Thursday December 11: Depart Ieper for Paris
Today was my wedding anniversary and would be the third time Paul and I would share it over the phone separated by thousands of miles. Mobile phone call and the inevitable bill to follow would have to do. By 7.30 a.m. the group was on the bus and it was time to go. Under the Menin Gate for one last time as we left behind the locations of so many tears, so much growing up by the kids and the bonds that tie us to this place of previous sorrow and hardship. It is ironic that the death and destruction of the Great War has created many global links and networks of friends with a common past. The morning was misty and eerie as we drove in the early darkness; everyone in private thoughts and memories. The trip to Paris would be an indirect one in order to complete the final commemoration of the great, great grandfather of Scott Palin. We made our way to Charleroi two hours east of Ieper. This would be final act of commemoration for the 2008 group and it was perfect.
The cemetery was the town cemetery far from the battlefields. The Commonwealth graves were mixed in with the locals; many of these men far from their mates. Frost covered the ground as the cold bit in, however, the sun shone through during our time in this lonely place. The words said and commemorative items placed lovingly, as had been done so many times over the three weeks, we moved the group to a stand under a tree. I placed the flag over a branch. Stephanie Ferguson spoke of the Gallipoli saga as her family will take part in the private add on tour for families when the main group return home. More men will be commemorated by the group in the Dardanelles. Finally, Flo spoke of a man who returned home from the war then sang yet another of her songs; this one focusing on the war within for the survivors. Many said after it was her best. How on earth can you chose her 'best' as each song is interwoven with the moment we experienced as she sang. The CD will be a permanent connection for our group to this trip. As brilliant sun filtered through our tree, Chloe Oborn stepped up to say The Ode for the last time, Michelle played the Last Post for the last time and Flo sang the national anthem for the last time, it was over. The following reflections convey the depth of feeling amongst our group:
As we drove through the Menin Gate for the last time at 7.30 in the morning, I thought back to all that we have done and the people we have met. It is unbelievable how many people are committed to the memory of the Australian digger; individuals like Johan, Anny and Shrapnel Charlie give their time for us to be able to hold the memory of those brave lads that gave so much believing they were making our country safe. It’s not just the Belgian and French who are grateful that we came from so far away to fight for the liberation of their country. A man came up to me just before we had our Menin Gate service. He shook my hand and said, 'Thank you and Australia for fighting for us." That man was not from Belgium or France but from Scotland. I could see the emotion in his face and knew we were doing something very special to so many. Even after the service you could see how many people were grateful for our commitment to the Remembrance of our war dead. I felt so proud to be Australian.
Being the first person from my family to visit Henry's grave, I didn't want to say goodbye. It’s sad that the trip is nearly over but I am starting to miss home. I can't imagine how much Henry missed home after two years on the battlefields. Rest in peace Henry.
Today was precious. Scott choked back the tears as I did when Michelle played the Last Post. At that moment I thought about all of the moving times we've had and of the tears that dropped into the soil of these men's graves. I will miss this experience and can't help wondering if I will ever return. I hope and dream that I will one day. Once again diggers, you are not forgotten nor will you ever be. Our group will make sure your story will last forever. R.I.P. Lest We Forget.
After finishing the last commemoration on the Western Front, I felt emotionally drained; visiting cemetery after cemetery, some huge with never ending masses of headstones and some quaint and small, it opens your eyes. Nothing can prepare you for what you see. They won't feel empty anymore nor will our hearts.
Today, while our last commemoration and services were done, I realised that if I was to come back to Europe I would make sure I would revisit the graves of my soldiers. With each day I have learnt more and more and don't want it to end. It has been wonderful.
This trip has been an amazing experience that has moved me everyday. It has been a huge privilege to commemorate our Australian soldiers and the memories will be forever sketched into my heart and mind. I feel honoured to have had the opportunity to play the Last Post at ceremonies. I will never forget this.
A magical conclusion to the commemorations was shared this morning at Charleroi cemetery. It has been most enriching and rewarding watching students and youth leaders totally immersed in the search for their chosen soldiers. They were truly dedicated to bringing each soldier's story alive in order to honour each memory. Flo's music- outstanding. Her work touches all who have had the privilege to hear the lyrics telling a story and affecting all present. I will be the first to buy that CD and eagerly await its release. Michelle- trumpet –brilliant; Chloe's reading of The Ode - concluding CS was perfect. Watching the growth of not only my own children but each and every person during the trip has been an experience I will treasure for years to come. Thank you to Julie, Lorraine, Winston and Mal for ensuring the success of the tour, to Flo and Chloe for your leadership and to Judy for collating the material for our soldier booklet. Thank you to our guides paid and unpaid, fellow tour members and to our bus driver for helping to share these treasured memories.
We said goodbye to the diggers with a good song and some national pride. We stood before them throughout these weeks, remembered, commemorated and now it is over. All we have are our memories but we will return and meet again so, "See you later mate".
What an end. As we made our way out of the final cemetery the full impact of the last few weeks would take time to unfold. The next few hours would be cathartic to our tired bodies and souls. Four hours to Paris along the motorways and endless convoys of European trucks made for a thoughtful and reflective time. Once again my pink i-pod was my companion. Having that distance and time was healing as each of us drifted in and out of sleep full of dreams and significant memories. Each trip over the years has its own character and set of experiences. For lots of varied reasons this will be one I will never forget. Its built in challenges and, at times, frustrations have in many ways added to that depth of connection as we overcame each of the difficulties that are linked with having a group of 32 passengers. As Ali said so succinctly watching these kids grow has been a joy. Some have become young adults beyond what we ever anticipated. These are some of the many things I will hang onto.
As we approached our last city Paris, we hit the traffic at its peak. Here 'bus driver man' really showed what he is made of. We arrived at the hotel to pick up the guide for a two hour tour on the bus of the highlights that Paris has to offer; winding in and around the key sites was hard work for our driver but without a doubt the absolute best of all was his foray around the insane circular traffic that is the Arch d' Triomphe. Richard told me that no one is insured when they tackle this location. There are no lanes, no rules, except that might is right and you go for it! Well that's just what our little “Michael Schumacher” did. Foot to the pedal and off he went right out into it! No waiting, besides we were bigger than anyone else. I couldn't look! Two laps later and a wry smile on this man's face were proof that he is mad!!!!!!! It was a scream....no I was doing the screaming. He is a legend. -I can say this in the website as he said he can't read and it is highly unlikely Richard will dip into the website. However, he has told fibs all during the trip, so maybe he can read!!!!
Seriously though folks, both DECS and parents alike, no need to panic or contact lawyers. We have been in superb hands with Richard, the best driver I have worked with over four tours; Thanks mate. The end of the tour and it was check in to the hotel. Tonight would be yet another farewell this time it was for Richard. Having done the formalities the previous night he was the only one making a speech and it was accompanied by bottles of wine for the adults, compliments of the driver. He spoke of how he connected with us all and how impressed he was by the kids' commitment. He sees a lot of these types of tours so his comments were lovely. As he was due to drive to the south of France very early, before 5.00am, it was an early night for him. Every member of the group said their own goodbyes; more hugs, kisses and tears. It has been a pleasure Richard and thank you for looking after my group over the last 13 days. Tomorrow the kids are off to Euro-Disney and some of us have the day off to explore Paris; kid free. Yah! (sorry Mal ....he was the DECS adult on duty. I owe him big time).
To December 12th