Been thinking about what this day means for us all as we commemorate the fallen today, my mind drifting back to the time my travel buddy and I visited the war fields in France in 2013. I wrote about that day in honour of our ANZACs in 2015. The memory still tears at my heart. Here’s my story:
I hadn’t wanted to come. It was bone chillingly cold, drizzle fell from burgeoning grey skies and a biting wind whipped mercilessly at my inadequate jeans and jacket. Feet, wet and cold, were screaming chilblains, a dread I’d endured during long NZ winters, and I’d used my last tissue on a streaming red nose.
Bloody marvellous! A fine way to start a holiday in France I muttered as I wandered across the lush manicured lawns striated with row upon row of headstones.
Many of the headstones bore names, still more were marked ‘Unknown Soldier’. The 1918 battlefields at Villers-Bretonneux. An imposing Memorial commemorating nearly 11,000 Australians who died in France but have no known grave, formidable against bleak skies. I ran frozen fingers across the names etched into chilled marble. Andrew, Horatio, James, Clive, so many innocents.
From there to Pozières, then the Thiepval ‘Memorial to the Missing’ honouring over 72,000 British and South African men, followed by Beaumont-Hamel and the Newfoundland Memorial Park where zig zag trenches can still be seen almost a century on. In the distance, the yellow rapeseed covered tracts of land soldiers had been fighting relentlessly to retain. A weak sun caressed my icy cheeks as I took stock of the surrounds. So peaceful. Once so bloodied.
Meandering through the trenches behind our guide as she described the unimaginable conditions the soldiers experienced there – the stench of the dead atop, dysentery, lack of food, fresh water or shelter, month upon month exposed to extreme weather conditions, from searing sun to death rattle snow – I struggled to remain composed. Choking on a crust of humble pie will do that. Wet feet and a sniffle indeed.
Each site respectfully tended regardless of nationality interred, the Germans distinguished by grey crosses within a quiet field of their own. They too were just young men sent into the same bloody battles. All of them heartbreakingly young; seeing, experiencing and succumbing to horrors we can’t begin to imagine. But you probably know that anyway, a part of our ANZAC history…a raw, gut wrenching sacrifice of human life. Today, 100 years on, we honour that sacrifice.
(Image – Eric Hill from Boston, MA, USA – Poppies in the Sunset on Lake Geneva)