The Somme, 2001 - A Reflection by Perry Yeldham

This Anzac Day, we pause to remember the tremendous sacrifice of the brave men and women from yesteryear. Here, Perry Yeldham, son of national treasure and For Pity Sake author Peter Yeldham, reflects on visiting Somme in 2001 with his father and family. The rain was bucketing down, a gift from the North Atlantic and the product of heavily laden dark clouds that had followed us all the way from Paris and now stretched for miles in every direction over the pancake flat terrain of Picardie.

The road was treacherous, as the driver of the truck ahead had discovered. Like a slow-motion train wreck, we watched as its wheels sank into the mud and it slowly toppled over.  It now lay on its side slowly sinking into the deep chocolate furrows of the ploughed field alongside.

Turnips and onions were scattered everywhere.  The small irrigation ditches had long since been overrun. The driver and his assistant were exchanging Gallic pleasantries, the fields were flooded and an old lady appeared out of the rain and busied herself scooping up onions into a hessian bag. More shouting, but nobody cared. There was no help coming. We went the long way around to our B and B, Les Alouettes at Hardecourt au Bois.

It was April and The Somme region, known for its heavy falls and flat, low-lying terrain, had lived up to its reputation.

We thought it poignant that for our purposes, Mother Nature would have created a similar landscape to that confronting the soldiers in what the French referred to as La Grande Guerre. 

What was missing, of course, was the full horror of war: the hopelessness, the blood, the stench of death, the screams of the wounded and the mind-numbing terror of being caught up in endless battles where lives were little more than an numerical entry in the chief-of-staff's  notebook.

Our party of eight was in two vehicles and we were here following in the footsteps of a previous patriarch of the family, Lance Corporal  Ainslie Neville McDonald, as he lived through the horror of World War I.

Unlike Lance Corporal McDonald, we travelled in comfort. We slept in comfort. We ate fabulous food and drank superb French wine. But on some subliminal level, we all felt slightly guilty that our lives were so hedonistic in stark contrast to the Australian Diggers whose legend had lured us here.

Lance Corporal McDonald had kept a diary and it was this fragile remnant of his life that had brought us halfway across the world to northern France. The party largely comprised descendants of McDonald, one of whom is my wife, Mary Anne Yeldham (nee McDonald) and my parents, one of whom is the historical novelist, Peter Yeldham.

We called ourselves ‘Dad's Army’ and cut a swathe through the countryside of Picardie. Locals would remember us for our pathetic attempts to speak French and even worse command of the local geography. But we armed our vehicles with little Australian flags and these worked a charm with the locals. The French in this region, particularly the older people, bear an enduring fondness towards Australians which is not feigned, but heart-warmingly genuine. On one occasion, an elderly man drove after our convey tooting and gesticulating. My wife, Mary Anne, returned the favour with some well-known Aussie gestures. I thought he was upset because we had nearly caused an accident at the previous traffic lights. In fact, he knew where we wanted to go and wanted to tell us that we were headed in totally the wrong direction. He was really nice.

There were so many other instances of French kindness to travelling Australians. We were touched. There was little evidence of this warmth being extended to English tourists but then a thousand years of conflict, rivalry and warfare, isn’t that easy to overlook.

On tour we were divided into two camps: Teetotallers and heavy drinkers; religious, a little agnostic and those steeped in atheism … and that was before we got into politics.

However, despite having divergent views on just about everything, we all got on really well, possibly brought together by a common view regarding the conduct of La Grande Guerre and the protagonists’ military strategy, or lack of it.

I think it was the insanity of the tactics that formed the kernel of an idea that became my father’s novel, Barbed Wire and Roses. That and the whispered voices of the dead from the diary of Ainslie Neville McDonald, letters home from so many others, and our discoveries as we made our way through Picardie.

20160405 Peter Yeldham - Barbed Wire and Roses Cover onlyLike so many other callow Aussies, Lance Corporal McDonald (he preferred his second name of Neville) had answered the call for volunteers to help defend the empire against the Hun, to do their duty, or to have an adventure of a lifetime, depending on the recruiters sales' pitch. It would all be over by Christmas, they cajoled, without specifying which Christmas it must be said.

Neville was a Methodist lay preacher: a man steeped in his love of the church and his faith in the Almighty. So, it was sobering to read his diary entry, written after an excursion into no man's land went wrong, where he questioned his faith and expressed doubt in God's plan.

There were other entries too, detailing battles and skirmishes at places like The Windmill, Mouquet Farm,  Fromelles and Pozieres.

Neville, a skilled horseman, volunteered for the cavalry. But of course he, like all the other Aussie adventurers, ended up listed with the infantry as the troop ships headed for the Dardenelles. It's a well-recorded irony that the Aussies celebrated their escape from Anzac Cove and welcomed their posting to northern France.

Our latter day Dad’s Army pilgrimage to the war zone included trips to battlefields and remnants of trenches and the inevitable visits to the immaculately maintained Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries in our area. There are more than 250 such cemeteries in this historic war zone, some huge like Thiepval and Tyne Cot and smaller ones with just a few graves, but all are emotionally shattering in the quiet message conveyed by the inscriptions on the bleached headstones. The German graveyards are, if anything, even more depressing.

Equally sobering were the visits to museums at Peronne, Ypres, Albert, Villers-Bretonneux and the very realistic recreation of trench life at Tommy's Cafe near Pozieres.

At Ypres, we were treated to a wall-sized painting of a war scene, flames and smoke billowing around civilians who were staring at their bombed township. Printed across the foreground was a quote from a British cavalry officer that declared: "I adore war. It's just like a picnic, without the objectlessness of a picnic." That one had my father scrambing for his notebook.

At all of these museums the weapons of war were displayed. From heavy mortars to sabre-like bayonets and clubs or maces, often with nail-studded which carried the description: Mace, for mopping up in the trenches.”

These also had my father making more notes, along with the exhibits detailing the effects of shell-shock on the troops. Shell-shock was a new phenomenon. Never before had humans been subjected to such a brutal and unceasing barrage of bombing. This was not death delivered by an adversary on the battle field, this was a living torture, designed to break men, to devastate their mind and render them shattered. It broke many stout-hearted soldiers’ minds and broke the hearts of their compassionate comrades who had to watch as the descended into “madness”.

Less sympathetic were the generals and officers in command of the conduct of the war. So many of these poor soldiers ended up facing a firing squad at first light, condemned to die a coward’s death, delivered by their friends, for the crime of having a mental illness.

It was this facet of the war in the trenches, above all others, that gave the novel Barbed Wire and Roses its own final push.

We were at the Menin Gate, in Ypres, when the town stopped. It does this every night at 8pm. Police halt the traffic and people gather to hear the town band play the Last Post. Then Laurence Binyon's Ode of Remembrance is read. There's a minute's silence, then Reveille is played. The adage ‘Lest we forget’ never conveyed more meaning.

My father, whose birthday ironically, is on April 25, worries that Anzac Day celebrations tend to glorify war and camouflage the harsh and cruel reality of war. It's an opinion shared by many, particularly when politicians get involved.

I tend to disagree. I think the Anzac Day celebrations honour the fallen and the millions of men and women caught up in what they thought was the war to end all wars.

Our own brief deployment to the European World War One battlefields made a lasting impression, not just on our Dad's Army group, but on all who were paying their own respects.

When you met fellow visitors at a war memorial or cemetery, you might exchange a look, an acknowledgement or just a nod.  Sometimes that's all you need.

This photo was taken in the playground of the Villers-Bretonneus Primary School. Peter is on the far right. Perry, his son and author of this blog, is on the far left.