DAY SIXTEEN: SUNDAY DECEMBER 5
The Connecting Spirits roller coaster continues with yet another huge day on the horizon. Today we would hold the service that originally helped define the Connecting Spirits project, the commemoration of Private Rufus Rigney. It would be a big day for our two Ngarrindjeri girls Hayley and Katie. They were both nervous and excited about the day knowing that it would involve members of the local Harelbeke community, representation from the Australian Embassy along with veterans groups and many others who had come to know of the Ngarrindjeri story over the last four years. Flo and Hamish had been practicing the song written by Eric Bogle after the 2006 ceremony, “Lost Soul” to be sung at the grave. So all was set for this most important part of our tour.
We departed from Ieper nice and early so we could go through the order of service with the group well before the locals arrived. On the bus Flo and Hamish practiced their music and also the National anthem. We all joined in. And then it was time.
Today was the Harelbeke service at the grave of Rufus Rigney the only Ngarrindjeri soldier to have a known grave and the commemorations would be done by his relatives Katie and Hayley. The service involved the whole group plus some very special guests including the Mayor of Harelbeke. Hamish surprised us all with his great voice and Flo performed beautifully as always. We all sang the National Anthem together with Flo leading us and surprisingly it didn’t sound too shabby. At the service people were asked to come forward and place floral tributes on the grave of this Ngarrindjeri man. It was beautiful to see the children come forward as young as 2 or 3 and pay their respects. They may not be old enough to really appreciate it yet but in years to come they will hear these stories and learn about indigenous Australians and know that they have already done something positive for indigenous Australia. The town council put on a great reception and meal and Ozzie and Wozzie were finally reunited.
Hayley and Katie did a really good job and the commemoration went without a hitch apart from my terrible singing.
And now for Katie’s words she used in the commemoration:
Hello my name is Katie Reid and this is Hayley Shaw. We are Ngarrindjeri women from the Lower Lakes and Coorong region in South Australia. Our country is mainly based around the Coorong, River Murray and Lakes Albert and Alexandrina. These provided our major resources because it is where our food supplies used to come from. Since we are mainly water people it explains why we have a pelican in the centre of our Connecting Spirits logo. It is the totem of my people the Ngarrindjeri nation. The logo is also made up of blue and yellow representing the water and the yellow the sun the giver of life. The circles around the outside of the logo represent friendship and community. Now Hayley is going to tell the story of our great, great, great uncle Rufus Rigney.
And then Haley gave a superbly delivered commemoration to her relative Rufus. She had been quite nervous about doing this for several days and even though her anxiety about it was quite clear she gave everyone a sense of his story in a powerful and emotive manner. She was quite wonderful. Throughout this however unbeknown to us our lovely Hayley was dealing with a lot more than nerves: she was unwell and later in the day the full seriousness of this would become very apparent. However like a little trooper she ploughed her way through it all.
The commemoration of Rufus Rigney was a very moving ceremony. Many people attended and eventually every single person in the crowd acknowledged his grave in their own way. It made me realize how the local people totally appreciate the sacrifice of these men and look after their final resting place. I was honoured and appreciated that I was able to play the Last Post.
When the service was over it was time for a formal reception in the town hall followed by a superb lunch hosted at a local restaurant by the Mayor. It was a fitting ending to a wonderful event. We returned to the cemetery however to have one last look at the grave and to briefly visit the grave of William Leggett and learn of his story. I shared my friend John Simpson’s great uncle’s place in history. And then it was time to leave after a massive day. However for Hayley it was not yet over. On our return to the hotel Molly came and found me to let me know that Hayley was not well and could I come up to their room. She was in a lot of pain so it was off to the hospital we came to know in the 2008 trip. Long story short……Hayley was admitted to surgery within the hour of landing there with an emergency appendectomy! Oh dear…no wonder she was walking unusually during the day. Poor little darling I felt for her as it had been such a wonderful day for her and to end like this was most unfortunate. So our big day just got a bit bigger! Thankfully this happened when it did as if this occurred at the end of the week when we would be on the bus to Paris, then things could have been disastrous. The Ieper hospital is excellent and the staff very professional and supportive. They couldn’t have been more on the ball and made a tricky situation much easier to manage. Lorraine Willis was amazing during this whole situation….you are worth your weight in gold my dear friend.
Katie and Hayley escort Caroline to deliver a wreath on behalf of the Government and People of Australia