Blog: In the footsteps of Australia’s soldiers
Posted on 01/24/19 6:22 PM
In the centre of the beeping, chaotic swirl of traffic around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris sat seven patient Australian veterans.
Waiting for the Eternal Flame ceremony to begin to honour the unnamed soldiers who died in the fields of war that they survived.
The veterans, all in their nineties, were in Paris to take part in the seventieth commemorations of the D-Day invasion – the beginning of the end of War World II when the allied forces staged the biggest sea landing the world has ever seen.
Snow Davis was one of the pilots who provided air support on that momentous day on June 6, 1944.
“One of things that I’ve been concerned about for many years is how much the French people must have suffered whilst the conflict took place,” he said.
“Because when we left after eight weeks, there were very few residences still standing and we just did not know where the people had gone to.
“I’m hoping to perhaps meet some of them or their descendants.”
Two days later, Snow and five other veterans would be awarded France’s highest award, the Legion of Honour.
The seventh member of their group had already received it.
I, and the rest of the prime minister’s media pack, caught up with the veterans the following day in Bayeux to mark that day, 70 years ago, when allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in a terrible show of force.
The Bayeux cathedral looked unreal. A fine painting come to life against a brilliant blue sky.
A beautiful setting that so often in the region of Normandy and the neighbouring Somme belied the brutality and horror that had befallen this country.
Inside the cathedral, the British remembered their fallen with Australia’s prime minister – one of many special guests.
A few hours later at a ceremony at the war cemetery attended by Queen Elizabeth the Second, a Lancaster bomber and several smaller World War II planes roared overhead.
They seemed to shake the ground and filled our heads with their thunderous roar. When we could speak, we commented on the awesome sight and then remembered their original purpose and how terrifying the sound and their spectacle would have been.
The next stop was the international ceremony at Sword Beach in Ouistreham where veterans waited in the hot sun for world leaders to arrive.
Many of the assembled media, and international officials, remarked that the ceremony’s focus was perhaps a little skewed and the day was supposed to be about the veterans, not leaders and their mammoth motorcades.
We were in the media centre next door, which provided a very French lunch of ham, hard and soft cheeses, bread, sliced mystery sausages and even oysters. And wine.
An amusing affair for a bunch of Aussie journalists who quickly filled plate after plate of free food.
At the main event, US president Barack Obama received a decidedly warmer welcome from the crowds than Russian president Vladimir Putin.
A two-shot of the world leaders on the big screen, each with wry smiles, provoked laughter from the crowd.
The next day, we were up early again travelling in a bus with the prime minister’s motorcade to the old Western Front in the Somme to remember the fallen from World War I.
Something Tony Abbott wants more Australians to do.
He wants Australia’s focus on the “glorious defeat” of Gallipoli to broaden to include the “devastating victory” along the Western Front when we remember the ANZAC legend.
We visited Victoria school in Villers-Bretonneux, which was built with Australian donations.
It carries signs for the children to “Never Forget Australia” because on April 24, 1918, our nation lost 2400 men reclaiming the town and region shortly after the Germans had taken it.
Tens of thousands of Australians would die on the western front.
After our prime minister had given his speech, two people broke out in a rendition of Waltzing Matilda, which sounded suspiciously like “walking” Matilda at one point, but it was still warmly received.
Perhaps a little better than Tony Abbott’s broken French of “Premiere Australie, c’est moi” which left many school children looking at their parents with raised eyebrows.
During our tours of Normandy and the Somme region, one of the things we often spoke about when we stopped at magnificent monuments to fallen soldiers and pristine cemeteries was the beauty of this field of war.
Of course parts of it looked different during the conflict with fields torn up by bombs, marching troops and tanks, but there would have been pockets of woods much like the ones we drove past and walked beside.
The sun was shining, the birds happily singing, but our imaginations took us back decades ago to imagine that serenity pierced by the crack of rifles, roars of planes, and screams of men.
As I looked at the grass, meadow flowers and leafy trees, I pictured splattered blood contrasting against the green vegetation and fallen soldiers never to rise again.