24.04.2008 - 27.04.2008
I was damn tired after little sleep on the flight back over but with the nerves and emotions pumping me up I was ready and raring to get there.
I was doing a tour with The Fanatics tour group and met up at the Eurostar rail station in plenty of time then we wer on our way to Lille, France where our accommodation was to be for the trip. The group was to number 30 but were heading over on 2 different trains and we were a part of the first group of 15. A very wide mix of people that would soon form into a very good group that we were share this experience with.
Once there with room sorted we all headed off to get some food into the bellies and as people splintered off here and there 6 of us ended up deciding on a Thai restaurant where naturally no english was spoken. So it was fun times down in what wouldh've been an old wine cellar working out the french/thai menus and ordering what in the end was a pretty good meal. The company was also tops and would become the basis of a group within the group for the remainder of the trip. There was me, Branko, Ash, Lauren, Sue and Samantha.
Dinner over and off to a bar called 'The Australian Bar' which was duely decked out with crocodiles above the bar etc so sucked down a tinny of new to feel at home and it was off to bed to get the 2 hours sleep before time to get on the bus.
In a daze I get up at the 1.30am call of my alarm clock and slowly wander around getting myself ready. Down to the bus plonking myself down with Sarah (our cool young tour guide) a little on the panicky side with not everyone on the bus, the tour guide hasn't arrived and the young blokes that came with the second train just kicking on from the pub after they arrived in France was all a bit of a shambles...
Branko and I were laughing at this being a SNAFU moment and masking the fact pretty early that this could all go pretty pear shaped pretty quickly...then finally all on board and it was a while before managed to locate the tour guide but eventually got moving well and proper...as 4am was approaching the apprehension was starting to rise in my with having no idea where we were with still not much traffic indicating we were in the right path...but a light was shining in the distance and started seeing policeman so the breaths began coming much easier as the realisation hit that we had found the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial and had made it in plenty of time...
It's pretty hard to put the following 2-3 hours of the wait then the actual service into words...it was just awe inspiring to be a part of such a large and respectfull crowd, and to think of what had happened on that very soil on which we were standing 90 years earlier...it was a deeply moving and humbling experience to say the least and while my emotions stayed under the surface for most of the service, as soon as the French and Australian national anthems were played, there was no holding back the tears...what made it even more poignant for me was the people right beside us who sang both anthems word for word...
After the service was over I ran into Dave and Laine who had made it over for the service so it was good to see familiar smiling faces and catch up aswell...then we had a bit of time to look around the monument and cemetry. Once again very humbling to know that there are the names of 10,770 Australian serviceman on this monument who lost their lives in the battlefields of the Somme.
The next 2 days of visiting memorials, cemetry's, small museums, still intact trenches was a surreal experience of mind boggling proportions. While I thought I knew a bit about world wars and the casualty rates and the like before I went, actually being there and seing cemetry's with grave after grave around just about every corner we turned was something that I still found pretty hard to comprehend.
Here are some of the places and people that made the trip so memorable:
- Le Tommy lunch stop and museum - we stopped off at this little cafe for some much need food and this place was amazing...photos of the war covered the walls and there were stories of individuals with that of Hines being truly memorable.
- Thiepval Memorial - A massive memorial with the names of 72,000 fallen solidiers on it. The museum also showed footage of the era which once again was jaw dropping.
- In true Aussie spirit on the Anzac Day evening we commandered a corner of the Australian Bar and got a game of two-up going. Highlight was Branko getting fleeced by someone who gave him an aussie dollar instead of a euro for his winnings...and didn't we all know about it the next day!
- The Brooding Soldier - memorial to the first gas attack.
- Hill 60 - was a hill that changed hands 6 times throughout the war. While there a local Belgium man (who was a friend of our tour guide) started telling us some first hand stories of his house that we could see from the hill being blown away during WW2 and some other eye openning account from when he was a boy.
- Hill 62 trenches - trenches still intact from WW1 and a museum of unbelievable photos and weapons surviving from the period.
- Tyne Cot cemetry - the largest Commonwealth cemetry in the world on the Passchendaele battlefields site. Consisting of 12,000 graves of which more than 8,000 are unidentified.
- Dinner before the last post at Menin Gate - we got talking to a Vietnam veteran who was in the full WW1 uniform who had attended one of the services to honour his grandfather where they rode to the service on horseback.
- The 'Last Post' at Menin Gate - A truly fitting way to end the weekend where they still play the last post every day.
On the Sunday we had a wonderful day in just perfect weather of just meandering around the city of Lille before heading back to London via the Eurostar.
After one last drink at the champagne bar at the train station it was time to say farewell to my newfound friends that had shared such an amazing experience with me over the previous few days.
I gained so much more than I could ever have expected from the trip and it was an experience that will be etched in my mind forever!!!!!!