ANZAC Day on the Battlefields in France 2011

Written by Mark Banning on 4th May 2011 at 05:48pm

ANZAC Day on the Battlefields in France 2011

A moving tale of personal discovery on Back-Roads Anzac Day Tour 2011 as Andie discovers the burial site of her great uncle on the Western Front.

ANZAC Day 2011

Now a firmly fixed part of the commemorative calendar, the ANZAC Day Dawn Service Ceremony at Villers-Bretonneux in the Somme region of France was attended by 32 Backroads guests, being accompanied by specialist battlefield guides Jeff Cormack and Mark Banning in two separate groups.

For my group, I thought the Dawn Service, taking place at the beginning of the final day was likely to be the ultimate highlight, but as the day unfolded, there were further surprises in store for us all.

Backroads takes pride in that fact that as a specialist in small group travel we have the ability to bring a greater flexibility to our tours than is sometimes on offer elsewhere, and this story is offers a fine and moving example of this.

After returning to our hotel for a much needed warming breakfast, we said our goodbyes and headed off for a final morning of reflection and remembrance on the nearby battlefield sites close to Amiens. One of the members of my group asked if she could borrow one of my reference books to look at whilst we travelled the few miles to Le Hamel, the scene of Monash’s great set piece battle on 4th July 1918. We had only gone a few miles when all of a sudden, in an understandably excited voice, Andie said, ‘Oh, here’s my great uncle who won the Victoria Cross, he’s buried at Heath Cemetery. Is that nearby?’

To be honest, even if it wasn’t nearby, I’d have done my best to get there, but as it was, our route took us straight past the cemetery, so after recalling many Australians who fought and fell at Le Hamel, we made our way to the cemetery, one of many which stand in the fields of the Somme region.

Towards the rear of the cemetery was the headstone of her great uncle, Lieutenant Alfred Gaby VC, who was recommended for the award after ‘persuading’ many German soldiers to surrender by running along the top of their trench, firing at them with his revolver. Sadly, in a repeat of the action a few days later, he was killed by a German sniper.

ANZAC Grave at Heath Cemetery Andie generously allowed the entire group to accompany her to the grave, which had recently been visited by another branch of the family from Western Australia, who had left a tribute and flag at the group. Andie told us what she knew of her great uncle, most of which she had heard from her mother, who had already been called earlier in the morning to tell her the exciting family news.

On more than one occasion, it has been my privilege and honour to accompany family members to the grave of a long departed loved one, but to have a relative who was recognised for his bravery is just a little more special. Andie kindly allowed me to write this record of a special visit, but, once the group had all dispersed elsewhere, I noticed that she rightly had a few quiet moments on her own, at the grave of one of over 60,000 young Australians killed in the First World War.