2. Following the Anzacs: Battlefield tourism, Europe
Updated: Apr 17, 2018
A few weeks later in Lille, France, it was bitingly cold. It cut through all my clothes, leaving me breathless as I stood on the footpath outside my humble hotel. There was no time to pop back inside for that extra layer of clothing. A mini-bus bearing a splendid array of colourful Australian icons hurtled up to the gutter, leaving no doubt it was there to collect me.
‘Cobbers Battlefield Tours’ emblazoned across the van in between a perky-looking kangaroo and the Australian flag. It was a rather bright rainbow of enthusiasm that was a little incongruous given the theme of the day ahead.
I joined a group of Australians in France, with an English tour guide telling us about the World War I battles on the Western Front.
The cultural combination had begun.
Colin Gillard started the first Australian tour company on the Somme, where he has spent 30 years assisting Australians ‘following the Anzacs’.
He cunningly keeps the heating to a minimum in the van. As the day progresses, the choice between the icy greyness outside and the warmth inside becomes tougher.
The young couple huddled in the back are searching for mention of a great-grandfather who never returned from the war. Colin is quick to reassure them that he will help them find the name on a memorial later in the day. Watching the young couple clasping hands and smiling gently at each other I wonder whether I would be thrilled if my lover brought me along on a day like this.
We join the crowds wandering along trenches covered in soft grass that was starting to fade to a duller grey under the November skies, giving just a hint of what would have been endured by those who fought here.
Large monuments reach high into the sky, dotting the countryside as though each government is eager to ensure the size of their memorial is adequate compared to the others. They are massive constructions climbing out of farmlands and covered with the names of those who died.
Clumps of bare trees cluster against screaming winds. I imagine the soldiers huddling together in a desperate respite from cold and death. Fallen leaves lie rotting on the ground where I imagine bodies doing the same, the stench of body parts now replaced with clean dirt and living trees.
There are signposts along the way, indicating that many Australians have recently attended Remembrance Day commemorations here. Tatty fragments of flags are shoved into the tops of memorials and in the dirt around graves. Torn pieces of French and Australian flags cling grimly to flagpoles standing side by side.
Then, beside the road, tucked in between the monuments and in sight of numerous buses lumbering up and down, a cartoon of an Australian Digger advertises the ‘Lee Tommy’ restaurant. This is a sign of a different sort: it indicates the great commercial opportunities that have emerged with the 100th centenary of the end of the war.
Colin seems genuinely thrilled when we find a plaque mentioning the great-grandfather of the young man on the tour with us. He explains that this is an important part of his job: to find the location of these fallen men for his visitors.
The young man poses for a photo snapped by his shivering girlfriend in the rain. In the age of the selfie, a photo is taken as evidence of a mission completed. I wonder whether these two will now move on to a warmer, more romantic location and for how long the memories of this day will stay with them.
I want to escape the sadness for the warmth of my hotel room and a visit to the brightly lit Christmas markets back at Lille.
But the tour goes on. We amble around the Villers–Bretonneux Australian National Memorial that dwarfs those seeking refuge from the sheets of rain battering its solid walls. We hear about the battles of Pozières, Bullecourt, Messines and Passchendaele that the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) fought from March 1916 until World War I ended on 11 November, 1918. More than 46 000 young Australian men lost their lives, and more than 150 000 were wounded.
Shocking statistics like these demand attention. Indeed, Australian society was unquestionably changed forever because of what happened here.
It continued to haunt men and women for many years and passed its trauma on to the generations that followed.
However, I had thought passion for facts like these lay with those few like Colin and the famous author John Laffin who dedicate their lives to wandering into the secrets of the battlefields, unearthing horrors to tell on tour or write in books.
This used to be the foray of returned servicemen and women or those with a bleak fascination for all things associated with war. Visiting these places augments ploughing through thick textbooks full of browbeating statistics and strategies that fly at you until your eyes glaze over.
But this is different.
Somehow the Digger has developed an iconographic status in Australian society, and in recent years thousands of families have travelled to World War I battle sites to seek records of relatives who served in that first AIF.
Huddled in the cold van I wonder how this battlefield tour has become part of the great European travel experience: a couple of days hearing about death and destruction, tucked in between eyeing off the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triumph. I understand the excitement and anticipation of a great travelling adventure – a gasp of delight as a famous icon emerges before our eyes – but here I was mooching about barren fields, biting winds cutting up through my feet and pinching my cheeks.
The usual feelings of excited anticipation and thrills were not present on that dark November day on the Somme. I felt a strange mixture of anger at the loss of life and guilt that I did not want to be there listening to the English tour guide droning on about numbers of deaths and battle strategies of the ‘Great War’.
It was depressing.
I am given little chance to pose questions to the young couple as Colin continues his constant stream of information. It is a quiet day between us passengers. Not much is spoken – just Colin’s impressive memory for statistics and battle strategies. It is clear he is genuinely passionate about what happened here and feels great compassion for the men and women impacted by it. In a business becoming more and more competitive this will remain his difference. His empathy.
Nearly a decade later I would again sit with Colin on the Somme, in a new van, and he would explain why he was leaving the Somme after the final centenary commemoration in 2018, never to return to his World War I Western Front battlefield tours ever again.
TO BE CONTINUED