Saturday, 25 April 2009

Over the top….and down under

Today's post is written by Dave Lovell, who Susan met through her work a few years ago. He is a volunteer in his spare time with The War Graves Photographic Project, which is aiming to photograph every Commonwealth war grave and memorial from World War I to the current day world wide, making the images available online, and complementing the work and records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. 25 April is ANZAC Day in Australia, a public holiday, when those killed in war are remembered. Villers-Bretonneux Commonwealth War Cemetery is the site of the Australian War Memorial in France. There is also a new website, Remembering Fromelles, for relatives of the British and Australian troops buried in some recently discovered burial pits. The aim is to exhume the bodies, identify as many as possible and create a new cemetery. Related articles can be found on This French Life.

‘The surprise attack was launched in moonlight at 10pm without preliminary bombardment; spearheading the operation were the 13th and 15th Australian Brigades, supported by the British 54th Brigade. In darkness and confusion Australian infantry, displaying dash and brutal aggression, broke the German lines and, by early morning 25th April, forced the enemy out of all but the south-eastern corner of Villers-Bretonneux.’
(© CWGC)

I got my call up on 16th April 2008. When I reached Villers-Bretonneux thankfully the Aussies I met were dashing and friendly.

From my grandfather’s collection
The Australian Memorial and Cemetery bears witness to the “dash and brutal aggression” the men of the Australian Brigade showed. These were men who clearly did not count the cost, even though the cost was heavy: 610 headstones and another 10861 names on the memorial bear testimony to that cost. The headstones give some measure of their bravery, recognised in 30 Military Medals alone.

The wind was cold, the skies were grey, the ground was wet but I was pleased to be there. It’s a relatively short drive from my home in the East of Paris and, as I throttled the hire car across the plains of Picardie, my thoughts turned to my Father and family members who had witnessed first-hand the horrors of war.

Mine however was to be a more pleasant experience but challenging in its own way. An email had come from the coordinator of the War Grave Photographic Project - could I meet an Australian film crew from the ‘Today’ TV programme and do an interview about TWGPP?

Saturday was an early start, well early for a weekend. As I travelled North my spirits went South, the skies dropped and soon the rain too. Visibility was about 500 metres on arrival, but the Brasserie in the village looked a likely point of retreat.

And then logic kicked in, the weather could get worse, 600 photos will take all day, and tomorrow might be ten times worse. So on with the boots, on with the cagoule, up with the umbrella. The afternoon quickly approached and passed equally quickly. Battery flattened I switched to my wife’s camera. Now all our memory cards were full and my joints were decidedly aching but the good news? Only twenty to go!

And then it struck me…no call from the Producer and it's 17.00 already. So a little dejectedly it’s back to Paris, meet my wife off Eurostar and dine at Chez Gudule. At 21.00 with joints feeling the benefit of lubrication from the odd beer and un verre du vin rouge or three, the phone rings - at last arrangements for the TV shoot are made.

The filming took an hour or so but it stayed on the cutting room floor! It stayed there because of course there were more moving stories to be told. Stories of men who gave their all - we will remember them!

If you’d like to help the War Grave Photographic Project visit

The photo for today's title piece was taken just after Christmas 2005 at the Villers-Bretonneux Commonwealth War Cemetery.


chm said...

Great post. It rings a special bell for me even though I'm not Australian. My father's family originates in Picardie, Péronne and vicinity. The British and Australian cemeteries were a common sight for me as a youngster when I was biking all over the place.

There is a museum in the chateau of Péronne: le Mémorial de la Grande Guerre I think it's called. There's no doubt mention there of Australian troops fighting in the region. I didn't have a chance to see it.

Have a great ANZAC day.

NickL said...

The War Graves Commission and the Photographic Project do fantastic work. The web sites are excellent sources of information and comfort for anyone seeking a lost relative or friend. It does us all good to remember those terrible times and hopfully avoid anyting like that again. Keep up the good work.

Susan said...

Nick: I agree. The websites are very well designed too. France is to be congratulated too, for hosting these places of rememberance.

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