I type this from a sweeping garden in the north of France after arriving in a little town called Albert just yesterday. A commune in the Somme department in Hauts de France, Albert was founded as a Roman outpost in about 54 BC. Many, many, many years later it became a key location in the Battle of the Somme in World War One and it is this very piece of history that forms part of the reason for my visit.
On the 7th of July, 1917, a group of 35 young Australian men who were posted here took a days leave and gathered for dinner together as much needed respite from the gruelling action of war. Two years ago in Australia, the menu from this dinner was unearthed complete with the signatures of all the young men who had attended the dinner – many of them boys who had arrived in France not even a year out of school and, upon this discovery a plan began to unfold. Today, over 50 Australians have decended upon the town of Albert, many of them descendants of the original dinner attendees.
My father arrived in Paris four days ago after spending much of the past 18 months assisting in any way possible towards bringing this reunion together. As a self taught WWI (and WWII) history buff, the Somme is something of a Mecca to him and so many of the tales he’s shared with me over the years- romantic as they are tragic, came alive on this soil.
Yesterday, after a short journey from Paris on a high speed train, we arrived in Amiens and collected our hire car before setting off for Albert. As we drove through the pretty countryside painted with rolling hills and endless, wide open fields, Dad give me a brief history of all the different towns whose signposts stand tall on the edge of the road. I was concentrating mainly on steering our hired ship on the ‘other’ side of the duel carriageway, but was not so distracted that I couldn’t observe how frightening it must have been for the young boys who went to battle in those very fields 100 years earlier. Open and heavily exposed, the cropped pastures that swept by as we navigated the road to Albert, are the custodians of so much history and it is amazing to think that it was in these very crops that battle lines were drawn – determining the path which we tread in the world as we know it today. Sadly, it was only a matter of years before more young men and women were engaged in a second world war, and if history were a currency, France alone would be a billionaire.
When we arrived at the hotel just after lunch yesterday Australian accents filled the foyer, shirt sleeves were rolled up and sun hats were wedged firmly onto heads as the Antipodean aggregation readied themselves (fresh out of the bitter cold of the Australian winter) for a trip to the centre of town to the museum- a place that pays hommage to the history of the battle as well as to those who fell, and survived on this very soil.
We gathered for an informal meal last night with the reunion dinner set to take place this evening. Dad delivered a welcome address and as I type, I cant help thinking of all the stories he told which put chilling context around the reason for us being here. One tale, (of the many that he delivered in his address) that has had a particular impact on me, was of a young boy who wrote regularly to his family in the Otways in Victoria, Australia. He spoke of ever present danger and the loss of mates towards the end- particularly with the looming threat of influenza but, through his letters his family were reassured with a mood always upbeat; he shared the joy of the Armistice of 1918 and the thrill of having a Christmas in peace time with the Belgium families, who were so appreciative of the soldiers from the Antipodes who had come from the other side of the world to fight a war for five years. In his final letter, he asked his brother to ‘get a suit of civvie clothes made to your measurements,’ going on to note ‘I think we are about the same size.’ He requested that he have them ready in Melbourne for his imminent arrival home- ‘I am longing for the day I can get out of this clobber, I have been in this colour for too long for my liking.’ Then came the awful void, and the letters of condolence written by fellow soldiers- this young man had made it through years of war and was almost home, before being taken by the Spanish influenza which wreaked havoc amongst the exhausted and undernourished soldiers.
The Somme is a sobering place to visit and it remains a beautiful piece of the puzzle that is this country- picturesque like a postcard, industrious as ever and full to the brim with history. Through the many stories of survival and loss at the hands of that horrific war, it is particularly sobering to realise that had all of those tales, now told peppered with a whistful pang, not actually occured over 100 years ago, the world could be completely different place to the one we know today.
As I finish this post, Waltzing Matilda sounds in the distance through the drone of bagpipes and at the helm of the pipes is a doctor from Camperdown, Australia. This signals lunch.