A Picture of Lily
We all long for an interesting family history, a few skeletons here and there. Russell is no different; he just has no direction in life, at least not until he discovers that his Great Great Uncle didn’t die at Gallipoli like the family had always told him. Russell discovers by chance that Private John Coleman, aged 45, died somewhere near Villers-Bretonneux in France. To honour him and to find some purpose in life Russell flies to France to spend ANZAC Day at the Dawn Service held for the first time in the Australian War Memorial near Villers-Bretonneux – almost 90 years to the day.
This is Russell’s first overseas trip, he is 40 years old, he speaks no other language than English and he is all alone. He finds his Uncle’s grave easily thanks to his fastidious computer skills, but there is something wrong with the inscription on the headstone… apparently John Coleman had a daughter, Lily… except that he never had children. Russell’s family confirms this fact and so he decides to stay in France for a while to delve further into the mystery. He would rather that the man buried in plot V A 30 at the Daours Communal Cemetery Extension not be his Uncle if it meant that another family found their lost loved one.
Russell sweats on the DNA results he orders only to find that the man in his Uncle’s grave is a Frenchman in an Aussie uniform; one Jacques Coisnan. His body is claimed by a local teacher, his Great Grand-daughter, who recently had her DNA sampled as part of a class experiment. Russell’s task in France is seemingly complete until he receives an invitation to visit one Lily Coisnan and they find that their families have left them hand written letters that are remarkably similar; in style and handwriting. They soon discover through letters from the ghosts of relatives past that their shared information about that lonely grave in a far off field in France affects both of their lives in ways they could never have imagined.
Who Are You
A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face:
His slipped shoulders slipped their load
But then they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness
They left this dead with the older dead
Stretched at the cross roads .
August 22nd, 1918 …
The two men danced their ungainly two-step across the wilds of no-mans land, joined at the hip by their precious cargo. Their cargo wasn’t precious to them, he wasn’t even a mate, but he was a fellow digger and that was enough for them to risk their lives for him. The Private on the stretcher groaned restrainedly, he wasn’t too badly shot up; it was only a bullet wound and a shattered femur. He could have crawled back to the trench, but he couldn’t walk and so these two Field Ambulance chaps had been good enough to halt the immense flow of blood from his upper leg that would have killed him eventually and they were now carrying him back in from no-mans land.
The ground here was rough, as rough as their recent digs and the injured Private knew this well enough. He had staggered over it an hour or so before as the barrage rolled overhead and attempted to clear the path of the Australian advance. Despite this, the bullets still whizzed through his company ripping into the surrounding vegetation, the odd corpse and the occasional moving target. He felt one rip through his sleeve just after they’d gone over the top. He thought it was his lucky day at that moment – that was until he had managed to work up a staggered jog and the second one cracked through his leg, taking it from under him. The injured Private hadn’t screamed out in pain, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself and become target practice. Besides, he was better off than the poor bastard who had fallen beside him… he had copped one just above the right eye.
The next wave of Australian Infantry fought their way through the scarred landscape soon after the Private crumpled to the ground as the rolling barrage flew overhead and disappeared further into the distant German lines. The face of one of these infantrymen leant over the injured Private briefly as he struggled through the ruined field. Noticing that the Private was still alive he stopped for a bit of a chin wag…
“Right, Mate? I reckon you’ll be off home with that one… cigarette?”
The Private nodded through gritted teeth and accepted the already lit cigarette that was poked between his lips gratefully. The infantryman moved on quickly and disappeared into the smoke of the battle as it drifted meaninglessly across no-mans land. The injured Private wondered if the brief visit had been a vision until he drew back on the cigarette and its flavour coursed down his parched throat. The injured Private coughed a little and rolled over slightly to face the dead man beside him…
“Smoke, Mate? Shame… it tastes better than the smoke drifting up there.”
It was some time after that before the two Field Ambulance Privates attended to the injured Private Williams and it wasn’t until the morphine kicked in that he actually took any notice of them. He watched the rear guard of the litter now as he stumbled manfully through no-mans land. It was a surprise at first to see the age on his face; was that the blasted War, was it the job that he had picking up men under fire from no-mans land or was he just that old? He must have been 40 if a day and the sweat dripped freely down the side of his face as he laboured with Private Williams. Although his sole goal, the injured Private wasn’t his main focus; the looming trench line was. Private Williams could see it in his eyes; home, relative safety, the saps beyond the line and the field hospital. What he wouldn’t give to meet a French nurse – what they all wouldn’t give!
The Field Ambulance Private spat at him involuntarily through gritted teeth as his cheeks reddened and then the back of his neck ripped open and splattered all over Private Williams disheveled body. The perfectly formed h-frame of the litter collapsed inwards onto Private Williams. Curses flowed freely from the Field Ambulance Private at the head of the litter as blood flowed freely from the Field Ambulance Private bringing up the rear. Private Williams felt nothing, he was already reasonably sedated, but he did feel the pain in the fallen man’s eyes… home suddenly seemed a long way away even though the safety of the trench was only a matter of inches away. Hands reached up and grabbed at the three men, dragging them into the trench system whilst bringing down some of its sand bag parapet in the process.
