I knew it would rain.
Whenever I thought ahead to the Anzac ceremony at Villers Bretonneux, I only ever saw us sitting in pouring rain.
And so it was.
It only seemed fitting that we be reminded – if only fleetingly – what that winter of 1918 may have been like, that bloodiest of battles fought in mud, rain and freezing temperatures.
When we leave our farmhouse accommodation at 2.00am to make the fifteen minute journey into town to catch a shuttle, the air is cool, crisp and dry.
Standing in line, the mood is solemn, each person processing the experience, and probably for many, thinking about their own family members impacted.
Vans shuttle Australian, New Zealanders and the French by the dozens. We pile into the back of one van, with Graeme, Tess and Rob having to crouch over the back seat.
I manage to sit in a tight ball in the corner on the floor.
Adele sings about lost love on the radio as I catch a glimpse of the memorial in the distance – a blaze of lights in the dark on the hill, like a beacon drawing 6,000 to its gates. It is, oddly, the only time I will fight tears for the morning.
Walking into the memorial, the hundreds of grave sites are adorned with Australian flags and softly lit.
Around 4.00am, the rain starts. Lightly at first, escalating to a steady downpour within the hour, and plunging the temperature with it.
Everywhere you look, people sit or stand in white plastic ponchos – except for the speakers, band members and service personnel.
A woman sitting behind two servicemen in uniform tells me later that they sat soaking wet and physically shaking with cold.
The rain means, however, that the enormity of the ceremony is somewhat lost. Rather than intently listening to what is being said and absorbing the occasion in such a magnificent arena, we’re all sadly focussed on our own discomfort. Most of us sit hunched over, protecting ourselves from the onslaught of the weather, and not completing engaging in the moment.
Even so, it still feels right. Like miserable is exactly how we should be feeling.
The images of fallen soldiers projected onto the memorial tower are stunning. I wonder how old each was, had they ever known what it was like to be in love, kissed even? Did they have a wife and children at home? Were they consistently afraid? Did they know moments of joy during their time in France? What hopes did they have for the future?
And finally, the bugler plays ‘The Last Post’ from the tower. The crowd is even more silent, completely lost in thought, gratitude and remembrance.
The rain means that people don’t wait until all the wreaths have been laid to leave, or to stay behind to enjoy a coffee and croissant put on by the local French community, which is the usual practice.
As we exit the memorial, dozens of buses line the horizon, stretching for miles – a confirmation of the thousands who have come to pay their respects.
We decide to walk back into town. By now the rain has stopped, but its white ponchos along the path as far as the eye can see and one of my favourite images from the day.
The town is buzzing. People are beginning to gather for the next town ceremony and the local boulangerie has set up a make-shift tent outside its doors selling quiche and croissants. We buy a bag of goodies, make our way to the car and home. We’re all in bed within the hour of the ceremony finishing and sleep till 1.00pm.
Not only is it Anzac Day, but it is Bert’s birthday. This can only mean one thing; off to town to watch the AFL game at the local oval – Australia vs France. The game is organised by AFL Europe and held each year. The players for the Australian team all have a connection with someone who fought in either WW1 or WWII.
There’s a small but enthusiastic crowd lining the fence. In fact, it looks much like any other country footy oval, flanked by trees, and with tents selling merchandise, coffee and beers. It’s also the first year that France and Australia will each field an all-female team.
At the game’s conclusion, players from both teams stand in unison – arms around shoulders – listening to each captain speak. There’s a crowd of spectators on the field with them – me included – cheering and clearly pleased to be a part of something so special. The comradery and spirit is palpable.
When Auld Lang Syne – played with bag pipes – starts across the oval speakers, I do cry. For me, watching these young men with strong connections to past soldiers stand arm in arm and in deep reflection, embodied what the Anzac spirit is all about.
From here, it’s a few drinks at Le Melbourne hotel where Australians from all across our country gather and share stories from their visit to the region.
Our evening is spent back at the farmhouse, where Isabelle and Jean Claude, host a dinner every Anzac Day for their guests. There is a family of three staying from Bunbury in Western Australia, a couple from Darwin, another from Melbourne, Chris Dow, the head of AFL Europe, and us.
The boys cook the barbeque, bottles of French champagne are consumed and we sing Happy Birthday to Bert as a cake that Isabelle made is presented.
The night finishes with singing and dancing – the perfect end to a perfect day.
An Anzac Day we will never forget and will always be grateful for.
(And ironically, for the entire two weeks in Europe, the ONLY time it rained, was for the two hours during the ceremony).
To learn more about Villers Bretonneux and Australia’s role in the area, click here.
If you are interested in staying in the area, we highly recommend A la Ferme.