Sunday, August 30, 2009

And in Fromelles, the Aussies fell

This morning is bright and sunny and a little warmer than the last two days have been. The bed was comfortable, as were the pillows and we both slept soundly.

Hels has been safely set on her journey by the family. I see that she is online this morning and think that in her rush she has forgotten to sign off her account on the computer - but wait, what is this? Ah, she IS online - in the Sydney International Airport terminal! So it is a quick chat before we head off for Fromelles this morning. Oooh - so exciting.

We go in to Béthune so that I can try to get my rail ticket printed. A month ago I made an internet booking and I have been trying unsucessfully every day for the past two weeks to print the ticket. Unhappily for me, the rail office cannot print an internet ticket either. So all I can do is buy another one and argue it out with TGV (the rail operators in France) later - I mean, I really MUST be in Paris tomorrow to meet Hels - heaven forbid if I am not!!! Not happy because this ticket was €39 for a second class seat instead of the advance purchase special of €16 for a first class seat that I had paid earlier.

And so, off towards Fromelles. Passing bunker after bunker, abandoned to the elements, a constant reminder to the locals of battles waged and lives lost. We pass through the town of Beuvry where in the church yard amidst the community's dead lies the other reminder - the town memorial to their own sons, lost in the battle for their lands. Our next stop was at the Gorre British and Indian Cemetery just outside Beuvry where the only thing littering the manicured lawns are dead and dying oak leaves fallen from shading trees, as though they were weeping tears for those beneath them.

The tombstones stand as silent sentinels - row after row after row. Every so often you see two or three headstones much closer together and the only reason I can think of is that they fell together. And there is a single lone white cross with a bronze plaque. It belongs to the only Frenchman in this cemetery.

What can we say about Fromelles. A quote at the Cobbers Memorial Park at Fromelles sums it all up:
"We thought we knew something of the horrors of war but we were mere recruits, and have had our full education in one day." Lt. R A McInnes 53rd Bat. AIF writing of the Battle of Fromelles.

The aim was to seize a 4,000 yard stretch of the German front line (and so stop them from advancing) but it was a disaster. Although the Australian forces initially succeeded, the Germans re-took the space and on the morning of 20th July 1916 we had to withdraw to the original lines. That attack on the single night of 19th-20th July cost the AIF 5th Division 5,553 casualties (wounded and dead). The 60th Unit AIF suffered the greatest loss - at roll call on the evening of 20th July, only 106 men were present of the 887 who went into battle one day before.

In all, Australia sent 180,000 men to the Western Front - three times the number we sent to Gallipoli. One third of these men died because of this war and our commitment to it - 43,000 in the fields and 17,000 as a result of their wounds. Why so many? Well, we were ill-equipped and ill-prepared but mainly because of infection. After all, they were fighting in farmlands where animal excrement littered the soil and turned the most minor of wounds into septic messes.

Then another car with British plates pulls up (our has GB rego plates as well). A couple in their mid 30s get out. "Hi, where are you from?" asks the man. "Australia" I reply. "I can see that" he answers. (Of course, Michael is wearing his Akubra.) Der, the accent is an Aussie one! Turns out they are Australians from Geelong and Melbourne living and working in London and down for the weekend. "Maryborough" I reply, hastening to add "Queensland, not Victoria!" Yes, it is a small world and is kind of fitting - as the men we come to visit are from all over our large country - strangers till fate threw them together in this hell.

Now, it is overcast with a stiff breeze blowing. Not unpleasant, but you know that autumn is on the way. Most of the fields around the memorial have been recently harvested and re-ploughed sort of simulating the churned earth of the battlefields. (My imagination is in overdrive as well you can see!)

Then it is on to the VC Corner Memorial. This remembers the 1,299 men who died in the battle of 19-20 July 1916. 410 of these corpses could not be identified as their dog tags had been removed to send home to family. But the names of all 1,299 men are inscribed in the marble wall that provides the backdrop for the lawn. Tombstones were not erected here because so many of the bodies could not be identified. Instead, 2 simple large white marble cross lie in the lawn each framed on three sides by straight garden beds [+ +]. Filled, not with poppies, but with fragrant red roses, the colour of freshly spilled blood.

Bugger. The battery in the camera just died and the spare is also flat although Michael is sure we charged it. Bugger, bugger, bugger.

Finally we call in at the Anzac Cemetery and opposite, its counterpart, the Canadian Cemetery. There, a wind break of firs thickly planted on two sides shelters those in their eternal rest. And it does not matter that we have seen hundreds and hundreds of the white headstones, the last is as sad as the first.

For those who want to read in greater detail click this link. Chapters XII and XIII deal with Fromelles in some detail. Here endeth the lesson, pray God we have learned from it.

With the camera now well and truly dead we decide to return to the hotel. And what a blasted pity we can't take photos! Lost opportunities on the way home include:
First: how now, one brown cow leading 30 - 40 creamy Charolais ones down the edge of a fence;
- Second: the fair around the sale of the onions and garlic freshly harvested at Locon where it seems that every home in town has a table outside selling braids of garlic that look just like a young girl's hair and everyone from miles around has parked on the side of the road and is walking back, chatting with the sellers. Onions in large bags are being hauled away by everyone - from the strapping young man with his girl on his other arm to the old lady, with her older mother shuffling behind her;
- Third: AgroTrend a la France (in true Nord-Pas-de-Calais regional style), complete with live machinery demonstrations and crawling traffic - whether you wanted to enter the filled-to-the-brim parking lot, or like us, just wanted to pass.

Actually, an earlier return to the hotel suits me just fine. I still have to pack my neat new little suitcase for the next four days in Paris and my emotions are just a little jaded.
Helen is now en-route to Tokyo where she hopes to find an internet terminal so we chat before her next leg to Copenhagen. I, on the other hand will travel by train to Paris to wait for her.

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