Private Williams was immediately fussed over by his fellow Diggers, but his focus was elsewhere. He knew he was going home, but what about this poor bugger… the man who had helped save him with his final breaths. He grabbed the other Field Ambulance Private by the arm as he worked on his mate’s horrifying wound…
“What’s his name, mate… what’s the name of the bloke who gave his life for me?”
“Coleman, Private John… and he’s not dead yet!”
Behind Blue Eyes
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget. 3.
January 25th, 2008…
Russell stared across the sink and into the mirror, splashed as it was with the water that had missed his face – he shouldn’t have had that Thai last night. He recognized the cheeky grin in the mirror that had allowed him to successfully manipulate many a conversation and he noted the crow’s feet that crept wearily from the corner of his eyes without pecking out the fires behind his blue eyes. Yes he was aging, but he wasn’t too bad for forty. He still had his hair in its natural un-Gretianed tones, he still had all his teeth and physically he didn’t sag too much even if he did have more of a pirate’s chest these days!
Russell stared back across the void of the mirror to those familiar blue eyes. They weren’t the piercing Paul Newman kind of blue; they were more of a sleepy blue-grey, slightly sad in shape with a hint of something else that no one person had ever quite put their finger on. Russell would like to think that the mystery behind them was all about the many adventures that they had witnessed, but the truth was they hadn’t seen much at all. Their look was more about the ‘what if’… the possibilities that lurked there, as yet unexplored.
The simple fact of the matter was that Russell had worked the same job for more than 20 years – methodically, tirelessly… the perfect example of a good public servant. Not that the company he worked for was government anymore. It was more of a pseudo private government telecommunications giant that concentrated its recruiting efforts on young guns for hire who bargained for flexible contracts while it pensioned off the aging public side of its operations.
Everybody here knew Russell, but nobody knew Russell. He was one of those guys with masses of sick leave owing who sat in that cubicle over there and just turned up every day. His career path was mapped out; early retirement in 15 to 20 years without stirring the pot and then much of the same. The only thing that annoyed him about his job was a cancellation on the early morning train that deprived him of flexi hours and extra days off. Russell contemplated the stationary cupboard briefly as he returned to his work station… did he have enough spare pens for next week? Probably… highlighters? Definitely… paperclips? Did those yesterday. Everything in order and as it should be. Today must be the monthly password changeover on his database account… but what could he use this time… he had been on the system so long that he had run out of numbers to rotate through… Friday01… Friday02… Friday03… Friday04…
“Russell… can I have a minute?”
George Panopoulos was Russell’s new superior, even though he was ten years younger… Russell had been passed over again. It wasn’t surprising though… Russell was reliable, but he was no go-getter. Work for him was a means to an end; he had better things to do with his life, he just hadn’t worked out what they were yet!
George ushered Russell to a seat. It was designed to be strategically lower than George’s, whose desk was high set and austerely decorated. There were no cords to his computer equipment, most of which was hidden discreetly below the bulk of his desk. There was a lone picture of his young and successful wife who dutifully attended all of George’s work functions immaculately made up and tizzed to the max. They were of a slightly younger generation than Russell – one he felt disconnected from. They were all work hard, play hard, bargain hard and spend-big-with-manageable-debt kind of people… Russell liked to pay cash.
George sat before Russell and leant back thoughtfully in his ergonomic chair. Russell had sat in this chair once when he had assisted George with setting up his computer. It amazed him how flexible the chair was, from the arm rests to the waist swivel. He was also astounded at how aerated it was… it wasn’t leather, but it breathed and every point of body contact was cushioned or pliable. George ran his palms back over his slightly receding cropped back hair and took a deep breath. He hated these one on one reviews, but his cut throat attitude towards them paid big and money was life… and living life to the max was everything.
“How long have you been here, Russell?”
“In this building… 15 years. I worked on the other side of the CBD for seven years before that.”
“Ever felt like a change? You know, most of your guys have moved out to Clayton on contracts.”
“Clayton’s an extra 18 kilometres across town for me – and back… we’ve been over this haven’t we George? I like what I do… I do it pretty well.”
“I could get ten other guys to do what you do, Russell. In fact, I have those ten guys and they all moved out to Clayton with National.”
“Ever considered taking a package, Russell?”
“No, I’m too young… I’ve got years ahead of me yet.”
“I think you should take a package, Russell…”
George reached down to his right and slid open one of the drawers hidden discreetly on his side of the desk. He pulled out a manila folder and placed it squarely on the desk. It was plain, but it looked quite ominous as it stared blankly up at Russell. It was barely larger than an A4 page, but flanked as it was only by the 5 x 4 of George’s wife, a wireless mouse and the thinnest of flat screens, it loomed uninvitingly as blank as it was… just as George’s desk did. George didn’t even have a name plaque on his desk – he rightly assumed that everyone knew who he was and why he was there.
George motioned to Russell to peruse it at his own leisure with a nod of his head and then his eyes dipped indiscreetly to his wrist watch before he leant back to palm the product carefully through his hair again. Russell was a little bemused. He hadn’t heard that they were offering another round of redundancy packages… not that he was the slightest bit interested. He opened the manila folder before him. It contained two documents; one stamped with the word OFFICIAL in red and one stamped with the word CONFIDENTIAL.
