Pushbike Diaries

Riding in France: Days with Fallen Australian Soldiers

I am slowly transcribing the long-hand diary entries from my midlife gap-year and turning them into blog posts. I’ve reached the morning of the 108th day as I awake in Amiens, France.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

I’ve received a lovely email from Robert Pinsky in response to my poem about reading his poems. That gets the day off to a good start – I’m feeling light-hearted as I leave Amiens in bright autumn sunlight which warms me in a way it hasn’t in quite a while.

I follow the Somme.

The Somme, leaving Amiens.

I have a cheap mp3 player which I refill with randomly selected albums every time I’ve listened through the 20 or so it can hold. It plays them in alphabetical order by artist – that’s just how it works, there’s no screen, so I don’t know what’s coming next or where to find anything. I just let it play.

I’m following the Somme to Corbie when Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mine begins playing.

I’m following the Somme to Villers-Bretonneux and Forgotten Years fills my ears. I didn’t plan this, but it is perfect. I begin to tear up a little and expect it will be one of those days. Not tears for me, this time, not tears of loneliness – although there is a bit of that – nor of frustration, but tears of sadness for all the loss. All the pointless, terrifying, loss.

 

 

I have picnic in a square in Corbie then head for the Australian Memorial and find, coming out of town, a bicycle sign directing me towards it. I nearly weep again. The memorial is at the top of a hill, but it’s not as bad as I’d feared.

The others here are mostly Australian – I can hear it and see it. Some see me arrive on my bicycle, I’m in bicycling gear, I am alone. We exchange ‘g’day howyagoin?’ but no one tries to engage me further, there’s no curiosity, and I’m disappointed in that.

I feel far from home yet near it. A display demonstrates we are nearly half-way around the globe from Canberra – some 10,000 miles either direction.

Canberra – 10,488 miles going one direction annd 14,392 the other. They couldn’t have come further.

The wall of names is nearly impossible to comprehend – nearly 11,000 Australians who died on the Western Front and for whom no known graves exists. 11,000 – it brings into focus the importance of all those memorials in all the towns and villages of Australia. Many of those men listed on those Australian cenotaphs either have no known grave or their grave is here, in Europe.

I’m having one of those moments where a line which connects disparate moments draws taut and the connections line up.

When I first arrived in Australia on a student visa, uncertain how long I’d manage to stay, I went travelling. I took the Indian Pacific train across the country and, eventually, a hop-on-hop-off backpacker bus dropped me in Albany, Western Australia. A place vastly distant from anywhere else, really (400 kilometres from Perth) – but a lively town, perched on a spectacular bay where cold cerulean seas wash onto a rocky shore.

There, I learned, early ships carrying Australian troops to the Middle East and on to Europe had called into port. This was their final Australian stop – the ships would top up on supplies and the troops get off and march through the streets. I brought home a book about it full of photographs of marching young men – their excited, nervous young faces. I’d long been moved by the idea that for so many of them, Albany was where they would last touch Australian soil.

 

Australian soldiers in Albany, Western Australia before shipping out.

Now I’m faced with the wall of 11,000 names and a countryside peppered with war cemeteries – among them, surely, the names and bodies of some of those young men whose faces I looked at in those pictures from Albany.

The Unknown Soldier at the War Memorial in Canberra came from here – removed from a cemetery in Villers-Bretonneux and ceremoniously escorted about before going home to Canberra where Paul Keating said lovely Paul Keating things over him. I’ve been there too.

There is a plaque telling the story, which I’ll quote in full:

The Unknown Australian Soldier

In this place, in November 1993, the casket containing the remains of the Unknown Australian Soldier, and escorted by an honour guard of Australian Military personnel, rested on its progress to the soldier’s homeland and to a place of honour in the nation’s most sacred shrine to her war dead.

On 2 November 1993 the remains of an unknown Australian soldier were exhumed from Adelaide War Cemetery, Villers-Bretonneux. Those remains were delivered on that day into the custody of the Australian Ambassador at this Australian National Memorial by the President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent.

Later that same day, the Unknown Australian Soldier was moved to Ieper (Ypres) in Belgium, where he lay in State in the Cloth Hall and at Menin Gate Memorial while ceremonies were held to honour the Unknown Soldier and those he represents.

On the following day, the Unknown Australian Soldier was returned to Villers-Bretonneux where, with solemn ceremony, the people of that community paid their final respects and took their leave of this soldier who had lain in their midst for 75 years. The Unknown Australian Soldier left this Memorial and Villers-Bretonneux on 5 November 1993 and was flown to Australia where his remains again lay in State in Old Parliament House, Canberra from 7-11 November.

On Remembrance Day, 11 November 1993, the Unknown Australian Soldier was honoured with a ceremonial military funeral, and his remains were given their final resting place in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial. Thus, was the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier created.

