IN THE FOOT­STEPS OF THE AN­ZACS

Take a tour through the World War I bat­tle­grounds of north­ern France and Bel­gium to show your re­spects this An­zac Day.

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - MONACO - Words MARK DAPIN

AUS­TRALIANS RE­MEM­BER THE war on the Western Front a lit­tle dif­fer­ently from most Euro­peans. For the Bel­gians and French, this tor­tur­ous World War I cam­paign rep­re­sents an in­va­sion that was only re­versed when other na­tions came to their aid. For the Ger­mans it was a ter­ri­ble, his­toric de­feat. But Aus­tralians crossed the world to join a war they helped to win — and, while the Euro­pean na­tions took many of their dead home to the lands in which they were born, those same Aus­tralians, like other Com­mon­wealth troops, were buried where they fell.

There are more than 40,000 fallen An­zacs com­mem­o­rated across the for­mer bat­tle­grounds of north­ern France and Bel­gium; row upon row of well-or­dered white grave­stones on prim green lawns that con­trast to the ter­ror and chaos of the four-year con­flict that came to be known as the Great War.

For many years it was fi­nan­cially im­pos­si­ble for Aus­tralian fam­i­lies to visit these sites; in­stead, war memo­ri­als were built at the cross­roads of coun­try towns to give fam­i­lies a place to mourn. But now that air­fares are within reach, these ceme­ter­ies take on a new sig­nif­i­cance. Metic­u­lously main­tained, they serve as a piece of vis­i­ble his­tory, and a place to hon­our those who made the ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice for their coun­try.

The $95 mil­lion Sir John Monash Cen­tre, open­ing this month in France, is Aus­tralia’s lat­est memorial to the war dead, set in fields near Villers-Bre­ton­neux (or ‘VB’). This im­pres­sive cen­tre is de­voted to retelling the story of the An­zacs on the Western Front, and marks the end of the Aus­tralian Re­mem­brance Trail, which runs 200 kilo­me­tres through western Bel­gium and north­ern France.

Trav­ellers can be­gin their An­zac pil­grim­age at the city of Ypres in Bel­gium, fol­low­ing the front line as it stood in April 1917 through mu­se­ums, ceme­ter­ies and memo­ri­als close to bat­tle sites with fa­mil­iar names — Pass­chen­daele, Fromelles, Bul­le­court — then trac­ing the River Somme to VB and Amiens.

The dis­tances be­tween key sites are gen­er­ally short, and a de­ter­mined driver could com­plete the trail in two days, but set aside a week to soak up the his­tory of this small pocket of Europe where more than 295,000 Aus­tralians fought and 46,000 died be­tween March 1916 and Novem­ber 1918.

Ypres ( named ‘ Wipers’ by Bri­tish troops) was razed to the ground in three bat­tles, cul­mi­nat­ing in the 1917 Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele, when An­zacs fought along­side al­lied troops to re­cap­ture nearby Pass­chen­daele Ridge. Win­ston

Churchill wanted Ypres to be left as a ruin, a warn­ing against war, but its ma­jes­tic me­dieval and re­nais­sance streets were re­con­structed. The grand Cloth Hall, one of the largest com­mer­cial build­ings of the Mid­dle Ages, is now home to the In Flan­ders Fields Museum, which of­fers an ex­cel­lent in­tro­duc­tion to the West Flan­ders cam­paign.

A short walk from the museum is the Menin Gate Memorial, where enor­mous arches bear the names of al­most 55,000 Com­mon­wealth sol­diers who died in the Ypres Salient and whose bod­ies have never been found. Ev­ery night at 8pm, the gate is blocked to traf­fic and a bu­gler solemnly sounds the Last Post.

In Ploeg­steert near Ypres, the sim­ple and som­bre Plugstreet 14–18 Ex­pe­ri­ence (for ‘Plugstreet’ is how the dig­gers styled the place) is close to the site of the fa­mous Christ­mas Truce of 1914, when French, Bri­tish and Ger­man troops cast down their weapons and took a break from fight­ing to re­cover their dead, ex­change gifts, and play the odd friendly game of soc­cer in No Man’s Land.

The truce has its own mon­u­ment, erected by the Union of Euro­pean Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tions ( UEFA), where scores of soc­cer fans have left be­hind balls, flags and scarves. The nearby Toronto Av­enue Ceme­tery is the only all-Aus­tralian ceme­tery in Bel­gium. Deer roam the woods around the grave­yard, where meaty mush­rooms grow like cush­ions from the ground.

