France – 2016
They arrived early in the morning. It was cold and still dark. If there had been a sunrise, it was merely a changing of the light from the heavy blackness of night to a paler, but more depressing, mantle of greyness and foreboding. As they alighted from the hire car, the gates into the cemetery at Flers seemed strangely welcoming, almost as if they were reaching out in greeting and encouraging them to move closer, to walk through the arch, to enter a place of rest and peace.
George hesitated, then called to the others. “This is definitely it. Even with all the maps being in French, I am sure it is the place we are looking for. Come on, it’s so cold and there are some men over there working. They might be able to help us”.
The gardeners were trimming a hedge and carefully collecting the cuttings as if any forgotten twig or leaf would scar the perfection of the memorial. Behind the hedge were hundreds of headstones, as far as the eye could see, and another team of gardeners were reverently grooming the lawns that stretched out between the rows of silent white markers. They had no brush cutters, no mowers, no leaf blowers, it was as if noise or mechanical activity would disturb the sleep of those who lay there in their earthen beds.
Again George assumed responsibility for their small party and after conversing hesitantly in broken French with the gardeners, he returned to his family and quietly acknowledged, “Yes this is where he is, but we need to go deeper into the cemetery and look for Australian graves. The identified casualties had their names inscribed on their headstones when they were re-buried here, sometime after they were killed. There will be a lot without names, just a date. Let’s start looking”.
France – 1916
The desperate cold of a harsh winter in the trenches must have broken the spirit of many a soldier on either side. Who was the enemy didn’t matter as men tried to stay warm, tried to understand why they were there, tried to steel themselves for the inevitable shelling that had become as much a part of their daily routine, as the sun rising and setting. Men scurried in slow motion through open passageways like the real, ever present rats that shared their accommodation. Men blocked their ears and minds against the incessant thudding of artillery, men breathed with difficulty in the cold, but breathed so quietly they could hear their own blood pulsing through terrified veins. This was life in the trenches of Flers, and if you were from a sunny land far away, this was hell on earth, and duty had long lost its motivation and been replaced by a desire to survive and find that sun again.
“Hey Mack, got a light? Going to snow again today, I reckon. Bit cold last night, even the rats needed blankets.” The young soldier tried to laugh. He liked the sound of his own voice, it reminded him he was still alive. “Hope the ice has started to melt, we need some water to boil the billy”.
In that early hour after dawn, men stirred on both sides, you could hear them talking across no-man’s land as they prepared for another day. Who would die today, whose turn was it? Heaven was waiting, not hell, as dying was escaping from this worldly hell. As the pallid sunlight added brushstrokes of grey to the scarred landscape, figures emerged from the trenches and went to shell holes to fill buckets with water. Overnight rain, frozen and now thawing, gave them a chance to replenish supplies, while there was a lull in the fighting and the guns were silent.
The first shell of the day was always the one that came silently, the one that was the precursor to another day of slaughter, the one that jerked you from hope and hurled you into despair. The first shell was always a killer, and on that November day, it took the life of Mack, Private 4524 AIF, as he knelt down to fill his pannikin, 20 yards from the trench where his mates chatted and waited. Just another shell, just another day, a mere punctuation mark in the record of the Battle of the Somme. Another shell that didn’t leave much to be retrieved from the mud, only a wasted life, bundled up, tagged and put aside for placing back in the mud, tearlessly, at a later time, when the guns fell quiet again.
Australia – 2016
“Come on, quickly, we need to hurry. What if we don’t make the connection? What if we can’t get through”?
The small group were huddled around an old wooden post in the village park, the village of Hall, not far from the city centre of Canberra. The afternoon sun was sinking fast and leaves on the trees sighed as the heat of the day dissipated and the promise of a cool evening drifted through like a welcome breath. On the post, a brass plaque proudly recalled a life given in service, so many years before on the other side of the world. A life lost in the mud and the cold, a life that didn’t see the sun again, one hundred years previously near the French village of Flers.
“It’s working, I can see George. Look, they’re all there. And those headstones in the background, there must be hundreds. Look, they’re pointing the camera at Mack’s grave. That’s where he is”.
“Good morning to you George, it looks cold over there. It’s been hot here today, but at least it’s cooling down and the sun’s setting. Technology sure is amazing, who would have thought we could do this? It’s like holding hands right across the world. What a way to remember Mack.”
They shall grow not old
As we that are left, grow old
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them.
Malcolm McIntosh Southwell
15 June 1888 (Sutton) – 15 November 1916 (Flers)