An early start to bid adieu to my beloved Paris and head north on a train to Amiens. We’d allowed a fair bit of buffer in our timings which meant we actually made an earlier train – just as well us because when we arrived we were greeted at our hotel by the news that they had double booked us leaving us with no place to stay. They weren’t particularly apologetic or at all helpful in making alternative arrangements. Luckily, the Tourism Information office was just up the street and able to find us a room that was half as good but twice the price!
This little exercise chewed up our head start and left us just enough time to get a taxi to the car hire place out of town right on the stroke of midday as they were closing. Phew! Expecting the worst after our false start, I was pleasantly surprised to find our car waiting avec a GPS – double phew! The staff had shut up and taken off before I could say “which side of the street do I drive on again?” and then there we were – Mum, me and our Fiat Punto. Luckily my only prior experience of left-side driving was also in a Fiat (ah, the Panda!) and I had no time to hesitate so in we hopped and off we went.
Our entire reason for coming to Amiens was to visit the Somme and the Villers-Brettoneaux Australian War Memorial. Having spent time as a policy advisor to the Minister for Veterans Affairs with a purview over all the war memorials in NSW, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to see another one again. However, standing in the place where the battles were fought and the lives actually lost is an entirely different proposition to standing in front of a statue in the middle of a roundabout in Strathfield or even in the pouring rain at 4am in the morning in Martin Place on ANZAC Day.
Our first stop was at a nearby primary school which houses the Franco Australian Museum. The museum is made up of a collection of memorabilia from WWI with explanations of Australia and New Zealand’s involvement in the battles in and around the Somme. It’s above the school assembly hall which is panelled and floored with wood from around Australia and adorned with wood carvings of our native animals – it felt eerily like every school hall I’ve ever been in though the signs assured us that it was something out of the ordinary for France.
From there we made our way out to the actual memorial site. It was an absolutely beautiful day with hardly another soul around, so utterly peaceful and pristine. We walked amongst the headstones, many dedicated to unknown soldiers, many more with names (including my Uncle John’s uncle which I came across quite by accident). I was surprised to find so many from other countries – New Zealand, Canada, England, Scotland, Wales and yet only the Australian and French flags are flown.
The memorial building itself is a tower which you can climb for a view over the graveyard which we did. The view from the top looks out over farm land so lovely yet mundane, it was hard to imagine it was once a scene of such violence and loss of life.
At the bottom of the monument hung a framed copy of Paul Keating’s speech on the occasion of the internment of the unknown soldier. Such a great orator, perhaps the last word on this experience is best left to him:
“This Unknown Australian is not interred here to glorify war over peace; or to assert a soldier’s character above a civilian’s; or one race or one nation or one religion above another; or men above women; or the war in which he fought and died above any other war; or one generation above any that has been or will come later.
The Unknown Soldier honours the memory of all those men and women who laid down their lives for Australia. His tomb is a reminder of what we have lost in war and what we have gained…
…It is not too much to hope, therefore, that this Unknown Australian Soldier might continue to serve his country – he might enshrine a nation’s love of peace and remind us that, in the sacrifice of the men and women whose names are recorded here, there is faith enough for all of us.”
Lest we forget. But I did forget! Not wanting to make light of this meaningful moment, it was only while we were at the memorial that I realised I totally forgot my jacket when we left the cafe across from our hotel earlier in the day.
Luckily it was still there when we got back – triple phew! To celebrate, commemorate and just plain relax after an emotionally exhausting day, we had a couple of Belgian beers for old times sake… lest we remember.
This was my first visit to a war cemetery and it was such a moving experience seeing the crosses of all these young men who had given their lives so that we would be free. It is truly a beautiful place in a very sad sort of way and where they lay is so, so peaceful. The surrounding area is beautiful with farmers fields, its so hard to believe that these were killing fields all those many years ago. The view is magnificent. Lest we forget.
What made me smile today: Our meals for the day. Breakfast: train station croissant (not the best), no coffee. Lunch: in our boudoir – large toasties and “speckle ****” paste applied with fingers (i.e. speculaas paste bought from Belgium). Dinner: le piste de resistance – ‘croque monsieur’ translated – cheese and ham on toast (poor Nomi just got croque – the vegetarian version) but the beer was good! This French cuisine ain’t all it’s cracked up to be! Love to all.