Thursday, 27 September 2012


It’s a strange thing chasing ghosts, yet in and out of a small town in northern France, their vapours are everywhere. Our full day in and around Villers-Bretonneau was stacked with emotions but not all were bent to the side of pathos. There was also humour, admiration, anger and frustration.

It’s an odd little town. Largely rebuilt in the 1920’s after being so badly devastated by the First World War, its attracts so much regular attention particularly from Australia tourists and of course, is inundated during a week of celebrations each Anzac Day. Many British and American tourists come to read its plaques and stand in the beautiful but sombre graveyards.

The message the kids at the Victoria
School cannot forget even
94 years later
We started our day in the beating heart of the town, the Franco-Australian Museum, built above the school hall. This is no ordinary school. For starters, very few French schools have an assembly hall, as such gathering places are more in the English public school tradition and subsequently then, Australia. This school hall was built from donations of Victorian (Australia) school children in the 1920’s. The school was destroyed in the war and on hearing their plight, a Aussie teacher started a campaign to build them a hall. Pacific Maple was sourced and largely donated but the guts of the place was raised from the ground by the pocket money pennies of primary school children in Victoria during the decade after the conflict.

The result is a magnificent hall, with exposed maple feature columns and carvings made by senior students. It is said that the initials of each student is engraved behind the carvings. Today, the hall is festooned with large photographic posters which highlight the spectacular physical features of Victoria and why not? After all, in response to the generosity of this Australian state which gave their children a school which still functions today, the town renamed their new school the Victoria School. As we peered from the windows of the school hall and watched children at play and a teacher with hands on hips maintaining order, there above them, emblazoned in gum tree green over wattle yellow, were large words in upper case English “Never Forget Australia”.

This was the first of many lumps in my throat that the distinction of my countrymen bought me on this day. It was also the first of many tears.

Upstairs, despite a delivery practised for weeks, I managed to stay calm and even in speaking to staff right until I mentioned my Pop. Saying his name - Arthur George Langston - broke down my veneer and I cried helplessly in explaining our family connection to this place. Sue stood beside me magnificently, allowed me to compose myself, knowing the responsibility I felt to my Dad at that moment and silently squeezed my hand. The staff, slightly bemused, had seen this before, so waited for me. I eventually staggered the moment  forward and they were able to help me with information.

The museum is sparser than you might imagine such a place to be but contains well organised and well chosen displays which explain the protracted battles for the Somme. The fighting which removed Germany from this village is featured but only in equal share with other conflicts across the region, as the Hindenburg Line was destroyed by the dogged Allies. We watched an hour of video on loop about WWI, with V-B was mentioned only in passing and vision of the destroyed village shown briefly.

As it was lunchtime, a recommendation from staff took us to a pub on Rue de Melbourne that didn’t sell food; their recommendation took us to a Kebab shop that sold food but we wouldn’t eat (a local restaurant with no locals at lunch time is not a glowing commentary); and the recommendation of a local couple walking their child to pre-school, sent us to the Victoria Restaurant which was crowded and the waitress waved us away with a resounding “non”. The only supermarket, ironically owned by a well-known German supermarket chain, seemed like the perfect combination of cheap and nasty. We must have walked and driven every byway and which way for the next hour. Eventually, the fellow at the petrol station sent us to a pub in Corbie (5kms away) because “they look after Aussie boys”. We arrived 15 minutes after the kitchen closed and they had never heard of “Alaine”, whose name he insisted we drop and just shrugged when we said we were Australian.

We found a supermarket at 3:00pm and gorged ourselves on fruit, yoghurt, nuts and potato chips.

On the return trip from Corbie, our day took on a sterner note.

The Australia War Memorial
at Villers-Bretonnaux
From the moment you arrive at the Australian War Memorial, located on Hill 102 between Corbie and V-B, you are overwhelmed by the headstones. There are just so many of them. There are other grave sites across the region but this is by far the biggest as the battles here were among the bloodiest, the most brutal and the most costly of the Somme campaign. Other allies are buried here, but they are a handful compared to the row, upon row, upon row of Aussie boys and men.

Up one end. a single headstone marks more than ten thousand other dead Australians because their graves sites will never be known. They are just scattered across the green fields which can been seen from the top of the memorial, buried in haste and concern for hygiene for those surviving, as the artillery shells sent shrapnel into new chests and bullets claimed red arteries until they bled dry.

