My Sobering 200km Journey To See Where The ANZACs Fought And Fell
A five-day cycle along the Australian Remembrance Trail was an emotional and incredible journey for this history hobbyist.
The rain began to fall in western Flanders.
Two groundsmen, tending to restore the tiles at the base of the New Zealand Memorial at Buttes New British Cemetery, took cover next to its stone columns before passing the time away in dampened Flemish. They peered over to check in on a lonely visitor standing in solemn silence among rows of white headstones, eyes locked on the words of inscribed on one.
The rain kept falling, disturbing nothing but the leaves and the birds perched high in the treetops of the surrounding Polygon Wood. The traveller stood respectfully still, breathing heavily, emotion tickling his throat as he read then read again the engravings: AN AUSTRALIAN SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR. KNOWN UNTO GOD.
The etchings were perfectly set, between and under the Rising Sun and cross insignias. The same combination dominated the face of many other tablets which sprouted up from the Belgian soil.
These particular graves gave nothing away as to who lay there -- no name, no rank, no file -- just a simple ode to the fallen. There the traveller stood, too moved to move, as the meaning of those words seeped in like the water through the seams of his jacket.
His gaze, finally lifted from the wet Portland stone, took in the landscape surrounding this pocket of remembrance before taking a deep belated breath.
He, in fact, was I. And I was finally here.
I had yearned to see the battlefields of Belgium and France with my own eyes. I’d seen sketches of frontlines and tactics; black and white photographs of dishevelled soldiers and levelled villages; colourised and digitised images in documentaries, read the powerful words of Charles Bean. But, like any wonder of this world, another’s description, no matter how vivid or first-hand they may be, just isn’t the same.
Forget getting boozy on the seas of Croatia. Forget trying to outrun the bulls of Pamplona. As a hobbyist of history this was atop of my bucket list alongside a pilgrimage to Anzac Cove and a trek to Kokoda.
I bought a bike, packed my bags, boarded the train in London before disembarking in Belgium. Before me was a 200km five-day cycle along the Australian Remembrance Ride, the route of which, mapped out by Australia’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs, stretches from Ypres in south-west Belgium to Amiens in northern France.
Between the first and final kilometre of this sobering journey are countless memorials, museums, battle sites and cemeteries paying homage to Australia’s and New Zealand’s involvement in WWI. And not just the ANZACS. Down a dirt track on the outskirts of the Somme Valley, near the village of Achiet-le-Petit, I rode past a garden of iron crosses bearing names such as Fritz Bohme and Otto Heilemann. Even those who fell in the opposing trenches of the Great War had a place in the fields of France.
Physically, I pushed through, but nothing could have prepared me for how emotionally draining the cycle was. The rain on that first day, where I paid my respects to those who perished in the battlefields outside Ypres, set in for the next 48 hours and made cycling tough. In the context of it all, though, who was I to complain?
If it wasn’t for the rain I wouldn’t have experienced French hospitality at its finest, personified by Pierre in the sleepy village of Vimy. He fired up the heater for me to ensure I had dry clothes for the next day’s ride and offered some of his own bread and cheese after I rolled in well past closing time. The warmth of his living room and my full stomach on that long day in the saddle will never be forgotten.
Vimy Ridge, where a breath-taking monument stands honouring the four divisions of Canadian troops who bravely stormed and defeated a German stronghold in April 1917, marked the halfway point of my ride. I had crammed in so much to that point in time and, yet, still had so much to see.
After a full day’s ride around Ypres, taking in the battlefields and memorials of Zonnebeke, Passchendaele and Tyne Cot among others, and a moment of reflection during the Last Post Ceremony at Menin Gate, pedal power took me south to Hill 60, Prowse Point (near the site of the 1914 Christmas Truce), Toronto Avenue, Ploegsteert and across the border into France.
Soaked to the bone, I rested for the night in Sainghin-en-Weppes before setting off at dawn for the village of Fromelles to visit the Australian Memorial Park, no man’s land during Australia’s attack on the German-fortified township in 1916, and the neighbouring VC Corner cemetery where 410 unidentified soldiers now rest.
The sound of gunshots around the surrounding farmlands (farmers ridding their fields of hares) provided an eerie backdrop as I parked my bike and wandered between the two landmarks.
The battle, I already knew, was suicide for Allied forces.
Through mud and slush and decaying bodies, Australian and British soldiers were sent over the top straight into the path of German machine guns and certain death. Aimed to stop Germany from sending reinforcements to the Somme, the operation marked the bloodiest day in Australian military history and did nothing to stop the enemy fortifying its forces in the south.
I shook my head, wiped away a tear, clipped my helmet and pedalled for the next village, leaving behind two local kids who’d made for the field behind the Cobbers sculpture with their metal detector in search of bullets and shrapnel and whatever else remained from that needless bloody battle.
From Fromelles, I ticked off the kilometres through the wind and rain before rolling into Ablain-Saint-Nazaire to explore the Lens 14-18 War Museum and scale the ridge of which the largest French military cemetery, Necropole Nationale Notre Dame de Lorette, stands tall. A significant piece to this scared plateau is the L'Anneau de la mémoire (Ring of Remembrance) which lists the 576,606 soldiers from forty countries who died in the region during WW1.
What makes this particular monument so special is the names are listed alphabetically, free from rank or nationality or allegiance, the only one of its kind in the world.
Thankfully, the clouds cleared and the sun reappeared on the fourth day of my ride. After treading the safer grounds of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial (many of the wooded areas either side of the ridge is still lined with mines), I had the Somme Valley in my sights.
The Somme Valley boasts amazing countryside, filled with rolling farmlands and patches of woodland stretching as far as the eye can see. You soon snap back into reality though as you pass as many cemeteries as you do mounds of discarded parsnips. As you leave one cemetery, perfectly tended to by locals and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, you soon come across another with as many if not more headstones reminding you of the incredible loss endured by both sides of the fence.
I tipped my hat to the Digger at Bullecourt, a tribute to the thousands of Australian soldiers who died trying to penetrate German defences across two battles, before exploring the grounds around the enormous Thiepval Memorial where the names of 72,337 British servicemen who fell on the Somme battlefields and who have no known graves are listed. The sun was setting by this time and cast an almost heavenly light on the extraordinary structure.
Pozières was a significant checkpoint for me with so many Australians losing their lives in battles in and around this fabled village. You can see Mouquet Farm (or, as the Diggers called it, Moo Cow Farm) from the Windmill to the north-east of the town while the Pozières Memorial sits to the south-west.
I continued on, the route taking me across paddocks and flooded trails before leading me over the River Somme and up to the Australian Corps Memorial at Le Hamel, the sight of a decisive battle and breakthrough by Allied forces in the July of 1918 and to this day commemorates the 100,000 Australians who served in WW1.
Villers-Bretonneux was where this journey fittingly ended. The village, with a population of no more than 4,500 people, has a deep and profound respect for the Australians who fought in the battles in and around the township.
Subsequently, any Australian who visits is welcomed with open arms as I was at Victoria School, where students play in a courtyard adorned by the words “DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA” in huge block letters and at the Australian National Memorial and adjoining Sir John Monash Centre, the main memorial dedicated to Australians who fought and died in WW1.