GUARDIAN 9: Yves Fohlen
It seems incomprehensible what was here 100 years ago. Church steeples, green meadows and villages line narrow roads that wind across this picturesque European countryside. It is near one of these quaint villages that Yves Fohlen patiently waits to speak to me at the Tincourt Boucly New British Cemetery. He is nursing a bad tooth but has wandered out to meet his latest arrival from Australia before dashing to the dentist. Sitting on the wooden seat in the deserted cemetery he waves his hand around and says in his lilting French accent, ‘To come here for me is like going to church.’
‘There is no roof. Their souls are just above. They are here.
‘It is very peaceful, even though so many died in such awful conditions.’
Indeed, there are no crowds of tourists in this small part of the battlefields – just us, sitting on the wooden bench surrounded by the many rows of gravestones.
Yves explains he is committed to ‘keeping the memory alive of those Australians who travelled so far from their homeland to help defend France during the Great War’.
I try to draw him on his personal life, but he is reluctant.
‘It is very rare for me to do interviews like this,’ he says. ‘I prefer to stay in the shadows and help people remember. Freedoms come from the shadows.’
However, he admits he was 15 when he first visited the battlefields with his father.
‘I was amazed to see so many headstones and to discover that the Australians were buried here,’ he says. ‘That was the moment when I decided to concentrate my study on the British and the Australians.
‘I have been studying the Great War now for 40-odd years.’
Part of those studies include a book he has written about Lieutenant Percival Ralph.
‘It was my way to say thank-you to the Diggers,’ he says. ‘Lieutenant Percival Ralph. He was a farmer and he decided to join the AIF. He is now here forever. He is for me a symbol of all the boys who came from your country and never returned.’
Yves says he is amazed that so many Australians volunteered.
‘They could have just stayed in your country,’ he says. ‘I have been to your country. Why they decided to leave? They did not know what war means.
‘They returned broken inside. How many died in suicide after the war? It was a generation of men.
‘Without this, your country would be completely different. I know your country is a big country, but you have lost so much.
‘It was for our freedom and liberty. The cost you paid was very high, very high.
‘I just want to show Australians that we have not forgotten.’
Yves says one way to do this is to ‘help Australians who are lost in France’.
‘They have often lost their relative killed in action,’ he says. ‘I meet many Australians and I want to help them in their remembrance.
‘I meet students and I try to explain to them what war really is, and war is not a game. The Great War is the best example. Even if they fought for a reason, at the end you have boys in cemeteries and women alone. War. Hmmm.
‘I love the English song “Imagine”, by John Lennon. Why this song is not taught at school for everybody in all the languages possible?
Yves waves a hand again at the rows and rows of grave stones.
‘You can’t leave here intact,’ he says.
‘I am shell shocked.
‘I am cemetery shocked, for years now.
‘Officially it was the war to end all wars.
‘It was just a lie.’
Yves’s peacefully sad outdoor cathedral with the souls of soldiers floating gently above had an intimacy somewhat replicated back in the regional Australian town of Stanthorpe. The memorials and cemeteries were small, silent, and often solitary.
Local World War I Diggers who died on the Western Front, and those who made it out alive to make the nearby Pikedale Soldier Settlement community home, were part of the history here; however, this past lay further beneath the surface. It was not front and centre like the Western Front with its hundreds of monuments like a series of signposts directing people to see what battle happened where – a way to acknowledge the Allied soldiers who came to help.
Unlike Yves’s cemetery to the fallen, plots in the local Stanthorpe cemetery did not share space with thousands of visiting soldiers never to return home; although, in the decade to follow the end of World War I, the 61 514 Australians dead from war were joined by about 60 000 others from war-related causes. These latter victims were not buried in faraway places but in these smaller local cemeteries, allowing loved ones to visit regularly.
