DAY FOURTEEN: FROMELLES TO IEPER FRIDAY DECEMBER 3
Today was a day I had been looking forward to for a long time: we would finally see the brand new cemetery at Fromelles and Flo would sing her song to Raymond Pflaum, “Known only unto God”. The group were ready to go early this morning and it was off to Villers-Bretonneux to the school and the Australian museum. Unlike previous visits we did not meet with the kids as the time was not appropriate. It was the start of the school day so they were in classes so our group only had access to the school hall where the corners of the hall featured a range of wooden carvings of Australian animals. We ventured out into the playground where the famous sign says “Never forget Australia.” The compulsory group pic under the sign was a bit different this time due to the snow! From there it was into the museum adjacent to the school which tells the Australian story on the western front in particular the April 25th 1918 success at Villers-Bret by the combined efforts of the Australians and British forces. This battle when studied using Australian sources tends be told as a purely Australian victory however if you go to a British historian you are likely to find a different spin on it all. The role by the Aussies however was quite clear in the mind of the local French people living in this tiny town. The strong bonds this village has with Australia are everywhere: street names Rue de Melbourne, Le Kangaroo café, Aussie flag always on the flag pole at the town hall next to the French flag. So I guess you can decide for yourself the extent of our role in 1918. I suggest it pays to read both sides of the interpretation and not take the Charles Bean version on board as the only view- a crucial and pivotal record of the battle BUT written with an Australian audience in mind during that era.
Time was our enemy so off we went for our very special day in Fromelles. Had a few phone calls from a French journalist who has covered stories on Fromelles for years. Andrei contacted me before we left Adelaide to seek permission to film our ceremony. Not knowing this guy I checked him out with a few people to see if he was legitimate. He had previously worked for CNN as their Paris contact prior to setting up his own media company. Before giving the ok to proceed I made it clear I didn’t want his filming to interfere with the integrity of what we were doing. His reassurances were clear: he would be in the background and we wouldn’t know he would be there! Well the reality was just a tad different….more on that one later. The whole Fromelles story is one rich with many twists and turns and a powerful indicator of how the Great War is still alive in many people’s lives in 2010. The account of the battle and the lost men in Pheasant Wood is well documented (go to our Fromelles link for its role in the CS narrative) For our project it has a very special place due to our connections with the Pflaum family and the song written by Flo Bourke dedicated to Raymond Pflaum one of the 250 in the Pheasant Wood pit to be identified earlier this year. On July 19 this year when the final soldier was laid to rest in the newly built Fromelles cemetery Flo’s song was played at Cobbers’ memorial to all assembled on the Saturday before the final burial. Present at that time was the Mayor of Fromelles who we would meet later today.
Our first stop was the Fromelles café for a hearty lunch and meeting up with dear friend Carole Laignel, a local Fromelles resident I have known since my first project in 2001. The journalist Andrei was there and we spoke of how he would operate during the ceremony. All was fine at this stage.
Arriving at the cemetery was a moment I won’t forget. Last year when my husband Paul and I were on holiday here in France, we spent several days Carole and Gerard Laignel. Carole has been a very active leader in the village in all matters related to commemorative events and WW1 research. When we came to Fromelles late 2009, the remains of the 250 soldiers were stored in a temporary morgue next to the pit area they had been recovered from. That view on a cold December day a year ago was a critical moment for me. For years of visiting the beautifully tended Commonwealth War cemeteries on Singapore, the UK, France and Belgium, they all have in one sense a misleading impact. You know in your intellectual brain that the men ARE there under the headstones BUT at times in the manicured gardens and lawns it doesn’t seem real. But when you are confronted by a large white morgue with security men and dogs patrolling its boundaries, then the reality hits you in the face in a way that is impossible to escape. I remember staring at the bleak and sterile structure and thinking THEY ARE IN THERE……So today to return after all the complexities of recovery, DNA testing and notification of relatives and of course the ceremonial reburials all complete, was the end of a massive story.