The eulogy at the entombment ceremony was delivered by the then Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Paul Keating MP. The text of that eulogy is present here in order that all who visit this place may know that the Unknown Australian Soldier once rested within these walls surrounded by the inscribed names of nearly 11,000 of those he represents.

1993 doesn’t seem so long ago that there is no video of Paul Keating’s eulogy, only audio. Here it is, and well worth your time to listen: click here to listen.

That whole wall is filled with names. Notice, too, damage to the tower from fighting in World War II.
Just some of the 11,000 names.

All the other Australians have left, it’s just me and a maintenance worker. Australian and French flags fluttering, the cords clattering against the poles. Wind in the trees and in my ears. A Simpsons sky – pale blue with big white fluffy clouds. The twin trails of aeroplanes at cruising altitude.

As I pedal on to the village of Villers-Bretonneux Midnight Oils Time to Heal fills my ears.

The museum is, I think, in transition – for now there are items of varying degrees of interest in old- fashioned display cabinets. The woman staffing the door is young, French, Muslim and speaks excellent English. I’ve come, as much as anything, for the famous “Don’t Forget Australia” sign in the school ground and stay for a coffee at Le Melbourne.

 

As I approach the village of Le Hamel I can see them – the flags fluttering: the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, and Canada. There is a hill and at the top of the hill, just the top of the flag poles and the four flags stiff and snapping in the breeze.


I turn towards the memorial and face the climb, it’s not a vicious slope, nothing I haven’t done before – but it’s well into the day now and it’s hard. It’s a hard climb. But I have Peter Garrett singing, howling, Best of Both Worlds into my ears and feel it’s important to ride to the top. It’s important to not to get off and walk. That the riding is somehow a tip of the hat to the far far far harder things done here.

There is a tour group – maybe eight Australians following a tour-guide around the site. I catch up and eavesdrop a little. She might be German or Eastern European. She talks of Monash and the newly arrived American troops. How he’d chosen 4 July as the day to launch his attack in their honour.

I’ve ridden a fully laden touring bicycle to the top of this hill and I’m pushing it along with me as I look at and read the various panels. Not one of the tourists says hello or shows any curiosity. I find that disappointing and a little strange. Several of them are dressed as if for a proper outdoor outing – hiking boots, travel pants, wide-brimmed hats. But they’ve come in a van and walked 100 metres – which is probably what they’ve done all day at one site after another.

Soon enough they go and I’m alone on the top of a hill looking out at an expanse of land where soldiers of my two countries fought side-by-side, against a common enemy, for the very first time, 97 years ago.

***

Now I’m sitting in a utilitarian room, at a utilitarian table, in the bar of a campground on the edge of a village near the Australian battlefields and the Cure is coming through the stereo. Love Cats to be precise – as incongruous a song to end the day on as any.

Into the sea
You and me
All these years and no one heard
I’ll show you in spring
It’s a treacherous thing
We missed you hissed the lovecats

There are four blokes here – including the proprietor, his father, and two locals. It feels, they seem, hardscrabble, like country-people who work with their hands. We’re a long way from glamourous, or even rustic, France here.

It’s been a stellar day.

The weather has been spectacular – warm, sunny. It’s been my first riding day since … I don’t know when, when I didn’t put the jumper or jacket on even once. I’m going to say the a was my last day riding in Eastern France.

(Dude just brought me peanuts to go with my beer. This place is great!)

I’m awake in the clear and crisp night. Stars, stars, stars. I’m thinking of 18-year-old Private Marks – the one Jewish kid in the cemetery – 18 – I hope he had mates. I hope he wasn’t ostracized as the Jewish kid. I was 18 when I worked for the Thompson Twins. He came halfway around the world to fight and die in France.

Private Marks – aged 18.

The problem with the time difference to home is when I hope people are on line – at night for me – they aren’t, or they are just quickly checking first thing in the morning.

I feel … free. I feel like a night like this – in this slightly quiet campground – would have freaked me out months ago. I feel, generally, less concerned about the opinions of others than I used to. Maybe. I think. But then … today, I was struck by the lack of curiosity from my fellow Australians at both the memorials. Out of, maybe, 30 people not one asked about my trip.

There they were – in their khaki travel pants and hiking shoes – being driven from place to place and walking a few hundred metres at a time. I rode here! From Cherbourg! Uh huh. Get back in your van and take a nap. Anyway, other than a few G’days and Howaryagoin’s – no one spoke to me.

Thursday 10 September 2015

I need to watch those afternoon coffees. No later than 2pm I reckon.

I need to look for camping gas.

I need to follow-up with the shipping companies about getting my bicycle home for me. And, more importantly, PW’s brother. I could really use that Berlin basement to store my bicycle for a time.

Time, too, to start locking in a US schedule – to book tickets etc.

