Aftershocks of the Western Front reverberate through Australian families, generations on
The graves of Australian soldiers speak to the scale of the casualties on the Western Front in France. (ABC: Pam O’Brien)
I never knew my grandfather George. I met him only once, on his deathbed.
I was 12, standing next to my 10-year-old sister, looking at a thin, grey man too overcome by emotion to talk.
After my sister and I left the room, Dad said some kind words to the old man, even though George had been a cruel, neglectful father to him.
Dad could hardly bring himself to speak of George. As far as I know, we haven’t even kept any photos of him.
But Dad did tell me George had served with distinction in World War I, or the Great War as it was called at the time, and had been decorated for his bravery on the Western Front.
Although the war came to an end of sorts on November 11, 1918, its aftershocks continue to reverberate through Australian families, including mine.
Searching for George
After Dad died, I looked into George’s military records on the Australian War Memorial’s website and in the National Archives.
It turns out he hadn’t received medals for conspicuous gallantry or the like, only service medals, but he had risen from the ranks quickly in the course of the war, from private to first lieutenant.
Richard Fidler travelled to France on the trail of his grandfather’s service in World War I. (ABC: Pam O’Brien)
According to the records, George was 21 when he enlisted into the 39th Battalion in Victoria.
They sailed to England via Cape Town, and were deployed to the Western Front in late November, 1916.
George was with the 39th at Armentieres in France, and at the battle of Messines, in Belgium.
He was injured just once, with a damaged knee after a motorcycle accident.
George was repeatedly seconded from his battalion to a trench mortar battery unit.
He was with that unit when the war abruptly ended on November 11, 1918.
The unit’s war diaries record that he spent the final days of the war in a tiny village called Bellefontaine in northern France.
On the morning of November 11, they were told an armistice had been signed between the Allies and Germany; the fighting would cease that day at 11am.
Few had seen this coming; the Australians were unaware of Germany’s internal collapse.
I have no idea how George received the news.
He may have been looking forward to marching on Berlin, or perhaps he was exhausted and relieved to have survived.
Was it his exposure to the horror of that war that made him cruel? I don’t know.
I do know that his survival in that war is the precondition of my existence.
Back to the Western Front
I recently travelled to northern France to make a special radio and podcast series for Conversations called Armistice.
It is a three-part series that brings to life the stories of Australians who came to the Western Front, and connects them to the family folklore of their descendants.
We collected a treasure trove of stories from Australian and French people, who spoke so beautifully about their ancestors and their families.
To make the series we tracked down descendants of the men who were called to the far side of the world, to the worst place on Earth.
Making the Armistice series bought Richard Fidler back to the same places his grandfather served during World War I. (ABC: Pam O’Brien)
So many of them didn’t come back, and those who did were changed forever.
More than 60,000 Australians died in the First World War.
Another 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner.
For a nation of just five million people, this was a catastrophe that we commemorate every year on Remembrance Day.
However, most French people today are completely unaware that Australians came to aid them in World War I.
The battles took place a century ago, beyond living memory.
The French want to remember their own terrible losses at Verdun and elsewhere, and all too often the Australian forces are simply listed as one of many under the umbrella of the British Empire.
But in northern France, they do remember.
In the towns and villages that were rebuilt along the Western Front, the Australians are regarded today with an affection and respect that verges on reverence.
A school in Villers-Bretonneux, France paid for by donations from Victorian schoolchildren. (ABC: Pam O’Brien)
I wouldn’t have believed it until I saw it for myself, in towns like Pozieres and Villers-Bretonneaux, where the name on the front town hall is flanked by two kangaroos.
N’oubliez pas les Australiens — ‘Do not forget the Australians’ — is proclaimed on a banner inside the school at Villers-Bretonneaux, a building that was paid for by pennies collected by Victorian schoolchildren after the war.
On Anzac Day, people hang little Australian flags from their windows.
Anyone with an Australian accent is warmly welcomed in the cafes and bars, and it’s hard to pay for a beer.
The aftermath of Armistice
Armistice Day failed to bring a lasting peace.
The War to End All Wars paused to catch its breath before resuming with even greater ferocity 21 years later.
The outbreak of World War I had been greeted with cheerful enthusiasm, but our entry into World War II was a much more sombre business.
People knew the hideous truth of war by then.
Those who returned from the Western Front and Gallipoli may have said very little, but their injuries, both visible and invisible, spoke for them.
The people I interviewed in the making of Armistice often had to pause to compose themselves as they told their ancestor’s stories, and they were at a loss to explain how they could be so moved by the events of a century ago.
Life seemed sweeter once they knew how bad things could get in this world.
The other common reaction was a deep sense of gratitude that they live in a world which has not drawn them into the furnace of a world-wide war.
Not yet, anyway.
End of the road
Most war diary entries are dry and factual — today the men marched here and decamped there — but when I looked up the entry for Armistice Day for George’s unit, all I saw was a single sentence:
November 11: The news of the signing of the armistice was received by the men quietly but feelingly.
“Quietly but feelingly”. There seemed to be a great reservoir of sadness under that simple statement.
One hundred years later, I travelled out to that tiny village of Bellefontaine in northern France, where George’s war had ended.
At the intersection of two country roads there was a clutch of farmhouses, overshadowed by a church constructed from chalky white stone.
The church had been shuttered long ago.
Scratched into its walls were the names of impious passers-by from the 1750s to the present day:
Albert Bermier 1871
Jacques de Flory 1750.
I circumnavigated the church, examining the stone walls on the remote chance that my grandfather had inscribed his name too, but I found nothing.