Honouring our own.
09.04.2013 - 09.04.2013 15 °C
A change of landscape today. After seven wonderful days in Normandy, we packed up our belongings - filling the new suitcase with our new coats and woollens - and headed off for pastures new. Tonight I'm reporting to you from the lovely historic city of Reims which, along with its other charms, is also smack in the middle of the Champagne region so you know that bubbly is going to be on the menu. The weather was greatly improved today and we actually struck 15 degrees on the car temperature guide and we drove much of the day in lovely watery sunshine.
We didn't come straight to Reims, having made the decision to make a slight detour to pay our final tribute to the fallen. This was a much more personal visit for us Australians as we visited the Australian cemetery and war memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. In the First World War, on 24 of April 1918, the small town of Villers-Bretonneux was the site of the world's first battle between two tank forces: three British Mark IVs against three German A7Vs. The Germans took the town, but that night and the next day it was recaptured by 4th and 5th Division of the AIF at a cost of over twelve hundred Australian lives. The town's mayor spoke of the Australian troops on 14 July 1919 when unveiling a memorial in their honour:
"The first inhabitants of Villers-Bretonneux to re-establish themselves in the ruins of what was once a flourishing little town have, by means of donations, shown a desire to thank the valorous Australian Armies, who with the spontaneous enthusiasm and characteristic dash of their race, in a few hours drove out an enemy ten times their number...They offer a memorial tablet, a gift which is but the least expression of their gratitude, compared with the brilliant feat which was accomplished by the sons of Australia...Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive, and that the burial places of your dead will always be respected and cared for..."
The people of Villers-Bretonneux continue to express gratitude to Australia to this day. The local school has a sign outside saying "never forget Australia"!
Visiting the memorial was as peaceful affair as you could ask for. It is located on the hill outside of town - the hill that was taken by the AIF and used as a launching place for Allied counter-attacks. There are nearly 800 Australians lying there along with British, Canadian and New Zealand soldiers. As always, it's the graves marked "An Australian Soldier" that are most poignant as one thinks of the families at home who had no place to mourn. There is the sense however that these boys are in a friendly soil and are loved and respected. Yes, we cried again as we walked amongst the dead and read the names of those not found on the memorial. The sight of an Australian flag at the memorial and of the sunburst badges on the gravestones brought home very close.
I sat quietly at one point and found myself repeating aloud
"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them"
Hugh and I will certainly remember them - all of them. The dead of Normandy, of Pegasus, of Omaha, of Germany and, especially, the young men who gave their lifeblood 12000 miles from home doing what they thought was right. Anzac Day will have a different feel for me this year as I'll remember the ghosts of France. Such a priveledge!