Australia was a small country in 1914, with a population of less than 4 million, yet we sent over 300,000 men to the front, Gallipoli in Turkey, Egypt, France and Belgium. More than 60,000 of our soldiers lie on Gallipoli or in the beautiful cemeteries of France and Belgium, 12,000 miles from home.
Our pilgrimage commenced in Amiens where we were met by our guide Colin Gillard who runs Battlefield Tours with his wife Lisa. Colin has a wealth of knowledge regarding the battlefields. Using war time maps, he was able to point to within a hundred yards, where my grandfather’s cousin was seriously wounded near the village of Hermes in 1917. Chills ran down my spine, I felt as if a hand was gripping me from the grave. Unfortunately, this relative died of his wounds, leaving a wife and 2 small children behind. He is buried in the war cemetery at Rouen, and we were elated but sad when we found his grave.
We visited large cemeteries where hundreds of white headstones stood amongst green lawns with pretty flowers nodding their heads between the graves. It was so poignant one could have cried a million tears and it still wouldn’t have been enough.
At Thiepval we saw a monument with thousands of names engraved on it, for English soldiers who fell in the area but have no known grave. One of the most memorable monument wasn’t very big. It was at Fromelles, a bronze statue of an Aussie soldier carrying his wounded mate.
The battle for Fromelles was fought on the 19th and 20th July 1916, Australia had 5,500 casualties the British 1,500. For over 90 years no-one knew the fate of nearly 300 of these soldiers, but there had been rumours for many years of mass graves in the area, and it was only after a tenacious campaign waged for years by an Australian school teacher that the authorities finally acted, and four mass graves were discovered about three years after our visit. 250 soldiers have now been laid to rest in separate graves in a new Commonwealth war cemetery. Of the 250 bodies, over 100 have so far been identified by name using DNA volunteered by relatives, but the authorities are still hoping that more soldiers will eventually be identified.
At the Menin Gate in Belgium, there is a huge monument with thousands of names inscribed on it for soldiers without a grave. Even after all these years, they still play the last post every evening as a mark of respect for the fallen. We visited large war cemeteries here and beautiful and sad as they were, the most touching was a small cemetery near Passchendale with only a handful of white headstones. Night was falling as we passed through this cemetery, and as we stopped to read the inscription on an eighteen year old soldier’s grave, we whispered that someone from home had come to visit him. When we turned and walked away through the misty rain, all we could leave behind for him was our tears and a red poppy.
The wearing of a red poppy on Armistice Day/Remembrance Day, 11th November, honours those who fell in the 1st World War and all subsequent wars. In Australia and New Zealand, we also pause to remember our war dead on ANZAC day, the 25th April. ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) day, commemorates the landing of the ANZACS on the Gallipoli peninsula on the 25th April, 1915
I would like to close with the opening words of the poignant poem, penned on the battlefields by Lieut-Col. John McCrae of the Canadian army.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row, that mark our place.
I write historical romance, and my favourite era is the 1st World War.
My novel, Wild Oats, published by The Wild Rose Press, is set against the background of the 1st World War, and for my research I delved into my family history, trawled through dusty old tomes in the library, and combined this with my visit to the Australian battlefields.