Early morning rain had given way to bright sun, and blue sky, something comfortingly familiar and Australian.  Thing is, we were in Pozières, a long way from home, just as our diggers were all those years ago.  Our day had started one November morning in Brussels with a before dawn departure heading for the Somme in Northern France, some 2.5 hours away.  Motorways navigated with a sat nav behaving itself for once made the required 220km to get there a relatively easy drive.  As I drove, the heater on, family asleep beside me, I thought what it must have been like for our diggers fighting with their lives for every muddy, mile gained.  An adventure, no!

Our battle field tour began with our arrival at Pozières.  In the fighting at Pozières, around the Windmill and north along the ridge towards Mouquet Farm, the AIF suffered more than 23,000 casualties in little more than six weeks, between 23 July and 5 September 1916. Of these casualties, nearly 7,000 were killed, had died of wounds or were ‘missing’.

In silence, we stood scanning the landscape around the First Division Memorial.  Warming sun, soft green grass, silence save for the birds.  Tranquillity.  I ponder this as tears come to my eyes; how did our troops do it, a generation of extraordinary men.  Are we different of the same stock today?

Walking the ground where battles had been fought and lives lost is a sobering experience.  A fiercely patriotic Aussie, I felt a mix of feelings including humility, awe, sadness, disbelief and insignificance.  The headstones, anonymous from a distance on closer inspection revealed a brief story of a life lost, so many aged so young just a few years older than my son beside me, all killed on the same day or next day as a mate “residing next door”.

Our journey took in Pozières, the Windmill, Mouquet Farm, the Australian Corps Memorial at Le Hamel, the town of Villers–Bretonneux and the Australian National Memorial at the Villers–Bretonneux Military Cemetery.

In 1918, the Germans planned one final great offensive in an effort to win the war. Part of this saw the Germans attack the French village of Villers-Bretonneux after first using poisonous gas and artillery. When night fell, the ANZACs stormed from their trenches and counter-attacked. A British General, who himself had won a Victoria Cross for bravery, called the ANZACs’ attack “perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war”.  The ANZACs then entered the village and fight from house to house. Finally, Australian and French flags were raised over Villers-Bretonneux. The ANZACs stopped to bury their dead, 1200 Australians had been killed saving the village. It was not until they were putting the date on some makeshift crosses that they realised the date, it was ANZAC Day 1918, three years to the day since they had stormed ashore at Gallipoli.

Our arrival in Villers–Bretonneux, was not as dramatic as for the Anzac’s; we were confronted with “Aussie” icons including indigenous art, flags, streets named after Australian places and a school with everything Australian.  The town’s school L’Ecole Victoria was rebuilt with the help of donations from Victorian school children in the 1920s and carries a plaque in English and French.  A visit to the school enabled our son to talk to the children in their classroom.  I stood at the back, tears in my eyes.  A “proud dad” moment I will never forget.  Above every classroom blackboard is the inscription “N’oublions jamais l’Australie” (Let us never forget Australia).  Having been away from Australia for nearly a year, being presented with such sentiment and so many beautiful icons was a real joy.

This Anzac Day, my thoughts go to those who have sacrificed so much for us.  The reality of their experience can only be imagined, it is up to us to ensure it is something not forgotten.

The opportunity to visit the Somme and the various battlefields is one I am so pleased to have had.  If you are travelling near this region, please make the time to go, it is a very humbling experience.