Russell scanned through the one stamped OFFICIAL first. It held no surprises; it placed a full stop firmly at the end of George’s last sentence… a package. It was generous in its terms and so it should be, Russell had been here for twenty-three years. The package gave him his long service, a bonus payout and all of his unused sick leave, but despite all of this it was no incentive. Russell was more curious about the second document that was marked CONFIDENTIAL. What was that all about? George sat patiently opposite him playing with his thumbs as Russell dragged the document closer with his index finger. It was an interesting read and well deserving of its big red CONFIDENTIAL stamp.
“This is bullshit, George… and you know it… and I know you’re trying to cover up a swifty! Why don’t you have the balls to bloody sack me and be done with it?”
“I don’t want to sack you, Russell.”
“So, just how many confidential copies of this have you got hidden away?”
“There’s only two… yours and mine.”
“And the two women?”
“If you accept the package they won’t need to be interviewed… officially.”
“Shouldn’t you add if you know what I mean?”
“You don’t need to be like that, Russ… do you deny you handled the young ladies in question?”
“I was helping them… up the… but then it doesn’t really matter what I say, does it? You just want me out of here. I would’ve thought it’d be cheaper to keep me around, but then all those other guys are on contract aren’t they? No Super, no sick leave, no overtime!”
“And they are a lot younger.”
Russell bowed his head and thought about the allegations contained in the second document. He knew they were bullshit, but he also knew that shit stuck when it was flung into a fan and if he lost this argument he was unlikely to get another job here or anywhere else… and he might lose all of his entitlements! He also knew that the spectre of these allegations would be just as detrimental to him even if he were to push the claim and have them disproved. Russell tried to remember the situations that led up to the two allegations and he realized that if they were being viewed in isolation and from a distance they didn’t look altogether flattering. He also realized that both instances could have been viewed from George’s chair. Was George that ruthless? Did he want to advance his own cause with that much on his conscience? Sure and why not… he didn’t have a conscience, Russell had always known that about him. It was the chief reason why he had been promoted above Russell in the first place.
“When would you want me to leave?”
“I could have the paperwork done by the close of play.”
Russell could just about picture it all now… twenty-three years of service bundled into a convenient pink slip that was probably already prepared and sitting between the folds of a manila folder in George’s desk.
“I’ll go and pack up my desk then.”
“Have you got any personal items in there, Russell?”
“Ah, no… corporate lunch day…”
“Right… well if you want to wait here I’ll go and get all the paperwork… organized…”
Russell lifted the hood of the bar-be-que and re-arranged the sausages before turning the lamb chops. Lamb on Australia Day… how ironic seeing as he was currently a lamb to the slaughter. The meat producers of Australia were attempting to corner the market on lamb for Australia Day and old Sam’s ads had certainly worked a treat on Russell’s mother. That’s how he found himself cooking in such an amusing way over a family bar-be-que on another typically hot Australia Day. He wasn’t sure whose idea it was that he wore an apron plastered with Australianisms such as G’day mate, bonza, ewe little bewdy and avagoodweegend. Russell took on the notion with good humour; after all he was the family joke – the resident comedian. The youngest of three he had been entertaining the family since he was a little tacker and after all these years he just couldn’t help himself.
He watched casually over the raised hood of the bar-be-que as the other family members arrived… his sister Ruth, her husband and their three kids, followed by his brother Colin, his wife and their three kids. It all seemed so familiar, so symmetrical from one generation to the next, but it hadn’t worked out that way for Russell. He still lived at home with mum and dad in the same room he had grown up in with his brother Colin.
“How’s the room going, Rusty?”
“Bed’s still warm whenever you need it, Col.”
“Still warming it from above, eh? I thought mum pulled down those old bunks years ago! How’s it goin’ anyway? Mum tells me you got the boot.”
“Yeah… twenty-three years… who’d’ve thought!”
“Mum tells me they gave you a pretty tough time of it.”
“I reckon Mum needs to keep things mum every now and again! Besides, how hard could it be? They just waved a big fat cheque in my face and asked me to leave.”
“So, single, out of work for fondling co-workers and still living at home… when are you going to grow up?”
“Love you too, Sis.”
“You OK, little brother? It was all just bullshit excuses, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, Sis… it’s still safe to have me around the kids. I have no intention of being the lecherous Uncle Ernie of the family.”
“What are you going to do now?”
Russell put his arm around Ruth, tongs and all. She had a bit of a tear in her eyes the mother that she was; always thinking about tomorrow and beyond while Russell piss farted around with his life getting nowhere. He would have liked to have comforted her a little more convincingly, but it had only been a day and as yet he didn’t know what he was going to do himself.
“I think I’ll take a couple of months off.”
“How can you take a couple of months off? Do you know how hard it is to get a job passed 40… do you?”
“Take it easy, Ruth... give him some time… he must have a bit put away… you have, haven’t you mate?”
“They gave me a years pay, plus I have a bit put away. What have I ever done, eh? I drive a second hand car, I don’t smoke or drink and every other cent I’ve ever earned I’ve invested. I’ll be alright Sis, I just need some time to think about things.”
Ruth wasn’t convinced. She didn’t begrudge him his life, but what life? Where was his purpose? He couldn’t be the family clown all his life, could he? He should be out looking for another job, tapping his way forward on the Internet right at this moment instead of serving them sausages in a ridiculous apron!
“Uncle Rusty, Uncle Rusty… play cricket Uncle Rusty!”