The Memorial Museum Pass­chen­daele 1917, housed in a re­built Nor­mandy-style villa near Zon­nebeke, is a fine in­sti­tu­tion set among peace­ful memorial gar­dens. From the grounds, you can see the re­mains of Cap­tain Oliver Wood­ward’s dugout, made fa­mous by the 2010 Aus­tralian movie Be­neath Hill 60. The Pass­chen­daele museum of­fers the un­usual ex­pe­ri­ence of a ‘gas smelling sta­tion’, where vis­i­tors can ex­pe­ri­ence the odours of chem­i­cal weapons such as mus­tard gas, chlo­rine gas and phos­gene. Its col­lec­tion in­cludes an in­ter­est­ing se­lec­tion of rarely seen bawdy wartime post­cards, and a strangely beau­ti­ful gallery of dif­fer­ent coloured shells. But its show­piece is a large and life-sized net­work of de­tailed replica trenches, through which museum-go­ers can stride and duck.

The lo­cal Tyne Cot Ceme­tery is the largest ceme­tery for Com­mon­wealth forces in the world, for any war. Reg­u­la­tions meant that ev­ery sin­gle man, re­gard­less of his rank, had to have a head­stone of the same size, carved from Port­land stone and bear­ing an in­scrip­tion of no more than 66 let­ters. At the start of the war, fam­i­lies were coldly charged three-and-a-half pence per let­ter for en­grav­ing a mes­sage to their son, but the charge was even­tu­ally ren­dered vol­un­tary.

In nearby Poly­gon Wood stands a memorial to the Fifth Aus­tralian Di­vi­sion, which sus­tained 5500 dead and wounded at the Bat­tle of Fromelles in July 1916. In 2009, ar­chae­ol­o­gists dis­cov­ered the re­mains of 250 Bri­tish and Aus­tralian sol­diers. An ap­peal was made for DNA from any­one who might be re­lated to the fallen and, one by one, about 150 of the bod­ies have been iden­ti­fied. His­tory is still in the mak­ing at the Museum of the Bat­tle of Fromelles, which aims to gather the sto­ries of each sol­dier who, in the words of a newly carved tomb­stone, ‘once was lost but now [is] found’. The statue Cob­bers, by Mel­bourne sculp­tor Pe­ter Cor­lett, looks out over the Aus­tralian Memorial Park in Fromelles. There is a small fam­ily museum at Bul­le­court, where Aus­tralian troops fought in April–May 1917, and Cor­lett’s The Bul­le­court Digger statue guards the for­mer bat­tle­field.

At Villers-Bre­ton­neux, the Franco-Aus­tralian Museum was built by lo­cals in grat­i­tude for the Aus­tralian mil­i­tary ef­fort on 24–25 April (yes, An­zac Day) 1918, when the dig­gers pushed the Ger­mans out of town. At­tached to the museum is the Vic­to­ria School, which was part-funded by Vic­to­rian chil­dren who were en­cour­aged by their ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment’s War Re­lief Fund to do­nate a penny each.

The trail con­cludes at the new Sir John Monash Cen­tre, con­ceived as an ex­ten­sion of the Aus­tralian Na­tional Memorial, which has been on the site since 1938. The cen­tre is not just a memorial to the life and im­pres­sive ca­reer of Monash, of­ten de­scribed as Aus­tralia’s great­est mil­i­tary com­man­der, but to the lives of all the Aus­tralians who fought and died here.

When you see the end­less rows of iden­ti­cal tomb­stones at Tyne Cot, there’s only one les­son to take away: noth­ing like this can be al­lowed to hap­pen again. But the Nazi Ger­man bul­let scars that pock­mark the tower at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Memorial tes­tify to the solemn fact that it did. Only one year af­ter the open­ing of the memorial, the Sec­ond World War be­gan, the Ger­man Army rolled back into Bel­gium and France, and Aus­tralian troops made ready to help de­fend Europe once again.

GET­TING THERE VIR­GIN AUS­TRALIA OF­FERS FLIGHTS TO BEL­GIUM AND FRANCE WITH ITS CODE­SHARE PART­NERS ETI­HAD AIR­WAYS AND SIN­GA­PORE AIR­LINES. TO BOOK, VISIT WWW.VIR­GIN­AUS­TRALIA.COM OR CALL 13 67 89 (IN AUS­TRALIA).

Bistrot Dit Vin

THIS PAGE

The Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres hon­ours the Com­mon­wealth sol­diers killed in Bel­gium who have no known rest­ing place. OP­PO­SITE PAGE, CLOCK­WISE

FROM LEFT Names of miss­ing in ac­tion sol­diers in­scribed on the Menin Gate Memorial; World War I ar­tillery shells at the Memorial Museum Pass­chen­daele 1917; din­ing along­side the River Somme, where some of World War I’s blood­i­est bat­tles were fought. OPENER, FROM LEFT Tyne Cot Ceme­tery; to­day Ypres is a mix­ture of tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture and cafe cul­ture.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.