A panorama of Gallipoli shot in the water at Ari Burnu where elements of the covering force first stepped ashore at 4.30am on 25th April 1915. Anzac Cove is to the right, Suvla to the left and the first objective, Plugges Plateau straight ahead and up.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Lest We Forget

High Wood Cemetery-The Somme

In Flanders fields the poppies blow. Between the crosses row on row.

When the Canadian Poet, physician, author, artist and soldier John Alexander McCrae penned the achingly-beautiful opening to 'In Flanders Fields', the images he conjures were not drawn from the harsh northern winter. The gentle words spark your instincts to visit the graves; quiet green cemeteries dotted amongst the fields, their harvest long at peace.

Across this most costly of ground there is barely a point at which you can’t see another field of buried battalions, the white stone sentinels standing to attention these are the marked, both known and unknown graves. Here and there McCrae’s red poppies dot the landscape, a colour echo of the blood spilt here almost a century ago. Many thousands still lie undiscovered in the brown fields that separate the cemeteries.

AIF Cemetery-The Somme
In contrast a winter visit is a monochrome experience. You can read many accounts of life in the mud but until you step into a saturated Somme field, the laden mud shining like grease, you can’t appreciate the frustration of movement it causes.

As it sucks at your shoes you stagger like a drunk in a continual fight to stay upright. You will lose the fight, sudden and hard falls are frequent, limb flailing and camera smashing, falls that knock the air from your chest. I got a small glimpse into the grinding hardships that would have been life in the trenches during the Somme winter; it was thank god only a peek.

This mud will only reluctantly release its grim bounty, at this time of year the softer earth gives up what the locals call “The Iron Harvest”. A sometimes deadly crop of unexploded ordnance lies on the side of the roads and fields heaped up like the beet harvest awaiting collection. This deadly legacy still kills people, even the most experienced. Two members of the Département du Déminage who’s job is the delicate removal and defusing of unexploded ordnance lost their lives in 2007 when a German 155mm shell exploded while they were moving it to a safer place.
The Iron Harvest-an unexploded 18 pounder on the edge of a field near Flers
Sometimes also at this time of year, ploughing and farm work reaps a much sadder harvest, the bodies of soldiers missing in action.

In January this year while undertaking research for a book author and journalist Paul Daley and I stumbled on to such a find. During excavations for a new water pipe outside of the village of Poziers a local battlefield guide we had met found the remains of a soldier. The excavation trench was being dug about 500 meters from Mouquet Farm, scene of fierce fighting involving Australian units in 1916.
Fresh earthworks revealed the remains of a WWI soldier near Mouquet Farm-The Somme
Our guide was not surprised by this, he told us in broken English that “many” are found every year, little wonder when you read accounts of the time.

The biographer of the 15th Battalion AIF Lieutenant Thomas Chataway recorded the horrors as the battalion moved into the line in front of what the Australians had nicknamed “Moo Cow Farm”.
Mouquet Farm was without a doubt the filthiest spot the Battalion ever entered during its service in France. The large number of unburied dead lying about in the mud, their bodies swollen to outrageous proportions, emitted a stench equalled only on Gallipoli. In front of B company headquarters where Captain Snartt resided the air was so foul that all visitors to HQ quickly lit cigarettes or pipes and blew clouds of smoke through their nostrils in an endeavour to kill the odour. In front of C and A company trenches dead men stood erect, waist deep in the mud which had set around their bodies, just as if they were advancing towards the enemy lines. Trenches and saps and the sunken road near the farm were almost entirely built of the German dead, and the continuous shelling of the position stirred up the buried bodies, hurling them in the air and spraying limbs over the living within the trench system. So nauseating was the whole position that strong men were freely sick and non-smokers chain smoked with a rapidity that burnt their mouths and noses.
The remains of a WWI Soldier with Mouquet Farm in the background
Little wonder then fresh earthworks are still turning up lost soldiers. The remains we witnessed being exhumed were subsequently identified as an Australian.

We struggled with our lack of French in understanding the haste of the exhumation but it seems that after consultation with the Mayor of Poziers and the local Gendarmes it was decided to remove the body in case the contractors just reburied the remains. Their efforts to contact the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had also proved fruitless, as it was a weekend.

Our guide told us that it was quite common for farmers and contractors to ignore finds as the red tape involved once authorities were notified halted work and cost money. Others we asked reluctantly backed this claim.

Just how many bodies are “ignored” each year would be impossible to calculate.

Recently discovered grave Trones Wood-The Somme

As the centenary of the Great War approaches it is surely time to try and remedy this. Should the Australian Government offer some form of compensation to farmers and contractors? Some form of incentive would be the least we owe our lost soldiers? Closer ties with the farmers in Australian battle areas would surely not be beyond our means. My thinking seemed clear and reasonable while I was still amongst those that will grow not old, the reality will no doubt be more complicated.

The dark and brooding cemeteries seem a little sadder; I read the cenotaph “Their Name Liveth for Evermore”.  Yes they should.

If Binyon's ode “Lest we Forget, We will remember them” means anything we should act.
Trones Wood-The Somme