The thousands upon thousands of Germans who died are not represented at all but as my daughter reminds me, history is written by the victors. The vanquished are forever silenced.

Built in 1938 by the Australian government and opened by King George VI, the memorial was still on a strategic hill when Hitler’s shindig took place and the damage to the structure from shell fragments and bullets has been left as one more poignant reminder.

We climbed to the top of the Memorial tower - a super effort for Sue with her bad back, but she was determined to be beside me in case my hand needed another squeeze. It was that wing man thing again. The view was spectacular but you are continually drawn to the graves at your feet and in the direction where the sun would set every day of what is getting close to 100 years.

I have held the view for some time, emphasised on Anzac Day, that even though I am against war for the reasons any pacifist would quickly amplify, I haven’t the slightest hesitation to be both proud of and grateful for, men and women, who in courage and determination gave up their way of life and in many cases lives, so that I have the luxury of holding my views.

It’s not just those who died either. How did my grandfather, his abdomen opened up by machine gun fire, left in the mud for hours before a ceasefire and finally taken to England three weeks later for surgery to close his chest … how did he survive? Apart from that, how the hell did he return to life in Australia and live with the memories of that ordeal? There was no counselling in 1918, no support groups. These (mainly) men just had to straighten up and fly right. In the process, many crashed and burned themselves and their families and those that made it, like Pop, must have hated closing their eyes.

I was conflicted so angrily by the pride I had for the dead and the survivors, that they could make such a choice and an anger at governments who place these people in positions where they have to choose. It boiled over in an impromptu speech to no one but my long suffering wife, more’s the pity. I rarely allow myself the dangerous luxury of anger these days, but it raged in me as I walked back past these men who will never come home.

How dare we do this to them … still.

There was no hope of coffee to steady myself for the final task of the day - one I had prepared myself for some time ago.

I could hear their screams
Returning to the spot I had found the previous day, about halfway between Bois Abbey and Memorial Farm with its two story chateau hidden now by a large modern machinery shed, I found a spot about halfway up the narrow one lane road which spanned the field between the village and the highway. A farmer was harvesting sugar beet and adding to the large pile of them quite near us, at the end of each run across the field. I shot some pictures of the area and a video piece that I hope will survive long enough for my Dad to see it. Somewhere ahead of me, in a harvested field of red-brown dirt, which stretched half a kilometre to Memorial Farm, my grandfather and his mates fell during the first battle for Villers-Bretonneau on the 4th April, 1918.

I removed three sets of medals from my pocket – replicas of those he was awarded – one for my Dad, one for my brother and one for me. I walked onto the field, placed the medals at my feet and prayed the Lords Prayer my mother had taught me and private prayers of gratitude for a man I never met but believe I’d found; for his son, who allowed me to walk in his shadow until I could stand the sunlight and then stepped aside; and for me, whose journey to this field in northern France has been so much harder than my grandfather’s but so much easier once I got here.

Pop's campaign medals
I kicked the medals into the dirt as they shouldn’t be pretty things polished for parades but gritty reminders of cost. Then despite my pacifism, I picked them up, folded them into paper bags and vouched them safe until I hand them over in a few weeks.

Our return to our accommodation in the chateau - destroyed in the first world war and rebuilt before the second - was met by a few hours relaxing before dining out. We made use of the pool and spa.

By comparison to our lunch, we dined in a Michelin rated restaurant which Sue thoroughly enjoyed but I soon tired of. No one spoke English, I have little idea what I ate and it cost more than small countries need to fund their annual budget. Like an auction, every time I lifted a finger a smiling waiter attended me, gave me a fresh bread roll, filled my water glass, tidied up my conjunctive clauses, expressed a "oui" and retreated to his standby position. Phrase books arrived with every coming of a waiter. Maps of France were shown from old school text books so Sue would know where she was drinking from and she kept inadvertently ordering wine, thinking she was asking for directions to the toilet. I couldn’t drink as I was driving, so once the fourth glass arrived with two and a half glasses still needing Sue’s attention, I made it clear there would be no more. Five minutes later he was back offering more. This was very much Sue’s night and I’m afraid I may have been grumpy and disinterested at times but then, I have never been a happy diner in posh surroundings. Common as muck I’m afraid.

The tally for the wine made up half the bill.

A long, worthwhile but difficult day.

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