Sombre visits to WWI memorials
by Mavis Davis with ‘the Princess’
Our group of pious pilgrims again fortified themselves with a hearty buffet breakfast; secreting bread rolls, brioches and fruit into handbags and backpacks. This was just as well as we had a very poignant heart-wrenching day touring World War I sites ahead of us requiring all the strength we could muster.
With our local guide, Suzanne, our first stop was Villers-Bretonneux. The Aussies arrived there three years after Gallipoli and successfully pushed back the Germans. Decades later, children from Victoria raised funds to rebuild the school and there are many mementoes of the town’s enduring fondness for Australia, in evidence including the ubiquitous kangaroo and, of course the Australian Flag.
Next stop was the War Memorial at Hill 104 (the height of the hill) where more than 11,000 lost their lives. The Dawn Service is held there every year.
Our helpful guide assisted the ‘Quiet Achiever’ to find her uncle’s name on the wall of the impressive War Memorial nearby. The differences between the little cliques in the group were cast aside and all participated, as one, in a very emotional scene as she had her photo taken proudly wearing his medals, standing against the wall bearing her uncle’s name. This brave man had fought in the battle near Mouquet Farm, near Pozières.
Chatty remarked how interesting it was to see so many little forests dotting the acres of farmland. The guide explained, to a very solemn group that these were planted by farmers. The trees were planted in respect to ensure more soldiers’ bones are not disturbed by farmer’s ploughs.
The sombre mood was temporarily lifted by a visit to a lovely little town called Albert, the focus of which was a beautiful cathedral topped with a golden Madonna holding the baby Jesus.
The ‘Quiet Achiever’, the Princess and I had the living daylights scared out of us at a museum of the trenches as ‘Shop-til-you-drop’ and the others in our group preferred less esoteric pursuits such as wandering aimlessly and shopping for knickknacks. A medieval tunnel deep underground that had been used as an air raid shelter included a hauntingly realistic simulation of the terror of the trenches mid-battle. The experience was harrowing. We were emotionally drained and suddenly felt famished, seeking out some hearty fare to quell the emptiness in our hearts.
Somehow, we three were drawn irresistibly to a tiny café, Chez Paulette and Marie, on our way back to the bus. Through sign language and broken high-school French we were rewarded with the most delicious omelettes. Each omelette must have contained a dozen eggs. The lack of any other accoutrements was made up for by three stacks of pommes frites, hot and crispy.
We devoured this comfort food under the watchful motherly gaze of both Paulette and Marie as if re-enacting those poor young soldiers eating their first meal home cooked by their mothers should they be lucky enough to return home.
The tour continued to several more grand monuments and neat cemeteries. White crosses in formidable rows almost to the horizon, were grim reminders of the staggering loss of lives on the Somme in WW1. Other sites were a Franco Anglo memorial at Thiepval, an Ulster tower commemorating the lost Irish soldiers, Mouquet Farm and a German Bunker near Pozières.
Only F.I.G.J.A.M., the Tour Director, seemed untouched by the sombre mood. He regaled us with stories of the many prospective girlfriends back home –the smorgasbord from whom he would choose a companion, on his return. Not surprisingly, he was met with few reactions from a less than talkative ‘Chatty’. The ‘Tippler’ appeared more keen than usual to crack open a bottle of the local vintage.