Armistice Day in the Somme, 11/11/2006
By Adam Gibson ©
A fidgety choir of local kids, led by a woman who appears to be their school teacher, are gathered on a stage in the packed town hall of the tiny French town of Villers-Bretonneux. A 20-piece band, plus seemingly the entire town, are in panned out in front of them.
After running through various numbers, including an eight-minute mournful solo turn by the teacher herself (who looks like a cross between Patsy Biscoe, Shane Gould and Karen Carpenter) on guitar and vocals, a bagpipe player announces his arrival by tripping through a side door, whacking the top of his bagpipes on the doorframe and then nearly falling over, all while peeling off a succession of notes that I'd be kind to label a "tune".
Welcome to an Armistice Day commemoration in the heart of the Somme region, north of Paris; a home-spun event that would later provide me with one of the most profound experiences of my life.
Looking for a meaningful way to celebrate November 11, the date World War I officially ended, I have gone to the Somme in the hope of finding some semblance of occasion to mark the end of hostilities which decimated the area from 1916 to 1918. And I have chosen Villers-Bretonneux as my first stop because I know it's a town with a strong connection to Australia after the Aussie troops recaptured the town from the Germans in 1918, thus turning the tide of the German advance on Amiens and towards Paris.
I'd heard that the main street is called Rue de Melbourne, that the town symbol is a green and gold kangaroo and that the local school is called Victoria School, with "N'oubliez pas les Australiennes" ("Never forget the Australians") written above the blackboards in the classrooms. All up, it seems a pretty good place for this little Aussie to be on such a day.
With the crowd appropriately stilled, and our man on the bagpipes still doggedly ploughing on, a local dignitary ascends the stage and launches into a passionate distillation of what the day means to the town.
My rough translation is that "La Premiere Guerre Mondial" (French for the First World War) had a big impact on the town and is something that, 90 years on from the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, should be appropriately recognised. He makes specific mention of "les Australiennes" and talks of how they took the town with great bravery.
On such an occasion as this, therefore, one would expect at least a few other Australians to be present. This was an Australian victory against many odds and is an event that I at least had been aware of for several years. But no, there are apparently no other Aussies here: I am Australia's sole representative…
It's not that I am hoping for a repetition of what I feel is the jingoistic circus that Anzac Day at Gallipoli has become (another notch on the backpacker belt … run with the bulls in Pamplona, hit Oktoberfest in Munich, do The Church in London, grow a goatee and get your belly-button pierced), but some modest representation, I thought, would have been present. But, nope, not a cracker today.
Australians do of course regularly visit the town. There's a small but wonderful museum housed in the attic of the school with much of the history of battle for the town and the general Australian involvement on the Western Front documented.
With a theatrically Gallic shrug of the shoulders and a thoughtful rub of his beard, President of the Franco-Australian Association of Villers-Bretonneux, Jean-Pierre Thierry, tells me increasing numbers of Australians are coming to the town, visiting the museum and seeing the place where the Australian legacy is so great.
"We mostly get two types of people," Jean-Pierre tells me. "The first are people making a pilgrimage because a member of their family was involved in the war. They have come to honour someone who was lost in the battle or who fought, a grandfather or something. The others are school groups … many many school groups are coming through now and it is brilliant."
Most visitors also take in the giant, windswept monument to the Australian forces about two kilometres out of town. When I later visit there I find it a stark and spooky place. Entirely alone, I walk up a 500 metre hill bordered on two sides by row after row of white gravestones, many of them simply marked "A soldier of the Great War, known unto God", while others have heartbreaking detail such as "Here lies Private P. Smith, 23, only son of Mr and Mrs J. Smith, Sydney".
The dignitary gent finally finishes up his speech and signs off by announcing two triumphant words: "Waltzing Matilda". And before you can say "who is strangling that cat", the bagpipe player launches into an interpretation of the national Australian song which, let's face it, should be the national anthem, regardless of its actual words.
To his credit, the bagpipe player doesn't let talent, nor any lack thereof, stop him being a focal point of the town's big day. Mais non, monsieur. On he plays till the (bitter) end.
And just as I and everyone else are about to clap him for effort, at the very least, suddenly the band sparks to life and begin their own version of the song. This is a version of several movements, it seems. You can't get too much of a good thing, I say, but you also apparently can't get too much of 'Waltzing Matilda' today.
Bracing myself for more aural torture, I am therefore pleasantly surprised when the band bounces back from their own dodgy start, the two little blokes on the trumpet and clarinet busting out of the blocks two bars too early, and all actually coalescing into a cohesive and hearty whole.
But as the first verse looms I am prepared for anything as the choir, who have hitherto shown more interest in pinching and tickling each other, are readied for their role. I watch as the music teacher begins rushing around like a head mechanic getting set for a Formula One car to arrive in the pits during a race. She is waving her finger, shooshing a couple of skylarkers and checking that the one and only microphone is switched on. Anything might happen here, I think, and this might be worth the price of the free admission.
Australia provided the greatest military contributions of all the British dominions which sent forces to the Great War. There were 331,000 Australian volunteers (out of a population of 4,875,00) with 16,000 killed and a further 42,500 wounded.
Think about those figures for a minute. And most of them were men aged between 17 and 35. Truly a whole generation lost, and I wonder about the actual impact of that on day-to-day life in Australia after the war. It's a story I for one haven't really heard told.
I have these figures, plus images from the museum of smiling diggers in the trenches, durries hanging from the corners of their creased mouths, in my mind as I warily listen to the band and choir prepare to bring 'Waltzing Matilda' to lift-off.
But I needn't have worried. I shouldn't have doubted the kids of this little town with their ill-matched clothes and gawky pale faces. I even shouldn't have doubted the little chap in the choir's front row who decided it would be a good day to bust out his camouflage army pants.
Nope, with a frantic wave of the teacher's hand, the kids eagerly lean into the iconic Aussie tune with full confidence and the result is absolutely note perfect. They are a group of little angels, singing as one. They are clearly enjoying themselves as the crowd tap their feet and mouth their own version of the words.
And here I am, the only Aussie in a tiny hall on the other side of the world and these kids are singing a song every Australian knows. I'm the last person on earth to believe in glib nationalism, but I feel a wave of tingles wash over me, my eyes beginning to water and I feel more affected than an almost any other time of in my life. I'm both proud and excited and it's a moment, obviously, I won't easily forget.
The bagpipe player, however, might not last as long in memory.