How do you explain to a three year old about a world war almost a century ago? My best effort was to tell James, as we walked through the Australian War Memorial at Villers Bretenoux, that “long ago, before I was a little boy, there was a big fight, and lots of people got hurt and lots died”. I should have seen his response coming. “Why Daddy”?
As I made my way through the headstones James simple question kept coming back to me. “Why indeed”?
Why did so many men and women and children have to die in these fields and villages for the sake of the power and ego of a few men? Why when the shooting and bombs began and those men saw the sheer numbers of people being killed or maimed or injured, did they choose to fight more and not less? Why could they not see the carnage for what it was? Why did they not find another way to settle their differences?
We had come to Amiens as our last stop in France. For me it was an important stop to make because one of my grandfathers had fought here. He was also one of the lucky ones because he didn’t die here.
In some respects I’m quite fortunate because I have three Grandfathers, but only one was ever able to hold me on his knee. Joe Maxwell was that Grandfather and he passed away before I was two years old. My mother has told me a story about Joe holding me one day, and in the midst of a light hearted conversation, he paused and looked at my mother. “Don’t ever let him go to war, Joy. Promise me. Don’t ever let him go to war” he said.
Joe survived Gallipoli, the Battle of Amiens and other assorted battles on the Western Front in France and Belgium. Along the way he picked up a Military Cross and Bar, a Distinguished Conduct Medal and a Victoria Cross. While proud of his medals, he wasn’t prone to talking too much about the horror that was the First World War. His book, Hells Bells and Mademoiselles, details his war experiences without ever going into the nitty gritty of what it was really like on the front lines. Instead he wrote mostly of life in between the fighting. Like most other veterans he preferred not to discuss the horror in detail.
I have come here to honour his memory, and the memory of the people he served with. I have come here because even today when I remember marching in the local Anzac Day parade as a 10 year old I can almost feel the weight of his medals across my young chest. I remember clearly the veterans coming up to me, smiling as they looked over the medals before saying matter-of-factly, “So you’re Joe Maxwell’s Grandson”.
Our first memorial visit is to Villers Bretonneux. It is the site of the Australian War Cemetery and Memorial. It is sad and stunning. Grave after grave line each side of the cemetery leading to the memorial which stands at the peak of the hill. Many of the graves record the names of the fallen, but many simply record that below this earth is a Soldier of the Great War. An un-named soldier.
The memorial is grand and has been adorned with Australian flags by relatives visiting their ancestors and finding their name recorded on the walls or in the cemetery. The face of the tower has pock marks in the stone. The information boards tell us that these are bullet wounds inflicted on the memorial during fighting in the second world war. It astounds me to be somewhere so sombre, remembering the fallen from a terrible war, to think that it happened all again in the same places just a couple of decades later.
Le Hamel is next. It’ a smaller memorial set in fields of wheat and canola which were ready for harvest. Here the memorial remembers the dead who managed to fight their way to the top of the hill and hold the high ground above the village of Le Hamel. Beside the memorial are the remnants of German trenches which still contain pieces of rusted wire and shrapnel. Signs warn visitors not to touch or disturb any old ordinance you may find. Almost 100 years later there are still dangers on this hill.
At Thiepval we visit the British memorial for those still missing. The building is massive and it needs to be. Inscribed on the walls are the names of 72,000 service personnel who have no known grave and who were killed serving on, or near, the Western Front.
A week later I’m on my own, driving in the rain and heading for another Australian Memorial. This time it’s the 5th Division Memorial near Passendale. The memorial here is to both the Australian and New Zealand troops who fought in the battle for Polygon Wood and at other sites along the Belgian section of the front.
On that day the woods were quiet and I had the forest and the cemetery to myself. The cemetery and memorial stand in the centre of the wood which has regrown. The birds were singing in the early morning air and there was just a hint of a breeze through the trees.
The site is vastly different to the photographs from the days of the war. They show it as a muddy field littered with broken trees. The men moved on duck boards and there was little sign of life other than the movement of the soldiers. If you think of a WW1 photograph showing the fields of Europe devastated by the months and years of fighting, of smashed trees and tired looking young men sitting in the mud and slop, you will have an idea of what transpired at Polygon Wood and how it looked at that time.
Today however the cemetery is surrounded by lush forest which protects it from the outside world. The headstones are in their relentless neat rows and they’ve been planted with roses and hydrangeas which give some colour and life. Many gravestones record the name and origins of the fallen. Once again, too many record nothing of those that lie underneath.
5471 Australian soldiers died here of which many are still lost in the forest. In recognition of those that were never found, the NZ memorial records the names of those who fought and died and who have no known grave. It is stark and beautiful and a terrible reminder all at once.
This year the 11th of the 11th will be a little different. I always try to observe the moment we are supposed to pause and remember, but sometimes life gets in the way. This year I will pause and think of those lines of graves. I will think of the lists of those thousands men still missing in the fields of France and Belgium. This year I will think again of my step-grandfather and his insistence that my mother never allow me to go to war. I will understand that plea better than ever before.
As far as explaining “The Big Fight” to my three year old son. Perhaps that may have to wait a few more years. Perhaps, like his dad, he may only really understand why it’s so important to remember what happened in these fields when he stands alone in the early morning light, somewhere in another country, in a clearing filled with graves. Just then it may hit home that little bit more.