“Only if we can play with one of these home-made hamburgers… think we should give it a try?”
Russell didn’t wait for an answer… he scooped up a hamburger, flipped it up in the air and belted it for a six. The nephews had the impressed look on their faces as if to say, yep – that’ll do, but then it flew apart into a million pieces. Rex the Tibetan Spaniel was out from under the bar-be-que and onto it like a shot and Russell just shrugged his shoulders comically at the more than impressed children.
Russell saw out his duties as cook while his mum laid out bowls of fresh salad, potato salad and beetroot. He watched his dad serve beers to the adults and lemonade to the kids while the flies milled around under another hot dry Melbourne suburban summer’s day. This northern suburbs backyard was not quite the quarter acre block of yore; it was a tad smaller, yet still big enough to accommodate a game of backyard cricket for the grandchildren. They fought for possession of the ball with Rex while the Italian neighbours poked their heads over the wooden fence to discuss the drought and the state of the lawn. Theirs was all concrete and veggies, whereas Russell’s family home was more Anglo – typically couch grass and a Hill’s Hoist.
All in all it was a good Australia Day despite the disappointment of the day before. There was cricket in the backyard, cricket on TV, leftovers for dinner and Russell was eventually left alone to sort through some used video tapes. No one ever labelled the tapes and it was always left to Russell to discover the value of the programs that had been recorded. There wasn’t much to write home about as most of the tapes had been watched and not put away and Russell was just as guilty of this as his parents. It was surprising how old some of the tapes were and how much was on them, especially as Russell was under the impression that TV had been pretty ordinary of late.
“Anything worth watching, son?”
“Nothing we haven’t already watched.”
“What’s that one then… is that Dermie?”
“Yeah… it’s an entire tape full of Getaway episodes… from last year! You guys planning a trip somewhere?”
“Not unless your mother hasn’t told me something and I wouldn’t put that passed her! So where is he?”
“Somewhere in France… something about ANZAC Day and 90 years, but that can’t be right unless this tape is older than I thought it was, it’s 93 years this year, isn’t it?”
“Dunno, why don’t you rewind it and we’ll have a look, there’s nothing else on tonight… and to think I used to curse that bloody Daryl Somers… bring back Hey Hey or at least put on a decent movie.”
Russell and his dad sat back in the lounge room’s half leather recliners as his mother finished putting the dishes away in the next room. He rewound the Getaway travel show tape to the beginning of Dermott Brereton’s segment and surprisingly they both learnt something about Australian history. It was an oddly appropriate thing to do on Australia Day, just as enjoying a lamb chop bar-be-que had been. Russell and his dad learnt that somewhere in the north of France there had been a decisive battle on the 25th of April, the third anniversary of ANZAC Day, in 1918… that was 90 years ago in a few months. They learnt that more Aussie Diggers had died in France and Belgium, over 50,000, than at Gallipoli – the much vaunted Australian battlefield of World War I. They also learnt that there had never been an ANZAC Day service in France, but this year there was going to be one at the Australian War Memorial just outside of the small village of Villers-Bretonneux where the battle of April the 25th 1918 took place.
“Didn’t we have an uncle who died in World War I?”
“Yeah, the one you’re named after.”
“Right… and he was Russell who?”
“He was Private John Coleman!”
“Oh, as in Russell Coleman Dobbie!”
“There you go… good to see you’ve still got it, but he died at Gallipoli… you know!”
“Yeah, I know all about Gallipoli… brainwashed since school days and now we’ve got the ANZAC Day game between the Pies and the Bombers. You know, that’s what I should do with my time off, dad.”
“Go to Gallipoli on ANZAC Day and find the uncle’s grave.”
“You and 10,000 others.”
“I’m serious, dad.”
“When were you ever serious, Rusty… and when did you ever do anything except go to work?”
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again. 4.
Russell let the tape run, but he stewed over his father’s reaction to him going to Gallipoli… when had he done anything! Russell stood up and skulked off to his room. He slammed the door behind him. He wasn’t sure why, but he soon found himself sitting in front of his computer. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for as he began surfing the Net. Flights came to mind and passports and inoculations, so he began looking for flights. Emirates would get him to Istanbul and back for a couple of grand and most of the tours that discovered Turkey filled in the other details for him. Like the fact that there was a six hour bus ride to Gallipoli and that you had to sleep overnight at ANZAC Cove in a sleeping bag with 10,000 others if you wanted to attend the Dawn Service… and that it was usually bitterly cold!
Russell tossed off the trepidation as he narrowed his search to Australian soldiers and World War I and in doing so he found another interesting link… a government web site dealing with Australian soldier’s war records. Now that was a spark, what if… Russell found his way to
this was the National Archives of Australia website and he found it far more interesting than he could ever have imagined. This site led him to another link – Australian Soldier’s Service Records! Some bright spark had cottoned onto the idea of electronically scanning every written document concerning each individual soldier ever involved in a conflict overseas. Every war record for every soldier… and that should include one John Coleman!
Russell let his mouse do the walking for a while. He clicked on the link to WWI and followed the information on this page down to the First Australian Imperial Forces personnel dossiers (the World War I service records) and its link –
This website had a search engine for those who were short on actual details, so he entered the details John Coleman in the Keywords (name) box… there were 364 results – that was quite a lot. Bugger, Russell’s uncle had a fairly common name; he would require some more detailed information to narrow down the search…
“Dad, you there? Can you come in here for a minute?”