Such were the repercussions that sprang from those years of warfare for families who endured the grief of loss, from all the Allied cultures. One hundred years ago those lost at war could not be returned to these local places. Families were constrained to remember their nearest and dearest when they were named on memorials. This circle of mourners, including mothers, siblings, aunts, cousins and neighbours, adopted rituals for mourning the dead that retain an important role in Australia’s history.
Stanthorpe has its share of monuments. There are beautifully manicured gardens like those observed across the Western Front. A bright flowerbed encircles a monument and flagpole down near the library and council offices. It is accompanied by a small shelter, encouraging one to sit a while and ponder.
Nearby, The Wall of Remembrance sits with quiet dignity within Weeroona Park. The curved sandstone commemorates those who served in various conflicts. There is a bustling here reminiscent of the French and Belgium monuments, but not from scores of visitors seeking out a name and link to ancestors fallen; here it is the typical hubbub of everyday life. The monuments themselves sit unnoticed. They await attention bestowed during commemorative events such as Anzac Day.
Stanthorpe’s town centre has businesses that open and close again with quiet regularity, alluding to the challenges of small Australian towns confronting the globalisation of traditional farming industries. Parking, however, is always at a premium. There are utility trucks with dogs in the back, tongues lolling in the summer and shaking slightly in winter. A café cheerfully serves up salad with tinned pineapple and lettuce, while the fish and chippery has battered savs and a darn good ‘cuppa’ tea. The bakery is always a great option, with lamington cakes and Iced VoVo biscuits proudly displayed in glass cabinets so high I have to reach on tiptoe to pay. And, of course, it seems every city, town and village on the map hosts a Chinese restaurant. Here they have two or three Chinese restaurants, depending on what year I wander through.
Whenever I travelled through Stanthorpe, I would zigzag my way out of town to sit a while at the original Soldiers Memorial.
Leaving behind the quiet activity of Stanthorpe, I would turn off one of the many roundabouts that string along the main road of town like links in a daisy chain, up to the original Stanthorpe Soldiers Memorial. Here it feels like the Australian landscape augments the Anzac spirit. Clambering up on rocky terrain is a memorial in the form of a rest house, with the honour roll listing, on bronze memorial plaques, those who have served in various conflicts.
It quietly sits on the hill, gazing down on the folks below in town. There is a feeling of solitude. Pine and oak trees sit beside large chunks of granite. The rest house looks as though it emerges from the ground like the boulders surrounding it.
With the north–south orientation of this building, I find myself returning time and again, watching the changing seasons of light flicker through the trees and between the arches of the monument. The only sign of life during these visits is the excited dog next door, alerting the neighbours to my dawn and dusk visits. An occasional poppy pin lying on the ground suggests a visitor to this place that always beckons me to sit a moment surrounded by so many names listed on the plaques.
Of the local men remembered with honour on this memorial, 30 lost their lives on the Western Front during World War I. Just as monuments began popping up all along the Western Front where they died, the construction of this building commenced in 1919 and was unveiled in 1926.
The names of the dead surround me as I sit there – a staggering number to lose within a small community. This unique place shifted the tragedy from the massive global experience in Europe, of horrifyingly high numbers and nationalities, to a comprehensible community level. It helped grasp the shockwaves this war had on similar communities across the globe, like an ocean wave crashing onto rocks and then dribbling into the tiny nooks and crannies of a rocky coastline. The colossal impact of the dead and injured filtered down to erode a generation.
Monuments and cemeteries here were simple tributes – a place to sit beneath the gum trees in town, or on top of a hill looking back down. They did not have various governments funding the building and upkeep of ever-larger constructions. Roads named after the battles were the only visual link back to Europe. No French flags fluttered in the hot winds, and no grateful locals rushed up to welcome me upon hearing an Australian accent. There were no carefully tended hedges separating visitors from flocks and crops; however, just as European farmers generously shared their lands with monuments and visitors, so too did some Granite Belt locals. Those in the know happily pointed out where natural, albeit somewhat fleeting, monuments to the war heroes could be found.