Have you ever believed in something so much that you bet your life on it? That is exactly what people do when they sign up for the military, some more than others. I once read that ‘you write a blank check that is cashable up to and including your life’. This did make me think about a lot of things as I had never really looked at it from that perspective before. During my time I learnt a lot about soldiering but I also enlightened about life, I begun to understand me and what I’m capable of physically and mentally. I had a chance to understand mateship and sacrifice, where they would be willing to cash their check to save me and vice versa. It is honestly something that you can only really and truly understand if you have done it. I was also part of something else, the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) legend. This journey or rather pilgrimage took in just some of the sites throughout Europe that directly relate to that to the birth of that legend and the path I followed.
Ypres – It’s important not to underestimate the amount of time that you need here, there are lots of significant sites nearby – cemeteries, battle field places of note and museums. Ypres itself is small and a typical European village with a front gate that you won’t forget. This is The Menin Gate, a sombre walk through reviles the names of soldiers etched into the stone to represent some of the unmarked graves from WWI. It is the spot soldiers would go through on their way to the front, of them, almost fifty five thousand names of men that would never return are remembered here. The most touching thing about this town is that they take the words ‘We will remember them’ to the next level. Nightly, at 2000 hours (that’s 8pm for those who are 24 hour clock confused) the road is closed and the bugles sound the Last Post and has been this way since 1928, only interrupted by WWII. Last year in 2015, marked 30 000 times the chilling tune echoed through the gate.
A short distance away fighting your way through the local markets selling their wears of flowers, smelly cheese and dried meat, Flanders Fields Museum is the towns centre piece and has a unique way for people to interact with the insertion of information into the brain. At the start point of the walk through you fill out some basic details on a computer including your country of origin and you get a plastic bracelet that you can touch on interactive parts of the museum. This information is supposed to make it a more personal tour relating directly to your information and back story. Unfortunately I think it had some glitches in the system as upon entering that I was Australian, all stories that it told as I touched interactive screens were about a Belgium farmer, close enough I guess. I was unfazed even though there was the largest Commonwealth grave site only a stones through away and many Australians played their part in both the conflicts of WWI and WWII. The building also has a bell tower that is worth the two Euro entry fee, you get a great look at the town and the Menin Gate.
A short drive south of the town you can find Hill 60, though for those who know the story, this is a crater now. This was the scene of many fierce battles for a little piece of high ground that was no more than a left over mound from a railway construction site. The tour book I had didn’t even mention the Aussies (there’s a bloody movie about it so it must be important!) we finished the mine and held it for seven months up until it was blown on the 7th of June 1917. Never mind, we don’t need to blow wind up our own ass just that of our enemies. On the walk to the crater you can see the remains of trenches and concrete gun positions wearing the scars of war and plastic faded poppies left by visitors over time. Like so many others, it’s a simple memorial but you can get a first hand glimpse into what it might have been like to be there, walking the through the grass covered trenches and entering the gun positions.
Tyne Cot Cemetery was next on the pilgrimage, the world’s largest Commonwealth final resting place. Seventy percent of the nearly 12000 graves here are marked ‘Known unto God’ there is another wall with more names overflowing from the Menin gate, just short of 35,000. Immaculately kept grounds and fresh flowers gave me more of a sense of pride that these men and women would be remembered and taken care of, not just forgotten in some field that time has taken over and left it behind.
The thing that stands out with all these memorials is how they are so well maintained, it’s a place to reflect and remember what so many gave for our today and it’s a credit to the care takers. It’s obvious that it’s more than a job, something that pride is taken in and this makes it even more special to visit.
Fromelles 1916 saw Australia suffer a terrible loss, just over five and a half thousand casualties in one night. Among the memorials is VC corner and it is the only Western Front cemetery dedicated to just Australian soldiers. It contains two mass graves that hold the remains of four hundred ANZAC’s. The memorial at the rear has 1208 names carved into the stone face of souls lost in this battle, their remains where never found. A couple of hundred meters away is the Aussie memorial park. It was opened coincidently in my enlistment year in 1998. The statue, ‘Cobbers’ (that means mate in Australian), here represents more than an Aussie rescuing a mate from no man’s land, rather the spirit of the ANZAC that lives on today.
In the soft green rolling hills of the Somme, Villers–Bretonneux Australian National Memorial is a story within a story. The main Aussie Cemetery from WWI still bears signs of fighting from WWII; Headstones with chipped stone indentations prove this was a popular piece of turf. It is still popular today and was taken by another army on the day I visited, those that choose the lycra way of life on their bikes complete with latte in hand. On no more appropriate date in the year, the 24-25th of April 1918 Australian troops retook the town, this memorial is built on the very ground they used. It was opened in 1938 by the man that the mighty Second Battalion’s unit’s drums were painted black for after his death, King George VI.
To walk the beach here was an experience, with the tide out a long stretch of sand still allowed the gentle sound of the water lapping drift up on the breeze while people ate picnics on the concrete sea wall steps. A sculpture stuck out obtrusively yet somehow seemed to be in the right spot at the Utah landing site. Scattered around is what appears to be old wooden piers breaking up the flat beach. Gun strong holds remain in the grasses that grip the dunes together. The museum is tucked in behind these dunes and had vehicles from the days of the landings scattered around the buildings. To the cemetery and this is where I’m confused about how I felt being here. This was the first memorial in France that seemed to be pretentious. The small museum that you pass through to get to the pristine ground reminds you about America, America and America. All the other sites that I visited where joint with the French, this is American soil, apparently. I didn’t make it to the end of the museum, I just walked straight through in the end, it wasn’t about their part in the war rather they were the only part of it. I’m not saying they didn’t tip the scales to win the war but maybe it could have been done differently. The grounds themselves are pristine and walking the rows and rows of graves is hard not to feel and reflect on what happened here. I wish I had more time here to visit more of the sites, one day was not enough. If you get the chance to see this, do it.
I heard of another place to visit here from a pigeon shooter and not the flat disc type! There is a church with a story that is still represented to this day and made famous by the movie ‘The Longest Day’. In an error American paratroopers were dropped directly onto a village (not mentioned in the museum!), J.M Steele got caught up on one of the church steeples of said village, an easy target, he pretended to be dead until he was taken prisoner by the Germans, bloody Germans! He later escaped and re-joined his unit, there is a replica of this event in the way of a dummy hanging by the parachute on the side of the church.
To do a pilgrimage like this and see first hand places I have heard about in legend that contributed to the ANZAC legacy, that I played a small part in, is something special. I have been to ANZAC Cove in Gallipoli and I guess that’s what most people would think about when associating where it all began for our young nation. It will mean different things to other people, perhaps they had relatives that fought here but for me and the brothers I served with it is simply about paying respect and keeping alive that flame that we carried on after them and passing it to the generations that follow.
Second to none!