Of Anzac Days, dawn services and Australian nights in France

On 25 April 2015, I left Australian shores for rural France.

I chose the date – Anzac Day – on a whim, a symbolic recognition of the culmination of a lifelong dream to run away to France. I made 25-4 my suitcase pin number. For six months, I house-sat my way from Normandy to Provence, mostly on my own, and lived like a local.

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A few weeks before my departure, my father told me that his father Syd had been seriously injured by mustard gas on the Somme in 1918. I hadn’t even known my grandfather’s name until then, let alone that he served in the Australian armed forces.

While in France, I became mildly obsessed by Syd’s war service. I discovered that he was a 23-year-old married man when he enlisted in 1916. Five feet eight inches high and weighing only 60 kilograms, he wasn’t built like your average gunner. His was a demanding role, requiring the strength and stamina to haul the cannon-like howitzers and pass heavy shells along the line to be loaded. These shells, packed with ball bearings, weighed 130 kilograms.

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I spent a weekend at the Somme and visited the Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.

With the help of old trench maps, I pinpointed the exact location of my grandfather’s artillery brigade –.a tiny hamlet called Chuignolles – when it was attacked in August 1918. I scattered dried poppies and placed a boomerang-shaped piece of wood in the fields there and filmed my little ceremony for Dad.

The following day – at nearby Pozières – I found a dirt-encrusted ball bearing and a piece of shell. It was as big as my fist and made of metal. I put them in a ziplock bag and carried them back in my suitcase the 17,000 kilometres to my father. They brought home the barbarity of war more than anything else I saw in my time on the Somme.

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Dad was an only child, born some years after Syd’s return from the war.

He was 18 when his father finally succumbed to the respiratory damage he incurred during the war. I have since discovered from records at the National Archives that the Repatriation Commission refused Syd’s applications for compensation. His polite requests for a review, made in his beautiful copperplate handwriting and accompanied by extensive evidence, were summarily rejected.

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Still in his teens at the time of Syd’s death, Dad was faced with the choice between finishing his engineering degree or taking over the family woodworking machinery business. With help from the factory foreman, he managed to do both. He berated himself for not having asked his father – his ‘great friend’ – about his military service. Having siblings might have helped Dad fill in the gaps, but he had no one to compare memories with.

Dad was suffering some cognitive impairment when I left for France and was diagnosed with early stage dementia soon after my return. The disease had softened his sharp edges and put him more in touch with his emotions. He had been an often absent father, a workaholic intent on building the family business and providing for his large family. My research into Syd awoke memories for him that both saddened and comforted him, and created a strong bond between us.

On 25 April 2016 – now living back in Melbourne – I attended my first dawn service at the Shrine.

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My partner was singing in the men’s choir and I was drawn to it after my experience on the Somme. I loved its candlelit solemnity, was vaguely troubled by the machismo of some members of the crowd. The lone bugler playing reveille and silhouetted against the sun brought me to tears.

On 25 April 2017, my father died of a heart attack.

It was eight weeks after he had fallen down the stairs at home and broken his neck. It was one day before he was to be moved from hospital to a nursing home. He was holding both of my mother’s hands in his, and then he wasn’t.

On 25 April 2018, I will be attending the dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux.

It’s a French village whose streets are named in honour of the Australian troops who fought the occupying Germans on April 24 1918, the famous ‘Night of the Australians’. They cleared the town of Germans by the following morning, coincidentally the third anniversary of the Gallipoli landings.

The Australian War Memorial is on the outskirts of the village. It looks out over gently rolling hills that were once the scene of devastation: a symbol of peace in an imperfect, inexplicable world.

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I have read first-hand the lack of support for returned servicemen from the government of the time. I have witnessed the strength of the connection between the French and the Australians, born of a war with inhumane rules of engagement. It’s reasonable to experience conflicting emotions.

I will be there to remember my father on the first anniversary of his death. I will honour the memory of my grandfather, a man I never met but who gave me a better insight into his son. I’m hoping for resolution, even revelation, but I may just end up with remembrance. And I’m at peace with that.

This piece first appeared in The Big Issue in April 2018. It is reproduced here with the permission of TBI.

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