Russell waited patiently while his dad creaked off his recliner and struggled into the bedroom. His back had never quite been the same since its years of compression under the pounding of a forklift without suspension. It didn’t stop him doing anything around the house though; in fact he often aggravated the injury by doing too much. It was times like that when Russell was glad he was still living at home.
“Where’s the fire, Rusty?”
“No fire, just a little cordite… tell me dad, what else do you know about John Coleman?”
“Oh, doing a little research, eh… mind if I sit?”
“No… here, you take mine, it’s more ergonomic.”
“Well I’m, no expert, the Coleman’s would know more, but I know he was old, roughly you know, and I know where he was born and I know he was in the Great War.”
“OK, so what am I typing in? I can add 1918 to my search… that was when the Great War ended.”
“Well, there you go, now you only have 54 John Coleman look-a-likes to look through!”
“This could take a while – do you have anything else for me to go by?”
“I think he was 45 when he died – I told you he was kinda old for a soldier - and he was born in Wangaratta, but then you can’t search by that information can you, son?”
“Hang on a second, son.”
Russell’s dad left him for a few minutes. Russell could hear him rustling around in the spare room’s closet. The room used to be Ruth’s, but it had been devoid of her for two decades. It was now a sewing-come-grandchildren-sleepover-slash-storage room. Russell didn’t like to go in there anymore; it had too many embarrassing moments. Bad hair photos from high school, Ruth and Colin’s wedding moments, and cheap Asian gifts from honeymoons gone by. Russell had never had that opportunity, to bring something kitsch back from a post marital bliss. He had never travelled, he didn’t know why; it always seemed like such a good idea as did most things he had always contemplated doing. Such was Russell’s trepidation about that room and its contents; his stomach was in knots by the time his dad wandered back in with an odd grin…
“Your Auntie did this family tree stuff twenty years ago – and in her own grand way she left me a copy. Who would’ve thought I’d ever use it. Let alone one of you lot! I’m pretty sure there’s Coleman stuff in here, yep, here it is… Private John Coleman, service number 4089. Do we have a match?”
“Service number 4089 – OK, I’ll just add that to his name and re-run the search. One match… check this bloke out… born in Wangaratta, age 43 on his induction – 5-1-16… that matches your family tree, see there! Dad and Rusty, history detectives, who would’ve thought! Gees, there’s 68 pages on this bloke – what was he, some sort of hero or something?”
“I wouldn’t get too excited, son… look at that.”
“Oh, 5-1-16… he signed up January 1916… that’s not right.”
“I think you’ll find its right... that’s a government record that is… and I thought your Auntie had this family tree stuff down pat… old wind bag!”
“So if he enlisted in 1916, then he never went to Gallipoli… I reckon that ended in December 1915.”
“I reckon you’re probably right about that, son.”
“Maybe he didn’t die, after all. Hang on a second, dad; I think I’ll save each of these pages as I go.”
Russell became methodical at this point just as he was when quality testing the data inputs at work. He brought up every scanned page and copied the images to his hard drive. He was amazed at the trouble they had gone to. Every document whether hand written or typed, blank pages and envelopes; absolutely everything concerning Private John Coleman had been scanned. Russell found his sign-up papers, his troop movements and disciplinary records… and his medical records. John Coleman had died all right, poor bastard, on August the 23rd 1918… about two months before the Armistice. So the family history wasn’t entirely made up, it was just embellished a little. Russell was on a roll now and his dad sat back in the comfortable chair and watched his youngest son sink his teeth into something for the first time in years….
“You know there are letters and things, pictures of his wife…”
“Later, dad… look at this… he was injured at Villers-Bretonneux on August 22nd, but he died the next day… Villers-Bretonneux, same place Dermie was at on Getaway… not the ANZAC Day battle though, but its still 90 years this year.”
Russell suddenly felt a new spark; a glimmer of an idea that filled him with adventure and compassion at the same time. Suddenly Gallipoli was a distant memory and France was becoming a distinct possibility.
“Why’s that word highlighted, Rusty?”
“It’s a link, dad… to another web page… shall we see where it goes? I feel adventurous!”
Russell found his way to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website via this link and searched for John Coleman with great success. His entry provided them with more corroborating evidence such as his parent’s names which were also on the slightly dodgy family tree. The text that Russell’s dad had been curious about, V. A. 30, was a memorial reference. Russell clicked on the highlighted text that formed that link and the browser opened up a new page –
This was the Daours Communal Cemetery Extension and it provided a mountain of information complete with directions, history and a map of the grave plots. Russell now noticed that there was a recurring number here, V. A. 30 … and its meaning became clear as the Daours Cemetery Extension map came into focus… John Coleman was buried in plot V row A burial 30.
“I wonder if anybody’s ever visited him, paid their respects.”
“I doubt it, if the family thought he died at Gallipoli.”
