ANZAC Day often takes on a new significance for Aussies and Kiwis living in Europe, and for many, the time will arrive when the decision is made make a pilgrimage to Gallipoli.
Last year, I decided that for me, this would be the year.
An unexpected turn of events came about, when – before I’d even had a chance to look at Gallipoli tour options – a friend happened to mention to me that she and her husband were going to spend ANZAC on the Western Front instead. The Western Front? I had to confess, I knew very little about it. I thought it was a bit odd that a Kiwi couple would choose to go there over Gallipoli. My friend explained: “Gallipoli was amazing. But from what I’ve heard, the Western Front is mind-blowing. It’s something else entirely.”
Curious, I decided to look into it. One thing that had stopped me attending the Gallipoli ANZAC services in the past was concern that the crowds would affect the overall experience for me. First Festival Travel were offering a Western Front tour that promised a sombre and unique experience away from such large crowds. I was also surprised and rather disappointed in myself to discover that I knew so little about the Western Front – the most heavily fought area of WW1. In just one day of battle on the Western Front, the number of ANZACs that died is equal to the number that died during the entire Gallipoli Campaign.
Having mentioned in cyberspace that I was thinking about doing the Western Front tour, a few other friends came forward to say that they’d been on the same tour in previous years. One was insistent that I do the tour. She was convinced that this was a trip that would change my life.
From the moment I booked the tour, my journey began.
First Festival staff encouraged investigating whether we had any family who had fought or died on the Western Front. When I mentioned to my 90-year-old grandmother over the phone that I had booked the tour, she was overcome with emotion. Her father (my great-grandfather), Peter Gill, had served almost 4 years on the Western Front with the NZ Expeditionary Force, as a horse-drawn field ambulance driver. He had survived, but from his wartime diary (which astonishingly my grandmother still had) it was clear from the horror he witnessed and experienced that he got to the point where he thought he would never make it home. My uncle transcribed his diary, and emailed it to me. It was a heart-wrenching read. Along with photos of both my great-grandfather during the war – and photos of the cup he had been awarded by Major-General Sir AHR Russell KCMG for having the best ambulance horse – I was already getting a deep sense of the significance of the Western Front.
Having booked the tour before knowing that it had any personal significance for me or my family, I was feeling incredibly grateful to now have a personal history to unravel. I certainly wasn’t expecting to then find anything more – but there was still the paternal side of my family to investigate. I casually asked my Dad about the Western Front, not expecting any life-shattering discovery. He told me that his father’s eldest brother Bob had been a heavy gunner on the Western Front and had survived, but that was all he knew. My own investigations kept running into dead ends. Until a few days before my departure, when an English cousin recalled something his grandmother had mentioned to him almost 50 years ago. Bob wasn’t my grandfather’s eldest brother – he was my grandfather’s eldest SURVIVING brother. Granddad’s eldest brother, Jack, had been killed on the Western Front in WW1. Granddad had seemingly never mentioned him. Family in New Zealand weren’t even aware that Jack had existed. And as neither Jack nor Bob had any children, if this discovery had not been made now, their stories could have been lost forever. I was to be the first member of the family to visit the Western Front since the First World War. And I was determined to find Jack and pay my respects.
Upon arrival in Lille on the morning of 24 April, we boarded our coach to journey through the battlefields of the Somme region with our local guide, Mike. Mike took us through and to several major sites of importance for both Australians and New Zealanders; including Villers-Bretonneux, Lochnagar Crater, and Caterpillar Valley – where many NZ soldiers are buried. Mike was also able to shed some light on where some of the places were where my great-grandfather had been, so I was able to get a sense of standing very close to his own footsteps. Given that the countryside has changed so little, it was remarkable to look out over the fields and consider how different it would have been for my great-grandfather and his ANZAC comrades as they journeyed through these areas.
Mike also shared his own father’s recollections of life on the Western Front during WWI:
“I was cold. I was wet. I was hungry. I was thirsty. And I was frightened… And the German soldiers were feeling the exactly the same as I was, on the days that I was.”
Having checked into our accommodation in Ypres that evening, many of us headed down to the Menin Gate Memorial (to the missing) – the only place in the world where that Last Post Ceremony takes place every day of the year, at 8pm. It was incredibly overwhelming. The memorial itself is of staggering scale (think of other great arches you’ve seen around Europe); covered in names – and not all of the missing are named here. In fact, no New Zealanders are named here, as the decision was made for NZ soldiers to be remembered closer to where they fought and fell.
ANZAC Day, we attended the Dawn Service at Buttes New British Cemetery, Polygon Wood. Here, I was to lay a family wreath on behalf of my grandmother. We were led by candlelight through the woods, to a clearing in the cemetery, where the intimate ceremony took place. It was unlike any ANZAC service I had ever attended. Following the service, we were all invited to come and collect little crosses and place them on the graves of fallen ANZACs. It was then off to breakfast with the Australian and NZ consulates and dignitaries, before we spilt into separate Australian and NZ groups to attend our own services and events, coming together again to join the march through Ypres to the combined ANZAC service and Menin Gate.
In the afternoon, something very special was to happen from a personal perspective. Our local historian, an Otago boy – Martin, offered to take a couple of us out to pay our respects to our own. I was taken to the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing, where my great-uncle Jack was named. I had been sad to discover from a friend who had done a bit of research into Jack for me, that he had no known grave, but grateful to have the opportunity to visit Ploegsteert, and place a little memorial cross for him on behalf of the family. When I saw his name, I broke down. I was so sad for Jack, and for my family. Yet I left Ploegsteert with a sense of peace and closure having been able to pay tribute to his memory.
The next day was spent walking through the Messines area for a few hours, in the footsteps of the Kiwi soldiers – lead by our wonderful guide, Martin. The weather was horrendous, yet I doubt any of us would have wanted it any other way. We paid our respects to an unknown Kiwi soldier who had only been found and re-buried late last year. We then visited Tyne Cot – the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world – the scale of which was unimaginable. We also visited a German cemetery, which contrasted sharply with the look and style of the Commonwealth cemeteries.
The final visit for the day was to Essex Farm, famous for John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”. This cemetery was one that really got hold of me emotionally. Here, there is a grave belonging to a 15-year-old Irish boy – the second youngest of the fallen, that we know of. His family only found out he had enlisted when they were informed of his death. At Essex Farm there is also a Dressing Station, which gave me a deep sense of my great-grandfather and the sheer horror that his day-to-day life on the Western Front entailed.
Although almost a year has now passed, my experience on the Western Front is still sticking closely with me. I am still struggling to process it all. I feel immense gratitude to the people of France and Belgium, for the respect they continue to show to our fallen – not only in the way they care for our memorials and cemeteries, but also in their capacity to show friendship and compassion towards us, and in embracing our heritage – several towns, museums (and even a school!) are dedicated to all things New Zealand; all things Australia. Above all, I have left the Western Front with profound appreciation for life and humanity.
The Western Front has a lesson for all of us. If we choose to listen, we can greatly impact our future.
This article is adapted from my original article featured on NZNewsUK. First Festival Travel are very generously offering readers a discount on their Budget Coach Package for the same tour this year. Please contact me via email or via the NZNewsUK Facebook page for your discount code.