Alex, Belle and Allie stand in a field of wheat on the battlefield of Bullecourt. Soldiers on the Western Front likened their attacks on fortified trenches to wheat being cut down. Opposite page: ANU students visit the Australian National Memorial and Sir John Monash Interpretive Centre at Villers-Bretonneux.
Travel journal - lessons from the front
ANU history students journeyed through the battlefields of World War I to better understand how they inform the Australian identity. Alessandra Kelly writes.
Journeys take many forms. In the winter break 28 ANU students embarked on a 16-day study tour of London, Gallipoli and the Western Front. We examined memorials, interrogated museums, and walked the battlefields that consumed a generation. This was a journey across a vast physical and emotional terrain. And while this was a study tour many of us in the group also saw it as a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a spiritual quest to form physical contact with a ‘sacred’ site. Australians embarked on such journeys even before the war ended and a century later pilgrimages continue for many reasons. Then, as today, travellers encounter complex and contested landscapes.
Arriving at Gallipoli, I was overcome by a mixture of feelings. The mountain range of dusty, yellow clay covered in lush, green shrubbery of various sorts, was not only surprisingly beautiful but had an uncanny resemblance to the Australian bush landscape. A place where so many Australians were buried distant from friends and family seemed strangely like home. But I also learned that Gallipoli entombed the bodies of French, British and Indian troops. It was never the Anzacs' war alone.
And it was a war that devastated the Ottoman Empire. I felt a deep sympathy for the Turkish people and what they lost in the campaign of 1915, their pain and their trauma. Turkish cemeteries are cenotaphs of endless names, there is no separate commemoration for the dead and the missing, with so many bodies never being recovered. The nearby town’s memorials to their loss in the First World War reminded me what the war meant for the country the Allies invaded.
Gallipoli alone meant the loss of 80,000 Turkish soldiers and the civilian casualties from that conflict can never be counted. I was surprised how uneasy I felt as an Australian, though visiting a location destined for Australian pilgrimage. I felt a moral guilt and pain for all involved in the Gallipoli campaign from both the allies and the Turks and a desire to understand more about our relations in the post war period.
The Western Front segment of this pilgrimage I felt much more at peace, perhaps because so many of the effects of war were hidden. As our coach drove us through the countryside of Belgium and into France, the farmland stretched out in all directions, making it impossible to imagine what this landscape would have looked like during the Great War and for those who undertook their pilgrimage in the period immediately after. Nature had covered a once battered landscape with green, imposing some form of visual order. Even so, monuments and cemeteries scattered throughout the landscape are eloquent reminders of the fierce fighting that took place there. The scars of war can still be seen in bomb craters and trench lines.
Within the towns however, the war is not too far distant from memory, especially for Australians. Tiny villages tailor to the high proportion of Australian travellers (naming the local pub at Bullecourt ‘Le Canberra’), and Australia exerts a presence in many monuments and museums. We retraced what has been called a ‘remembrance trail’ across the Western Front, and saw how commemoration often exaggerated Australia’s part in the war effort. The display and even re-enactment of war itself prompted lively debate within our group. Many of us wondered how war could be truthfully represented.
I joined this study tour to find out more about the Great War, a historical narrative heavily embedded in Australia’s national identity. But my journey sparked more questions than I ever imagined possible. We encountered complex moral and political issues at every site we visited. Months on, I am still not sure what to think. The battle sites were not how I expected them to be, nor did I necessarily feel emotional at the moments I thought I would. But ultimately, the tour gave me a deeper understanding of what Anzac and commemoration means and how influential context is to our understanding of heritage. I would like, on behalf of everyone on the trip to thank Bruce Scates for taking us on this opportunity to have a hands-on exploration of the Anzac landscape.