As the week began, parents, students and staff filled up the IGS Little Free Library with children’s books about Australians at war. Primary School students explored historical stories about the ANZACs in class and Year 6 finalised plans for next week’s site study of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
On Monday we held a solemn ANZAC Day assembly for the High School.
At the assembly, Indigenous scholars and students from Year 3 to 6 shared the remarkable story of their great great grandfather, Trooper William Wallace Chatfield who served as a member of the Australian Light Horse Regiment in the First World War. What a special moment it was to see these students translate their research into such an accomplished shared presentation about the war-time contribution of Aboriginal men. We were all so inspired by the confidence, courage and grit of these students. Imagine! Their first task of the term was to deliver a speech to over 600 High School students and teachers. And they carried it off beautifully. Impressive stuff!
I decided to set the scene by telling a personal story. It was the story of my journey to the Menin Gate to locate the name of my great great uncle James Cousins, who was killed in action in Belgium in 1916.
This is what I said:
It was 1915 and young men from all over Australia left towns and cities for the promise of a brief but grand adventure. The soldiers envisioned a glorious war, riding on horseback across open fields, much like the cavalry wars of the 19th century. This was after all The Great War, The War to End all Wars. Young soldiers in Germany were told by their Kaiser: “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” Instead, soldiers on all sides confronted the horrors of trench warfare, extraordinary horrors never seen before.
26 April 1915: The day after the disastrous landing on ANZAC cove and the sun rose on a scene of horror. The losses were staggering. In the nine months of the Gallipoli campaign 8,709 Australians lost their lives. 86,692 Turkish soldiers died.
The stories of the hellish conditions at Gallipoli are well known, as are those on the western front, that meandering line of trenches that stretched from the Belgian coast, across France to the Swiss border.
It’s the notion of remembering, of commemorating the young men who never returned, that I want to focus on today.
I was fortunate to have my great grandmother in my life until I was ten. Her name was Eliza Cousins. We called her Granny Lil. I remember how she would mention the War in passing, and when she did, a sad faraway look would come over her eyes.
I always wondered why.
What I didn’t know was that her brother James had been killed in action in Flanders Fields just a year after joining up in 1916. James left behind his wife Elizabeth and their baby girl Beatrice. He died on 29 September 1917, killed instantly by shellfire at the third battle of Ypres.
Today James Cousins is one of 6,178 fallen Australian soldiers commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial in the town of Ypres in Belgium. His body remains undiscovered in the Belgian countryside.
On stumbling upon James’s story I decided to take that sad pilgrimage through the north-west of France and up into Belgium. I wanted somehow to get closer to James and to my great grandmother. Having taught World War One to Year 12 Modern History students for many years, I also wanted to go deeper, to discover more about this terrible war and its impact on my family.
Autumn in the north of France is utterly beautiful. Ancient villages dot the pastoral landscape which is flat as far as the eye can see. The stillness of the place is haunting. In the silence, with the gentle breeze blowing, a hundred years melt away, and you conjure in your mind’s eye soldiers marching across the fields.
Driving north I was reminded of the paintings of Arthur Streeton, one of our best loved landscape painters who was also appointed as an official war artist in the last year of the war. His paintings of the battlefields capture a peaceful rural landscape with artillery barrages set in the far distance.
Today, the battlefields of France and Belgium are landscapes of rare beauty, aesthetic inspiration and loss. The war cemeteries that sit gracefully along the landscape are pristinely maintained and cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Stepping out of the car and wandering through the cemeteries I was struck by neat row upon row of familiar Australian names beneath simple white crosses – respect for those young Australian men who never came home and who lie in these hallowed grounds.
No wonder people believed that the bright red poppies that grew in their thousands in these battle-scarred fields during and after the war were the earth’s expression of grief, holding as they did, the bodies of so many young soldiers.
The delicate and resilient red poppy remains a symbol of remembrance to this day.
As I crossed the border into Belgium, with the long road before me cutting through the fields, I thought of John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields. McCrae was a Canadian doctor who wrote the poem after losing a dear friend at Ypres in 1915:
In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders’ fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ Fields.
I reached the Menin Road where my great great uncle James Cousins had died a hundred years earlier. I stopped the car, stepped out and looked at the flat farmlands all around. I contemplated the loss to his family and to my great grandmother who, like so many who were left behind, were never able to utter a word about their loss.
I got back in the car and drove on to my final destination, the Menin Gate.
This magnificent memorial arch, a hall of memory and memorial to the missing, graces the entry to the town of Ypres (Ieper) – a beautiful medieval town where time really does seem to have stood still. As I took this photograph (below) and looked at the Gothic architecture of the town, I was aware that the vista before me would also have been gazed upon by James Cousins and by all of the soldiers who marched from the town out to the battlefields.
An inscription on the Menin Gate written by poet Rudyard Kipling reads:
Here are recorded names
Of officers and men who fell
In Ypres Salient, but to whom
The fortune of war denied
The known and honoured burial
Given to their comrades in death
Ninety thousand soldiers remain missing in this part of Belgium alone. Some lie in nameless graves, while the remains of others like my uncle James have never been found. The Menin Gate at Ypres records the names of 54,389 of the missing in Belgium. The names of missing Australians are also engraved there.
Ypres is a special place. Every night at 8pm The Last Post is played under the memorial’s great arch. The citizens of Ypres wanted to express their gratitude towards those who had given their lives for Belgium’s freedom. And so every night, come rain, hail, snow or shine, in front of large crowds or in front of nobody at all, buglers close the road which passes under the memorial and play The Last Post. This has happened each night since 1927 when the memorial was opened, with the exception of the days during the Second World War when the town was occupied by German forces.
I found James Cousins’ name and put a poppy there, along with all the others who had made the solemn pilgrimage that I had made.
I felt sorrow, deep sorrow.
But somehow his name carved in the stone, his commemoration a hundred years on meant something to me; something weighty and significant. Deprived of a burial, a family and a life beyond the young age of 27, it seemed only right that James Cousins’ loss should be marked in a restrained and respectful way near where he fell.
I left Belgium glad that I had visited The Menin Gate, and glad that I had found James Cousins’ name there.
ANZAC day is such a sad day on our national calendar. As a nation we have suffered terrible losses across all theatres of war at which Australians have fought and continue to fight to this day.
Such losses have touched a number of our families here at IGS deeply and personally, and for those of you who have been touched directly by war I pay to you my deepest respects.
The war memorials of the First World War, both here and abroad, are charged with a certain poignant energy. They are a testament to the power of humanity and the importance of memory in the wake of a truly dark hour of history. They symbolise a human desire for respect, for beauty, for reflection and peace.
Here at IGS, ANZAC Day is about taking time to stop and commemorate sad stories of loss, to learn more about our history, to contemplate individual courage against adversity, to meditate upon the heartbreak of war, to think of others, and finally to play our part, no matter how small, to develop a much-needed vision of peace for us all.