The cemetery buried in snow, took on the appearance of all the other cemeteries we had visited and it was hard to believe it was less than a year old. There were three of our boys here; Joseph Stead, Frank Loader and of course Raymond Pflaum. There to greet us was the Mayor of Fromelles and a few locals. The first commemoration was done by Tristan for Joseph Stead. Tristan commemorated him in 2008 at the VC Corner memorial so for him to return this time and do it again at his grave was a powerful moment. Amanda Hartley who is our valued SSO in the school library and now much loved travel companion, had been the family link via marriage to Frank Loader. Amanda had for many months compiled extensive family records on this man and for our Anzac Assembly at Birdwood High this year, had brought together members of the Loader family who had not known each other before this. So she had a huge personal, genealogical and emotional investment in what she was about to do. Here are Amanda’s own words on her day at Fromelles:
After two years researching Frank Oliver Loader I finally reached his resting place at this new Fromelles cemetery. Covered in snow, visibility in the area was reduced by a thick fog and it was hard to imagine that in July they had a heat wave here. We were there to do a job and pay respect to our fallen. I told a story about Frank and assured him I would return home telling the family where he is and describe his surroundings. I laid photos of his parents’ gravesite and a group photo of the 12 family members who we used for DNA samples plus numerous other bits and pieces. I stood up paying respects when the church bell chimed twice for 2 o’clock. I nearly fell over. Mal and the kids caught my smile. I felt YES I was supposed to do this and my job was done. I got a nod of approval from the group. The mayor of Fromelles welcomed us and presented myself, Flo and Tristan with a commemorative postcard of Fromelles. Just so special! In icy conditions Flo sang her song on the steps of the memorial, Jack and Chris played the Last Post on the trumpet in -4 conditions: they did a great job and I appreciated them doing it. Tears came easily as it was time to leave but I wasn’t the only one. We were off to our next commemoration which happened to be Frank’s brother Percival. Thanks to Mal for his research and telling Percival’s story.
The cemetery was covered in snow and the temperature dropped to icy levels. Fog enveloped the scene creating an eerie and quiet atmosphere. The tension on Flo’s face was very obvious and I knew just how much this time meant to her. She not only had to commemorate Raymond Pflaum for a family she had come to know quite well, but then had to back it up with performing her emotionally charged song in the cold and with a camera right up her face. The promise of a discreet filming of our time at the graves was not realized and I was disappointed that the camera became an intrusion. However everyone seems to ignore its presence and the song was superbly delivered by this young Birdwood girl sitting on the cemetery steps in the snow. What a treasure. How Flo pulled this off is beyond me as she struggled with her tears and the cold affecting her guitar yet she did justice to the story and the music that was the most wonderful affirmation of Raymond Pflaum and his tragic account. It’s moment like these when I wish we could make time go slower so we could hang onto the feelings and the impact for just a bit longer. The boys Jack and Chris then capped off an amazing experience by playing the Last Post. What an effort by these two lads who grow in confidence and stature each time they perform. Well done to you both and thank you for having the courage to put yourself on the line for this most challenging task. I hope you both realize what you achieved.
At the completion of our commemorations the Mayor of Fromelles made some presentations and showed us the framed artifact belonging to Tim Whitford’s great uncle Harry – the button that clearly identified him as being in the pit. Having met Tim and his family a few weeks ago this was another bonus to our understanding of the Fromelles narrative.
In the bitter cold we made our way gingerly to VC Corner on the narrow and very icy road which had proven to be treacherous for two motorists whose vehicles were in the ditch. I take my hat off to Richard as he never missed a beat in these horrendous driving conditions. I shared the story of Andrew Walsh, a relative of a lady who contacted me and then it was off to one of my most adored paces, Ieper. Oh how I love this Flemish town. The fairy lights for Xmas were everywhere and the town square looked as it did in 2008 ……the image is my screen saver on my computer and provides a daily reminder of all that is Ieper. It felt like I was coming home. If today was emotionally charged I knew that tomorrow when I would be at Great Uncle Marty’s grave again, would be yet another tome for tears.
And the final words on this day must come from our beautiful Flossy……
Every trip creates a new sense of emotion. Commemorating Ray Pflaum, our Birdwood boy who was found this year, unveiled a new sense of profoundness within me and presented yet another layer to the Connecting Spirits journey.