GUARDIAN 14: Yves Potard
Yves is happy to sit down for a chat at the nearby local pub. Considering the amount of Aussie memorabilia surrounding us on the walls, it seems many Australians participate in the same ritual. Sitting down with our drinks, I ask Yves why he thinks so many Australians undertake what I see to be a rather ceremonious visiting of the sites where their ancestors have fallen.
‘The Australians find it important to come because their identity, their memories are here,’ he says. ‘To me, it seems natural to make contact and let other people know what happened. It is very important to learn about it in books, but also to go on the battlefields and relate to stories of the soldiers, their suffering, the fact that they died very young.’
Yves says it is different for local people.
‘French are very grateful, but they are not as involved in remembering as the British or the Australians. They are on the soil where the war took place. The people living here are so used to seeing the cemeteries that they don’t pay attention any more. When you go somewhere else and you see something different, you start asking questions.’
And Yves likes asking questions of the visiting Australians.
‘Quite often, I stop and talk to the Australians or English who pass by. I am particularly interested in the Australians because the biggest battle for the Australians was in Pozières. The diggers lost 23 000 soldiers as war casualties, and the English lost 15 000. The Diggers were the first army to win a battle. They took Pozières for the first time. They are the ones who made the most effort.
‘Every year, we find something new concerning the Australians,’ Yves says. ‘We still find bodies because farmers use very deep ploughs nowadays. There are still many soldiers buried that we haven’t found.’
Yves Potard is a history teacher who sees Australian visitors as a way to learn more.
‘All the stories that I know are all stories I read about or which are told to me by the Australians. There are no stories from the inhabitants [of Pozières] because there was no one here. Pozières had been completely wiped out. There was nothing left.
‘We all have the same problems – all the soldiers who actively took part in the war seldom talk about it. I was the neighbour, for several years, of a soldier of World War I. When he died, his wife gave me his pistol. She gave it to me because she knew I was committed to history and keeping the memory alive. But he had never talked to me about it. Never. There is practically no one left. Most of the old people have died.’
With the loss of first-person stories available, Yves says visiting the Western Front is an important ritual.
‘Albert Schweitzer, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, said that military cemeteries were great preachers for peace. So, we need to carry on – it is very important. We need to do as much as we can to remind people about the Australians’ sacrifice.’
I returned to this village with photos to thank the kind schoolteacher and Mr Potard. Yves did not answer his door this time, and the school was closed; however, the practice to welcome all visitors here seems wide ranging. Passing back towards the parked car, a woman leaned out over the fence between her garden and the school. Her tunic covered her from head to toe and there was a beauty in her beaming face. I walked over obediently at her enthusiastic beckoning. She did not speak English, just as I could not understand her French. Pointing around proudly, she nodded enthusiastically at her simple garden. Chickens wandered between colourful posters featuring cartoon images of Diggers, and ammunition was piled up in orderly precision – presumably dug from that very garden. Smiles and hand gestures become our vocabulary as I acknowledged her wonderful garden memorial. Proudly, she stood straighter into a pose when I raised my camera in question. She stilled herself to allow me to capture the moment – the ritual of visually capturing moments along a journey.