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© 2018 by Louise Grayson

GUARDIAN 10: Fay Helwig

 

 

On 11 November every year, a handful of cars pull into a dusty farm driveway surrounded by wildflowers and rocks. A blackboard propped beneath a large gum tree invites visitors to wander in to ‘see the poppies’ in the Remembrance Field. It is not the crowds of Europe, just a cozy cluster of people. As the 11th hour draws near, they encircle a small monument that is surrounded by a field filled to the brim with bright-red poppies swaying in the Granite Belt breeze. In town, the RSL ceremony at Weeroona Park has a larger crowd, but out here this informal group creates a meaningful moment, surrounded by their poppies, soon joined by an Australian flag erected to share the breeze.

The Legacy Flanders Poppy Festival of Faith became an annual monument, established by Eberhard and Fay Helwig to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. It links Fay’s passion for gardening and her desire for remembrance in her region.

Fay explains it was during her time on the Board of the Southern Downs Tourist Association, in 1995, that she first suggested the establishment of a Memorial Drive linking the battlefield place names on the northern end of the Granite Belt, and that residents along this route should plant Flanders poppies.

‘The question was asked, how could we capitalise on the history of the Flanders Field place names we have here on the Granite Belt?’ Fay says. ‘I knew from seeing them in my own garden that I could grow poppies from the 11th of November. So, I made that connection and initially proposed that people should grow poppies along the route linking these seven Flanders field place names.

‘It initially got a lot of support from the former soldier-settler farmers, the tourism board and RSL, but some farmers in the district were concerned that by planting poppies along the roadside we could create another weed on the Granite Belt. So, the council vetoed this suggestion. However, there was no way they could stop me from planting poppies on my own land. So, with my husband’s help, we cultivated a little field and called it the Remembrance Field. We grew a field of poppies and then invited the locals to come and have a look.’

With assistance from members of the Stanthorpe RSL, they launched the Legacy Flanders Poppy Festival of Faith.

‘If you break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep tho’ poppies grow in Flanders Fields,’ Fay recites. ‘I went to France in 1997. It was very interesting for me to go to Villers-Bretonneux – just going through the fields in winter where they are still pulling ammunition from the fields and waiting for the authorities to come and collect them.’

It was in those French fields that World War I servicemen gathered posies of flowers on battlefields and dried them in honour of the dead. Hence, the poppy became a symbol appearing in paintings and photographs from that time as the connotation of the fragility of life. Annually, on November 11, this flower that grew in profusion on Flanders Fields is a reminder to the living of the cost of sacrifice in war. Since the end of World War I, artificial replicas of the Flanders poppy are worn in honour of the dead, their resistance to decay a signifier of everlasting memory.

Some monuments are not permanent, like Fay’s Field of Poppies, and yet hold poignancy not always echoed in the larger constructs of Allied governments.

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Fay and her poppy field alluded to something different here on the Granite Belt. Driving through the country terrain of these suburbs there were monuments that were, in a way, tributes to the 700-odd soldiers who survived to build their homes on the Pikedale Soldier Settlement.

One official monument lists family names of soldiers and associated people on settlement blocks, just west of the Amiens State School. It was erected by the Harslett family. On my first visit this had been damaged, but it was later restored, suggesting an ongoing commitment to commemorating these pioneers.

The post-war memories of the soldier-settler families appeared to have vanished on the Granite Belt region of Queensland. Road signs linking the battles of Amiens and Pozières shared space with promotions for the local wineries, fruit stores and a tourist castle to be visited. There was little to allude to the Diggers who returned to resettle here. Signs had to be actively sought, and little was found to explain why they were here. Ripped hail nets hung in fallen masses on farms struggling to hold on in the winds, just as the flags in Europe valiantly clung to their posts.

The nearby town of Stanthorpe seemed split. There were those fighting to remember and re-ignite an interest in their Soldier Settlement history, while others appeared intent on just trying to survive in a challenging Australian regional economy. It was a town mixed with young people taking advantage of a tourism sector associated with the nearby wineries; backpackers picking fruit during the season; retirees looking for a quiet life outside the city; and others working remotely, via the internet, on their city-based careers while living the country lifestyle.

But there was change in the air.

The history of this area may well be the glue that brings these groups together. Those history buffs may be of benefit to those in the tourism game and vice versa. Many locals are heading off for their taste of battlefield tourism and seeing at first hand the economic boom it has brought to the Western Front villages of Europe.

I learnt there was a groundswell happening in the area. A small, dedicated crew were building their stockpile of funding, ideas and public support. They wanted more monuments for these soldier-settlers, and they were in full battle mode.