A memory of Armistice Day, 2007

By Adam Gibson

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November 11, 2007

A fidgety choir of local kids, led by a woman who appears to be their school teacher, is gathered on a stage in the packed town hall of the tiny northern French town of Villers-Bretonneux. A 20-piece band and seemingly the entire town are fanned out in front of them.

After running through various numbers, a bagpipe player announces his arrival by tripping through a side door, whacking the top of his bagpipes on the doorframe and then nearly falling over, all while peeling off a succession of notes that I’d be kind to label a “tune”.

Welcome to an Armistice Day commemoration in the heart of the Somme region, north of Paris; a home-spun event that would later provide me with one of the most profound experiences of my life…

Looking for a meaningful way to celebrate November 11, the date World War I officially ended, I have gone to the Somme in the hope of finding some semblance of occasion to mark the end of hostilities which decimated the area from 1916 to 1918. And I have chosen Villers-Bretonneux as my first stop because I know it’s a town with a strong connection to Australia after the Aussie troops recaptured it from the Germans in 1918, thus turning the tide of the German advance on Amiens and towards Paris.

I’d heard that the main street was called Rue de Melbourne, that the town symbol was a green and gold kangaroo and that the local school was called Victoria School, with “N’oubliez pas les Australiennes” (“Never forget the Australians”) written above the blackboards in the classrooms. All up, it seemed a pretty good place for this Aussie to be on such a day.

With the crowd appropriately stilled, and our man on the bagpipes doggedly ploughing on, a local dignitary ascends the stage and launches into a passionate distillation of what the day means to the town.

My rough translation is that “La Premiere Guerre Mondial” (French for the First World War) had a big impact on the town and is something that, 90 years on from the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, should be appropriately recognised. He makes specific mention of “les Australiennes” and talks of how they took the town with great bravery.

On such an occasion as this, therefore, one would expect at least a few other Australians to be present. But no, there are apparently no other Aussies here: I am Australia’s sole representative…

Later, with a theatrically Gallic shrug of the shoulders and a thoughtful rub of his beard, President of the Franco-Australian Association of Villers-Bretonneux, Jean-Pierre Thierry, tells me increasing numbers of Australians are coming to the town, visiting the wonderful local museum and seeing the place where the Australian legacy is so great.

Back at the ceremony, the dignitary gent finally finishes up his speech and signs off by announcing two triumphant words: “Waltzing Matilda“. And before you can say “who’s strangling that cat”, the bagpipe player launches into an interpretation of the tune.

To his credit, he doesn’t let talent, nor any lack thereof, stop him being a focal point of the town’s big day. Mais non, monsieur. On he plays till the (bitter) end.

And just as I and everyone else are about to clap him for effort, at the very least, suddenly the band sparks to life and begin their own version of the song. Bracing myself for more aural torture, I am therefore pleasantly surprised when the band bounces back from their own dodgy start and actually coalesce into a cohesive whole.

But as the first verse looms I am prepared for anything as the choir, who have hitherto shown more interest in pinching and tickling each other, are readied for their role. I watch as the music teacher begins rushing around like a head mechanic getting set for a Formula One car to arrive in the pits during a race. This could be interesting…

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Australia provided the greatest military contributions of all the British dominions which sent forces to the Great War. There were 331,000 Australian volunteers (out of a population of 4,875,000) with 16,000 killed and a further 42,500 wounded.

I have these figures, plus images from the museum of smiling diggers in the trenches, durries hanging from the corners of their creased mouths, in my mind as I warily listen to the band and choir prepare to bring ‘Waltzing Matilda’ to lift-off.

But I needn’t have worried. I shouldn’t have doubted the kids of this little town with their ill-matched clothes and pale faces. I even shouldn’t have doubted the little chap in the choir’s front row who decided it would be a good day to bust out his camouflage army pants.

Nope, with a frantic wave of the teacher’s hand, the kids eagerly lean into the iconic Aussie tune with full confidence and the result is absolutely note perfect.

And here I am, the only Aussie in a tiny hall on the other side of the world and these kids are singing a song every Australian knows. I’m both proud and excited and it’s a moment, obviously, I won’t easily forget.

The bagpipe player, however, might not last as long in memory.

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