“Then that’s what I’ll do, dad… I’ll go to the Dawn Service at Villers-Bretonneux and I’ll visit the Daours Cemetery Extension… and taste some French food… and maybe some wine…”
Russell stood by the blue Toyota Auris hire car that had successfully manoeuvered him up the wrong side of many roads from Paris to this isolated country road. He surveyed his surrounds carefully, soaking in the vista, one like he had never experienced before. There was no other traffic on this isolated narrow road. There was no breeze here and there had been no other sound since he had turned off his car engine. There was just the pure serenity, flanked as he was by ploughed fields interspersed with fields of green. Russell raised his new digital SLR to his eye and framed a shot, the actual reason why he had stopped. The low rolling ground here disappeared into his lens broken only by a distant village spire and the mostly brown road sign that he was concentrating on. Its message was simple, but it filled him with a hope that was quite unlike the dread it held 90 years ago… La Somme.
Russell had read widely since January and he had continued this trait on the plane journey here… 24 hours, a numb bum and a 7:00AM landing at Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle. He now knew why his Great Great Uncle had been here. This was the setting for the battle of the Somme, where an ideal farming landscape whose only scar was the sleepily meandering River Somme had been scarred irreparably in most people’s imaginations by the incessant pounding of artillery and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of men. In April 1918 during the third battle of the Somme the Australians had turned the tide that was the German’s Operation Michael at Villers-Bretonneux. That was just after midnight on April the 25th, ANZAC Day… and apparently the men on the front line already knew it as that. That was the beginning of the end for the Germans, it saved Amiens and the locals here still celebrated the Australian counter attack on the nearest Saturday… and this was Thursday the 24th of April.
Russell’s Great Great Uncle was no hero, he wasn’t even here 90 years ago… he was in England, sick with influenza! He didn’t reach Villers-Bretonneux until mid-August and then he was merely an insignificant cog in the wheel that General Monash and others rolled over the fleeing Germans as they retreated towards Peronne. However, he was here and he did die and now Russell was here to pay his respects.
Russell’s first tourist stop was the town of Villers-Bretonneux. It was already lunch time despite his 7:00aM landing and although his route along the back roads of France had not been particularly direct, it had been picturesque and it had taught him a few things about driving on the wrong – er, the right hand side of the road. He had specifically ordered an automatic hire car, but naturally they didn’t have one! He waited for over an hour to get one as he didn’t trust his skills with a right hand gear stick while dodging to the right hand side of the road. The automatic transmission had made things easier and after initially getting lost in the airport car park he had made it north by keeping the rising sun to his right. Hopping from town to town eventually got him here and as he entered Villers-Bretonneux via the old Roman road – the D1029 – he discovered a conveniently located restaurant on the edge of town; Restaurant le Kangourou! It seemed a little clichéd at first, but Russell was hungry and a quick scan of the menu on the board to the right of the entrance revealed that the cuisine was local and not bastardized Australian. On entering the restaurant he was pleased to find that the majority of its patrons seemed to be locals and that the amount of English spoken was minimal at best. Despite the hours spent in a flying tin can Russell finally felt as if he was in France, half a world away and yet it still seemed slightly surreal.
Russell drove through the reconstructed Villers-Bretonneux after lunch to begin his orientation with the immediate area. He had downloaded a number of maps from www.multimap.com and printed them on convenient and readable A4 pages, but he didn’t have a detailed map of Villers-Bretonneux and it was bigger than he had expected. Russell drove slowly around the town finding that it was perched on and surrounded a minor hill that was to his left and this was capped by a church which usually signified the centre of town so he made his way left towards the town centre. He found that the streets were lined with green and gold flags and this led him to a surprising discovery, the Museo Franco-Australien. He had read about this place and the Victoria School that had been rebuilt with the donations of Australians from country towns in his home state of Victoria during the 1920’s, so he parked on Rue de Melbourne and wandered inside. The Museum was an interesting microcosm of the life of the Australians who had served near here during the Great War. It also provided Russell with some 90th Anniversary souvenirs, a magnet and some postcards, and a couple of history books relating to Villers-Bretonneux during the war. Russell suddenly wished that he had brought his dad, but he knew he would never have survived the flight with his back the way that it was.
Russell’s next stop was the Australian War Memorial. He had no concerns as to the whereabouts of this; he had seen its magnificent tower on a hill to the right of town as he had driven in. He found its entrance on a road that headed out due north from Villers-Bretonneux towards the towns of Fouilloy and Corbie. Again he was flanked by peaceful farmland as the road curved out beneath a prominent hill. It was difficult to believe what had occurred in the Somme area 90 years before, but the presence of tiny cemeteries that dotted the landscape here was a constant reminder and the Australian War Memorial was no exception. It stood out like a giant beacon with views stretching far and wide… its tactical significance was obvious even now. Russell pondered this as he mounted the grand steps at the Memorial’s entrance that was flanked by two large stone structures. He wandered up the carefully manicured lawn that he found beyond these and found himself en route to the Memorial’s main tower. Row after row of white headstones lined the lawn to either side of him. Men from Canada, England, and Australia… … men from many and varied regiments and of ages ranging from 19 to 43… men known and men known only unto God…
Russell paused for a moment between the French and Australian flags at the top of the hill. He could see Villers-Bretonneux quite clearly across the fields to his right, but his focus was on the stone wall and tower ahead of him. It was filled with names; the names of the nearly 11,000 Australian men who had no known grave; the men who unlike his Great Great Uncle had never been found.