If I’m going as far as Denver – can I manage Portland? Chicago-Portland-Denver-Boston? Then over land from there back to Chicago via New York City, Washington DC and Nashville? Maybe. Or Chicago to Denver, return; Chicago to Portland, return. Train to Boston etc.

I need to message Portland friends about a place to stay; and Tyler in Denver; and Jim’s friend in Boston; and Dave in NYC; and Anh in DC. Get my own space in Nashville.

Anyway, it’s another beautiful, warm but windy day. The church bell has tolled 10 am – I really should get on with it.

Pedalling out of Bouzencourt, I scatter a clutch of gorgeous chooks milling about the car park. A donkey whinnies in a neighbouring field.

I can see the flags at Le Hammel snapping in the wind. They can be seen for kilometres around. The countryside is a bit undulating but mostly pretty flat. I emerge from one village to see the church steeple of the next.

My world is a string of French villages beaded onto (mostly) wee, (mostly) quiet tarmacked roads separated by crucifixes in metal or stone or a combination – at cross roads – which are, mostly, shown on the map (helpfully).

Some villages have – for want of a better way to put it – fortified homes. Heavy, stout, gated brick buildings without windows face the small streets. Through open gates, however, I see courtyards and houses. This is a change and I wonder about the history which brought this architecture to this place – is it a sign of being near a once long contested border which encouraged residents to take their security into their own – and their builders – hands?

I have coffee in Rosueres-en-Santerre and on the quiet road toward Fouquescourt I spot a walled enclosure surrounded by dusty brown ploughed fields – a Commonwealth War Cemetery. It strikes me so. There it sits – an immaculate and consecrated plot of earth carved from the land, separated from fertile fields. There are dozens like them peppering this area – the bluntest reminders that this land was once utterly devastated and ran with youthful blood.

One of 25 or so war cemeteries between Amiens and Reims.

I pedal over, and as I approach, and the stones became clear – the sight of the Rising Sun of the Australian Imperial Forces logo brings tears to my eyes. I spend about an hour here, walking the whole small plot – Australians, Canadians, South Africans, Poms of all sorts. There are two Jews among them, a Canadian and an Englishman.

I sit and lunch with them. No cars pass. No farmers are seen in the fields. I imagine all these men, these boys – all standing before me, the man in place of his marker. Each is scrubbed clean, excited perhaps, or nervous, in their uniforms on the first day they wore them.

There is a 43-year-old Canadian private. 43.

I peruse the registry – and find two Australians whose addresses – or whose parents addresses are listed and which I might find when I get home. One is in Sydney, the other in Newcastle.

I spend 30 minutes or more in Lioncourt-Fosse looking for the right road out of town. The one I need crosses a major road and I just can’t find it – two roads feed into the major road and another dead-ends in a dirt track across a field.

But find it I do – patience, meticulousness, bullheadedness! Huzzah!

Soon after, at a crossroads a driver asked for directions – a woman in a hijab – I offer my map and she is grateful.

I hit a canal path in Catigny and see it will take me to Noyon. I had passed a free municipal camping area just before the canal. It’s nearly six but I press on.  I go the wrong way. For five kilometres. It’s disheartening. If I had more water with me I would wild camp. Maybe. I’m tired and ready to finish this day but, instead I turn around, pass the place where I joined the canal and press on towards Noyon. My shadow is growing very long and I’m riding through clouds of gnats.

I finally roll into Noyon after 7pm and, as hoped, it’s a good-sized town. Multicultural. A little gritty. Cobblestoned and with bunting of UK and US flags across their streets.

There is an ancient damaged-looking Cathedral and Le Cedre Hotel, where a nice receptionist finds me a room for EUR 62 and helps me store my bicycle and get my gear to my room.

My room has a bath.

The streets are dark but not empty when I set out to find food and, soon enough, I’m popping into the kebab shop. Kebabs are, to this journey, what bibimbap is to a journey through Korea – ubiquitous, inexpensive, variable in how, exactly, it’s served. Of course, bibimbap is, well, healthy.

A tv hung in a corner of the small shop shows the start of a France v Israel basketball game. I watch with limited interest and growing hunger as the Muslim man behind the counter prepares my dinner. The Israeli team doesn’t seem to feature many players of European descent – I wonder at their stories.

Back in my room I sit cross-legged on my firm, comfortable hotel bed and messily devour my kebab – which here, comes with chips piled on top. I check in with Google to learn something of Noyon – evidently Charlamagne was crowned here in 768, at the crumbling cathedral across the street. And John Calvin – as in Calvinism – was born here in 1509. Although he was Jehan Cauvin then, which became Jean Calvin, thus John.

With a full belly and in a room now smelling of onion and questionable lamb – I have a bath. A bath! I don’t know when last I filled a tub and surrendered my body to the warmth and lightness of a good bath. Those extra 10 kilometres are forgotten, the thirty-plus minutes looking for the right road, a distant memory.

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