Photo essay: the Australian Remembrance Trail

 

In its 2009-2010 budget, the Australian government allocated $10m to establish an Australian Remembrance Trail throughout the former Western Front. The trail identifies and improves visitor facilities at a series of battlefields on which Australians fought, including in Ypres, Ploegsteert and Zonnebeke in Belgium, and at Fromelles, Bullecourt, Pozières, Mont St Quentin and Villers-Bretonneux in France. Here is a link to Australian government’s information on the Trail, including the Australian Remembrance Trail brochure.

In August and September 2012, I visited these sites to see what this trail looked like, what the visitor experience might entail, and how the sites related to the larger landscape which contextualises them. Following the trail north from Villers-Bretonneux to Zonnebeke, I photographed each site, trying to capture how they related to their surroundings, and using photographs to help understand the experience of ‘being there’.

Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux
The Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux

I started at the primary commemorative site on the Trail, the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. My immediate impression was the agricultural nature of the surrounding landscape. We visited at harvest time, and tractors and other machines were common on the rural roads. Small clouds of dusty earth were visible front the high ground on which many of the sites are located.

Villers-Bretonneux cemetery with tractors
The cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux with tractors working in the background.

This formed a particularly stark contrast at Le Hamel, where I spoke briefly with a farmer working only a few metres from the memorial. The new road, visitor facilities and signage feel as if they demarcate a space completely distinct from the surrounding farms. Intended to invoke both another place – Australia – and another time – the Great War – Le Hamel is surrounded by farmland which, as it changes throughout the year, would change the feel and experience of the site. When I was there the harvest had just been completed, and the earth was dusty and exposed. I could imagine a different context to the site at different times in the farming year.

Signage at Le Hamel
Signs explaining the history of the site, and Australian involvement, Le Hamel.

memorial at Le Hamel
The memorial at Le Hamel is surrounded by farmland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moving between the sites meant driving on rural roads, and we doubled back or took wrong turns many times. As with many trails, this one is not as coherent and clear on the ground as it is on the map or brochure. I was not able to photograph Mont St Quentin, but at Pozières, a small observation platform allowed perspective over the surrounding landscape, showing the abrupt distinction between the memorial space and its surroundings.

Poziere from high vantage point
The memorial at Pozieres.
explanatory signage at Poziere
New explanatory signage at Pozieres.

The Australian site at Bullecourt is in a memorial park just outside the village on the Rue des Australiens. Peter Corlett’s memorial sculptures also appear at the Australian cemetery at VC Corner near Fromelles, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. They are part of a visual vocabulary that reinforce the official Anzac narrative and link the sites together.

BUllecourt Digger
The ‘Bullecourt Digger’ by Peter Corlett (1993) in the Australian Memorial Park.
Fromelles Cobbers
Peter Corlett’s ‘Cobbers’ (1998) at the Fromelles memorial park.

There are three distinct sites in and near Fromelles: the memorial park (pictured above), the VC Corner Australian Cemetery, and the new cemetery in the village itself, opposite the church. The last site saw the reburial of the newly-discovered remains of Australian soldiers in 2010.

Vc Corner cemetery Fromelles
The VC Corner Cemetery near Fromelles.
New cemetery at Fromelles
The new cemetery at Fromelles, opposite the village church.

Along with many other imperial forces, Australians were killed and are commemorated at the Menin Gate, Ypres. The In Flanders Fields Museum, recently refurbished and reopened in June 2012, is in the centre of the town in the  medieval Cloth Hall which was meticulously rebuilt after the Great War.

Menin Gate, Ypres
The Menin Gate, in Ypres, Belgium.

Ploegsteert is close to Ypres, and the memorial is on the main road. Its imposing size and design is a surprise on an otherwise unremarkable road.

Ploegsteert memorial
The Ploegsteert memorial.

The British Hyde Park Corner cemetery opposite the rotunda contains the graves of three German soldiers, whose gravestones differ only slightly in design from the Commonwealth ones.

 

Hyde Park Corner, Ploegsteert
The British Hyde Park Corner cemetery, opposite the rotunda at Ploegsteert.
A German grave at Hyde Park Corner, Ploesteert
A German grave at the Hyde Park Corner British cemetery outside Ploegsteert.

The last place I visited was outside Zonnebeke, in Belgium, not far from Ypres. Like the sites in France, this one is surrounded by farmland.

Polygon Wood
Polygon Wood cemetery, near Zonnebeke.

The memorial to the 5th Australian Division looks out over the Buttes New British cemetery, over the road from the Polygon Wood site. The affectionate toy koalas and small Australian flags on the memorial are a gentle contrast to the straight rows of headstones they overlook.

The Buttes new british cemetery
The Buttes New British cemetery is overlooked by the 5th Australian Division memorial at Polygon Wood.
5th Australian Division memorial, Zonnebeke
5th Australian Division memorial, Polygon Wood.
koalas on 5th division memorial, Zonnebeke
5th Australian Division memorial.