Two years ago, I undertook a pilgrimage to the Somme with my Kiwi fiancé and our baby son. I’m not a religious person and I don’t bandy about the term ‘pilgrimage’. But as the great granddaughter of a Somme veteran and the fiancée of a former New Zealand army officer, there was indeed something of the spiritual in our passage around those beautiful green fields of France.
In May 1916, Sergeant Norman Duncan, a woolclasser from Melbourne, embarked for the second time for the Great War. He’d been wounded at Gallipoli and – after some time back in Australia recuperating – he was shipped off to the Western Front.
We retraced his steps to the little town of Morlancourt on the 96th anniversary of the Battle of First Morlancourt, in which he had fought. I think he would have been pleased to know that we were there to honour his memory.
We paid our respects at the former grave of New Zealand’s Unknown Warrior, who was exhumed from Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in 2004 and returned to Wellington, where he was reinterred at the National War Memorial.
We visited all those other places too, the names of which have become so familiar to Australians, New Zealanders, Britons and people of other allied nations: Pozières, Villers-Bretonneux, Thiepval, Bullecourt, Le Quesnoy, Le Hamel. And came to the shocking realisation that these blood-soaked battle grounds were all within spitting distance of each other. The hundreds of thousands of men who fell during those torrid five months of the first Somme offensive fought over a tiny patch of ground. The evidence of this was in the awful profusion of cemeteries. Three in one tiny village of a few hundred people. Thousands of headstones in each. This is a part of the world where there are many more dead than living.
But there were uplifting moments in our journey too. It was lovely to visit the school in Villers-Bretonneux, rebuilt from donations by the schoolchildren of Victoria, with its sign ‘Never Forget Australia’.
And of course we visited All Blacks Square in Le Quesnoy. As we lingered outside the town’s ramparts that had been scaled by Lieutenant Averill and others of the New Zealand Division to liberate the town in 1918, we contemplated the inscription on that famous wall which said, ‘from the uttermost ends of the Earth’. And we reflected on the bravery of those soldiers, airmen, naval crews and nurses who left their homes and loved ones in New Zealand and Australia to serve in a far-flung conflict, so distant from anything they had ever known.
Perhaps this is why the ANZAC spirit means so much to Australians and New Zealanders, and the bonds created in the Great War have been enduring. There is something so incredibly powerful in the symbolism of two young countries, fighting together at the uttermost end of the earth, that will always capture our imaginations and bind us together.
As we commemorate the Battle of the Somme, one hundred years on, we will remember them.
Alison Duncan is the Australian High Commission’s Economic Counsellor in New Zealand