A children’s choir was rehearsing for the next morning’s dawn service and a few thousand fold out seats were being arranged on the lawn before the tower. There were light towers and cameras at every angle – even from the tower itself… this was going to be a big show, far bigger than he had been warned! Russell knew he would have to leave far earlier tomorrow morning than he was planning and that meant going to sleep earlier and fighting his urge to bow to jet lag, so he moved on in order to make the most of his first afternoon here in France.
A band of clouds rolled in from the west as Russell drove onto the village of Daours. It was here that he would find the grave of his long lost uncle, John Coleman. The cemetery was a mere ten minutes away. He found it devoid of life and that was oddly appropriate, but he found the Daours Communal Cemetery Extension to be exactly what he had expected; the photos and the map on the website had created the perfect image for him, as if he had been provided with a 3D walk-through.
Russell walked through the main gates having seen why this cemetery had been given the word extension in its name, for there was a far older cemetery that abutted it to the north. Russell entered a now familiar scene, row upon row of white headstones engraved with military insignia in neat plots edged with beautifully manicured lawns and flower beds. The cemetery which was long and narrow had two rows of an unusual tree that had bulbous features at the tops of its branches and no foliage at this time of year. It was almost as if they suffered from warts or a wasp infestation like lemon trees; he would later learn that these were Xxx trees.
Russell had his uncle’s plot number etched into his brain – V. A. 30 – and that’s where he found him at the rear of the cemetery in plot V, row A, grave 30. It was another slightly surreal moment, but as he bent down and traced his fingers over the words on the headstone the moment came to life –
AUST. ARMY MEDICAL CORPS
23RD AUGUST 1918 AGE 45
Russell wasn’t sure if he was sad or glad. He was happy that he had tracked down his Great Great Uncle’s grave and he was chuffed that he was the first one to have visited him, but he was sad for the man buried below. He had survived nearly three years of war, but like so many he died in those last few bloody months. It seemed like such a waste… he was only 45… he did have a wife, but he had left no children behind. Russell sat on the grass in front of the headstone and opened up his day pack. He pulled out the picture of John Coleman’s wife that his dad had passed onto him and he unravelled the small Australian flag that his dad had also given him. This had been attached to a small plastic pole, so Russell leant over and poked it into the garden bed that edged the headstone. It was such a lovely place with its beautifully manicured lawns and a variety of different flowers planted in the beds that surrounded the actual headstones, but as Russell admired these lovely pink and white flowers he noticed that there was something odd about his Uncle’s grave. There was more writing on its lower reaches below the large central carved cross. Russell pulled back the flowers and read the words he hadn’t expected –
WIFE BARBARA, DAUGHTER LILY
Russell froze for a moment. Did he have the wrong grave? He pulled out the copies of his research notes and cross matched everything. He even retraced his steps up and down the small Daours Cemetery… no, this was definitely the right place and this was his plot and this had to be his Great Great Uncle! Somebody had got something wrong. It was probably his Auntie and her dodgy family tree… but what if… he pulled out his mobile phone and dialed home…
“Dad, Russell… yeah, I’m in France, standing in front of our long lost uncle… no, he looks a bit pale though… say, dad… tell me something, did the family ever mention he had a daughter? No, well apparently he did… do you wanna make some enquiries for me… ta, talk to you later.”
Russell went through his documents again. He already knew that there was something odd about John Coleman’s wife. After the war she had disappeared and the Australian Imperial Force records department couldn’t contact her regarding the headstone’s inscription. The modern version of this department had scanned absolutely everything, including the letter and the envelope that had been returned – NOT KNOWN BY LETTER CARRIERS BRUNSWICK. It wasn’t until 1920 or 1921 that her sister noticed a newspaper advertisement regarding the relatives of dead soldiers that needed to be contacted that the mystery was solved. The sister contacted the department and then passed on the new details of John’s wife. Apparently she had moved back home to Western Australia and re-married. Russell had considered this in great detail when he first read the letters and he quickly realized that back in 1919 there were very few support structures for single or widowed women. She had obviously got on with her life quickly for the sake of survival, and good on her… but the daughter was still a mystery.
Russell took some pictures of the cemetery and his Uncle’s grave. He also found a visitor’s book secreted away in a small alcove in the only structure that was to be found here at Daours. He signed it diligently and said farewell to John Coleman for he knew he would never visit here again. He spent the rest of the afternoon winding slowly towards the town of Albert which was north-east of Villers-Bretonneux. The narrow winding road was dotted with small villages that had odd names like Warloy-Baillon and Vadencourt and some more familiar names like Beaumont-Hamel and Thiepval. The road was also dotted with tiny cemeteries that all could have been the Daours cemetery except for their location; tiny pockets of England, Australia, New Zealand and Canada drifting amongst the crops in the landscape – forlorn letters in stone to home that never made their final journey.
Russell paused along the route to visit the most unusual of these cemeteries; Parc Terre Neuvien… Newfoundland Park. It was decided back in 1921 to allow the trenches here to whither away with time, but as Russell found under a light shower of rain some of the trenches here were still six feet deep; an unimaginable warren of pitted winding ditches where men used to live and die in the name of God and Country. The carefully sheep manicured grass here was at odds with the denuded landscape the soldiers would have fought over in 1916, but the scars on the landscape and the warnings of undetonated explosives were warning enough for anyone who paid their respects to the Newfoundlanders here. Russell stood at the top of the mound beneath the giant bronze moose they had placed here and stared out across the fields where so many men had lost their lives. He knew what it all meant. He knew that the war to end all wars was ended in a fashion that only served to set up the next world war and that there had barely been a day without war somewhere in the world since the Armistice. Russell felt sad for all these men and all those who had followed them I vain. He was tired and Albert seemed an eternity away down a winding right hand drive.
