BY STEFAN GIGACZ
“Lest we forget,” a local woman said to me in her strong French accent over lunch yesterday near the Western Front battlefield town of Bullecourt.
It was her way of entering into the spirit of Australia's big day in the region.
For my part it was an opportunity to retrace the footsteps of my own grandfather Robert Coleman, who spent two years in the trenches from 1916-18. Until recently I thought he had actually participated at Bullecourt until I managed to reconstitute the calendar of his life at the front from documents available online at the magnificent Australian War Memorial website. But it turned out that he was recuperating in England during the Bullecourt battles after falling ill in the freezing winter trenches.
Yesterday's (unofficial) Anzac lunch was organised by a group including Colette and Claude Durand who have been commemorating the 1917 battles known to Australians as First and Second Bullecourt since long before the now annual Australian pilgrimages began.
Claude explains more of their pioneering story on the website http://www.bullecourt.fr/.
“Our story, in which we develop our close relationship with Australia,” Claude writes in his francophone influenced English, “begins when my wife, Colette Durand, and I arrived in Hendecourt as school teachers in September 1972. “Back then, it was possible to find Australian 'rising sun' badges and Australian shoulder badges in the ploughed farm fields around Bullecourt. We were interested to know why!”
Together with the late Jean Letaille, the then mayor of the town, and in contact with the then Australian Ambassador to France, John Rowland, they launched what has now evolved into a key moment in the Embassy's Anzac Day program each year.
Over the years, in a barn on his property, Jean Letaille also gradually developed a homespun museum with relics of the battles dug up from local fields, even including tank tracks. With assistance from the Australian government, that too has now developed into the Jean and Denise Letaille Museum in the town.
But now, sadly, the official commemorative events have grown so important that the locals who launched them are starting to feel that their role has been somewhat sidelined.
I got to meet Colette, Claude and their friends and family thanks to Bill Twitchett, an Aussie originally from Murwillumbah but now resident in Arras for some 37 years and one of the few Australians who lives permanently in the region.
After post-graduate studies in architecture and town planning, Bill ended up working for the Diocese of Arras as their architectural advisor renovating ancient churches and abbeys and occasionally building new ones for some 30 years.
In fact, he was originally invited to Arras by the late Bishop Gerard Huyghe, a dynamic bishop who played a significant role at Vatican II particularly in the drafting of the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis.
“In 1976, Bishop Huyghe invited me to join a mixed community of religious and lay people known as the Centre for Culture and Faith,” Bill told me. Sadly the community did not continue after Huyghe's retirement, but Bill stayed on in the region, developing a new centre and community devoted to ecological and urban renewal known as Le Pavillon.
(In one of those providential coincidences of life, I first met Bill about three years while giving a talk at the Institut Marc Sangnier in Paris. Learn more about Bill and his work on the website he is developing to record some of his lifetime of work.)
And so, after a great meal, we all moved on to Bullecourt for the official ceremony at 1.30pm with Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr. And Mr Carr did not disappoint with his speech clearly reflecting his own personal interest in Australian military history.
The current bishop of Arras, Mgr Jean-Paul Jaeger, followed up with a prayer. Finally, after much wreath laying by Australian and local dignitaries, several hundred Aussie pilgrims, including students from Queensland, and local French people began the march up to the Digger statue that stands one kilometre outside the town.
I only got to talk to a couple of people on the walk, the first being a somewhat lonely German army representative, who lamented the lack of commemoration of other World War events and battles. The other was Bishop Jaeger, originally from Lille, where Cardinal Achille Liénart had confirmed him, and we reflected together on the extraordinary influence of the great cardinal on the French church and Vatican II.
By the time we made it to the Digger monument, the sun had taken its toll with a couple of students being revived by the pompiers after collapsing under the warm spring sun.
So after even more wreath laying, I headed back to Le Canberra Bar in town for a drink with Bill. There he told me that he is now on an Arras church committee studying how to commemorate the forthcoming centenary of the Great War.
Well, one thought came to me inspired by today's events and by Pope Francis' strident affirmation that the Church is not an NGO. Moreover, not only is the Church not a non-government organisation, for all its faults, it is emphatically not a government organisation either.
And perhaps the role of the churches in the forthcoming celebrations could be to focus on rebuilding the people to people links that Claude and Colette Durand and their friends have worked so long to promote.
Lest we forget those who remembered our soldiers while we in Australia had forgotten them.
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