war years. The thread throughout was always accounts from the battlefields –originally told independently by each side. Then, the narratives slowly unravelled over time to become an extended story of camaraderie as these younger Aussies, on a family pilgrimage, told their stories to the European locals helping them find traces of family members on the battlefields. In return, they heard family anecdotes from their European counterparts. The histories merged and morphed to become a clearer picture of what happened during those war years.
The monuments, once sitting there quietly awaiting the dedicated few to commemorate what had happened, started to blossom into something more – signals for all Allied visitors, directing them to a shared past. It had always been there, but it was starting to bubble up to the surface and flow out to all the communities where it had often been quietly simmering beneath the surface. It gently transformed from a quiet acknowledgement, mainly between armed servicemen and women, into the opportunity for broader family closure and understanding.
Narratives surrounding World War I are fluid and ongoing. Stories across the globe will continue to mingle and unite to create more clarity of what happened 100 years ago. They blend, just as the tales of war on the Western Front now fuse with tales of post-war life in Australia.
I learnt that commemoration of World War I is so much more than a new, voyeuristic travel trend called ‘battlefield tourism’. There is a plethora of different meanings associated with this significant piece in the jigsaw of Australia’s history.
‘Read the books,’ people say. ‘Go to the museums and archives to learn about the strategies and statistics.’
I say, go there: the Western Front and the Granite Belt. The people are hospitable and, if they hear an Australian accent on the Western Front, they will shake your hand. I was just another journalist, but a welcome one. I made friends. I was treated with kindness by people I met by chance or introduction. I cherished those experiences.