Russell was fortunate that the traffic was light and that a parking space materialized miraculously right outside of his hotel; the Hotel Restaurant de la Basilique. Basilique – wasn’t that a Harry Potter thing? No, he knew better than that – it was a reference in French to the Basilica across the street. Russell must be tired, he was beginning to hallucinate odd jokes, but his luck held and he found himself to be fortunate that his lack of any real French didn’t offend the non-English speaking waitress.
After dinner he watched the light fade from the sky out of his balcony window. The view across the town square to the church was well known to him. He had seen the original church in a photo, but it was ruined and the Virgin and child statue that crested the tower was leaning horizontally. The Aussie Diggers knew the leaning statue of the Virgin with the infant Jesus at the top of the steeple of Notre Dame de Brebières well in 1917 (some called her Fanny Durack after the famous gold medal winning swimmer from the 1912 Olympics) and Russell found the same photo from back then hung on the wall in the breakfast room downstairs. The Virgin shone brightly in gold this evening from across the street slightly dampened as it was by the light rain that had fallen earlier in the evening. Russell was half a world away from home, just like so many men had been, but then he had a return ticket…
* * *
The final strains of the Last Post echoed out chillingly from the top of the tower at the Australian War Memorial in France. There was no wind as the sky slowly brightened into a cloudless day and the chill of the morning was more than appropriate 90 years to the day – ANZAC Day – that Australian troops halted the final German advance of the Great War. Russell searched the crowd around him, there was no chatter, no laughter and no applause following the national anthem as there was at a football match… there was just bowed reverential silence. Thousands had turned up – on foot, by car and by bus. So many that all of the seats had been filled and like Russell many stood three to six deep around three sides of the arranged seating. Russell was surprised by the makeup of the masses. There were returned soldiers and serving soldiers; two of these even had their small child in a pram by their side. There were older and younger generations, school groups and families. One such family of five stood in the crowd by Russell; a mother, a father and three sons – the oldest looked no older than twelve. He wore an Australian flag around his shoulders while the next boy in line wore a bright yellow Wallabies scarf around his neck. Like Russell they all had the ANZAC poppies pinned to their chests and the Aussie/French flag pins that had been distributed as they entered the Memorial.
This was the first ANZAC Day dawn service ever held here in France which was surprising considering that unlike Gallipoli this was a place of victory and also considering that at least 40,000 more men lost their lives along this front. Russell felt that the men who had served here, all now long gone, would have been proud to be remembered in such a way. He also thought that the German men who served here would have also felt a similar sense of a pride as there were also people here draped in German flags… and why not! It was a long time ago and it showed what this morning was about… not war, but sacrifice and above all – peace… and it was a beautifully peaceful spot.
The service lasted for an hour, but Russell still had that odd surreal sensation. He almost hadn’t made it. He had left his hotel half an hour earlier than planned, about 4:20 AM for the 5:30AM service. It was only a 10 to 15 minute drive from Albert, but so many had turned up that the cars lined the side of the road from Fouilloy to Villers-Bretonneux on the left hand side. He was fortunate that the gendarmes had opened up the right hand side verge just passed the Memorial entrance as he had arrived. The family of five that he had spotted in the crowd had had the same fortunate experience and was parked just behind him. Russell had walked the short distance up the hill to the Memorial from his car with the father of that family in tow. He had dropped his wife and children at the top of the hill a few minutes before in desperation. They both now understood why so many had camped here overnight – and that was something neither of them had actually considered despite some careful planning.
The service ended with the solemn notes of the bugler and the crowd departed in kind. Many wandered amongst the headstones, many of these now had fresh flowers and Aussie flags laid before them and Russell watched as the three young boys each left a lone poppy at an unvisited grave. He lingered for a while himself, wandering fairly aimlessly amongst the many graves here. He found himself fascinated by the many different regiments and their insignias, taking many a photo as he roamed though the headstones, but the sense of loss he felt for men he had never met deepened. Nearly all of these men were younger than he was now, yet he seemed to have so much life ahead of him… and then there was that nagging daughter Lily, what was that about and how many others had been so misrepresented and lost?
Russell considered the rest of his day carefully now as he looked out over the patchwork fields towards Amiens. He decided that he would go there, to the place the Australians had saved by turning the tide here and perhaps that would lighten his mood. He returned to Albert for breakfast and found a number of those at breakfast had also been to the dawn service, including that same family of five and although he offered them a friendly nod of acknowledgement he kept mainly to himself before heading off to Amiens for the day.
Amiens distracted Russell perfectly and the walk up the steep cobbled lanes past the surviving fifteenth century half timbered buildings was topped only by the grand gothic cathedral at the centre of the old town. Russell was delighted by the variety of garish gargoyles; these ancient protectors so ably assisted by the Aussie diggers in 1918… and mountains of sandbags of course. There was nothing like this at home. The vastness of the space beneath the vaulted ceilings was breathtaking, as were the hand carved wooden stalls and the view from the tower.