Reflections on ANZAC Day at the Western Front

by Rod Cassidy (2PIR Moem Barracks, Wewak, 1970-1971)

It was cold up there. The Waterloo Battlefield stretched out before me away to the west. Half way up the climb to the top of the Lion Monument, I was overtaken by fifteen or so primary school students on a day excursion. They climbed on quickly leaving me to reflect on avoiding my personal Waterloo with a heart attack. I caught my breath and continued on.

Cassidy 1

Ironically, I reflected that here in 1815 the French under Napoleon were the enemy and the Germans and English were allies. In just nine more years, in a land far away, Oxley would sail up the Brisbane River, land not far from where I live, and proclaim the spot a good place for a settlement. Time passes. The battlefield below was to see another invading force in 1914 and then again in 1940 – hard to imagine when one sees the battle field today in all of its beauty and tranquility on the eve of ANZAC Day.

Cassidy 2

My wife and I head north on the A25 passing through Lille (Fromelle), Armentieres and on to Dunkirk, pretty much following the old front line from WW1 along the French-Belgian Border. This is a two hour drive today, yet this small pretty, rural part of France has cost so many lives in War. I wanted to see the evacuation beaches which were to become a significant part of the history of World War 2. It is hard to visualize what it must have been like with over 300,000 men evacuated here under continual strafing and shelling. It was the end of an era and the end of the French Army who fought bravely here before their surrender. Today, the beach boasts boulevard cafes along the sea wall, with a small street market.

Cassidy 3

We drive down to Abbeville in the south for an overnight stop. Then on the 25th, a short drive east to Albert and Pozieres and the Somme Valley Battlefields. I deliberately avoid the Villiers-Bretonneau Memorial because it will have over 20,000 visitors and access is restricted for vehicles. Besides, for me the sad history of the Pozieres area sums up perfectly the meaning of ANZAC Day. The Somme River and its valley stretch all the way down through Abbeville to the sea. The high ground slope rises away from the river to a ridge that cuts across the landscape from Albert to Bapaume, and Pozieres village is midway and at the highest point. This was the front line in August 1916.

Cassidy 4

Approaching from Albert, the first glimpse of the village is the Memorial to the 1st Australian Division, a tall obelisk format set into a small garden. Opposite stands a small platform that overlooks the battlefield. To the rear of the Memorial stands the Pozieres Church. Immediately behind it and towards the main road are the remains of the old German Bunker “Gibraltar”.

Cassidy 5

Moving up the main street and through the village one passes the turn-off road to Mouquet Farm and the Theipval Memorial. On further, you reach the site of the old windmill. Known as Hill 160, it is the highest point on the Somme Battlefield and offers a commanding view away and downhill to the Mouquet Farm. Close by on the road is a signpost that indicates the line of The Front in September 1916. Incidentally, my hire car is German and there were the few odd looks when I would pull up at one of the Memorials. In hindsight I should have taken an Aussie Flag with me.

Cassidy 6

Whilst at the Windmill location, if you look to the West North West you can make out Mouquet Farm. Over 24,000 Australian soldiers died here in the assault on the farm and the attempt to take the ridge where I stand, between July and September 1916. When I was a high school Principal, a typical student assembly was of 1500 students. To imagine 24,000 men is difficult to comprehend and what is more – the small scale of the area where all of this took place is just unbelievable – no more than a square kilometre.

Cassidy 7

From Pozieres we drive south to Albert and St Quentin where the 2nd Division Memorial stands. It is an hour’s drive away (about 45 kilometers), but in reality two years passed by from the 1916 Pozieres assault and the battle for St Quentin in August 1918. One can only imagine what it must have been like for those few men who survived the entire campaign and came back to Australia at the end of the War.

When you look at the faces of the men in the photographs that are a part of each of the Memorials, one sees the typical laconic Australian digger, enjoying a break, a chat, a smoke and telling the odd joke. It is that Australian sense of humor and optimism that informs the character of the Aussie soldier then and now. The key concepts are mateship and loyalty – no matter what Corp you belong to – first to those closest to you in your section, then platoon and then on all the way up to their Division.

Cassidy 8

We head off to the south now – on a three hour drive to Reims, Epernay and the Champagne District … and that is another story.

Footnote:

The Black and White photos were taken at each of the Memorial Sites and form part of the Australian War Memorial Narrative for each site.

I dedicate this article to the memory of Pte. John Cassidy (my grand uncle) who was killed in action at Pozieres on the 10th August 1916 at a point 500 yards north of Pozieres village on the Bapaume Road.

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