This weekend I did a whirlwind trip to Villers-Bretonneux in France to attend the ANZAC day dawn service on the Western Front. It marked the 100 year anniversary of the first Gallipoli landing and was well worth the effort.
It all began on Wednesday morning when one of my Australian friends (one of two other Aussies I know living north of London) sent me a message wondering whether I would be interested in doing a crazy trip driving to France for the dawn service. I thought about it for a moment, checked out the distance to drive there (438 miles), then thought ‘why not’ and agreed to drive us both down for the weekend.
We left Liverpool on Friday afternoon at about 2pm and drove our way down to Dover to catch the ferry over to France. Two Aussie girls with 3 batches of ANZAC biscuits between us… What could go wrong?
We arrived at the port in Dover at around 7:45pm with the next ferry departing at 9pm. Not being too sure exactly what time we’d arrive at the ferry port we hadn’t bought any tickets in advance and bought some at the gate. The cheapest option was a 24hour return ticket which had the option of a 7am return on Sunday morning which is what we asked for… Unfortunately there must have been a communication breakdown somewhere as the return he gave us was for 5pm on Saturday afternoon.
The ferry takes about an hour and a half before reaching Calais. Driving on the opposite side of the road on the awesome 130km/hr motorway, we arrived at Villers-Bretonneaux at about 1:30am Saturday morning and parked up on a street a few kilometres away to have a sleep. The Australian memorial site opened at 2:30am with all visitors asked to be seated by 4:30am. We got out our doonas and had a bit of a sleep in the car until 3am. When the alarm woke us up we put on more layers of clothing, filled our pockets with more ANZAC biscuits and walked up the road towards the memorial site.
I can’t begin to describe how fantastic it was to hear so many Australian voices again! It definitely made me feel homesick. While we were seated waiting for the service to begin they showed photographs of the men who served on the memorial. Some were so young they looked like boys. As we sat in the rain, getting more and more wet we chatted with those around us, learning their stories about how and why they attended, where they came from in Australia. Some had been planning to attend this particular remembrance service for a number of years.
The dawn service was incredibly moving and was something I was really glad to have attended. For those who are unaware, ANZAC day is a remembrance day to commemorate the thousands of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (and other allied forces) who died during the first world war to protect our freedom. It’s held on the 25th of April every year in remembrance of the first landing at Gallipoli in 1915. This year marked the 100 year anniversary of Gallipoli.
The Western Front holds it’s own importance with the 25th of April. A number of the soldiers who had survived Gallipoli ended up in the Western Front the following year. A large battle was held on the evening of the 24th April in 2016 where the town of Villers-Bretonneux was recaptured on the 25th by Australian forces at the cost of 1200 Australian lives. Two thirds of the Australian soldiers who died during the first world war died on the Western Front. There are some 11,000 Australian soldiers ‘missing’ from the first world war, who’s bodies were never found. Their names are written on the memorial in remembrance.
There are over 770 graves in front of the Australian memorial site at Villers-Bretonneux which we walked through before and after the dawn service. Most of the stones had the name and regiment of soldiers recorded, while there were scores of unnamed soldiers with no name. It was a humbling reminder of the cost of war and the price so many brave soldiers paid for my security and safety as a modern day Australian. At the end of the service the audience were invited to lay wreaths upon the memorial. Those who had personally lost family members here were invited first and we watched hundreds stand, medals of loved ones pinned to their chest and gather at the front to pay their respects.
After the service ended we slowly made our way back to the car and began driving back up to Calais via Amiens and Berck on the coast. Arriving early morning in Amiens we wandered around the city eating warm, freshly baked baguettes and croissants to explore the impressive Cathedral.
I was ogling over the fruits and vegetables on display in the farmers market which looked absolutely amazing. If I could have taken it all home… I would love to be able to shop there every week.
A trip to France would be incomplete without eating baguettes and cheese… oh the bread!
Dover greeted us with thick fog that limited the cliffside view to a few metres, despite the sun being out in full force just a few kilometres from the sea front. We sat in the car at the lookout for a while debating about what to do, then when the fog lifted went for a walk getting a nice view of the white cliffs of Dover. Then when the fog started to creep back in and rain started to fall it was time to turn back.
We had planned to wild camp at Dover somewhere on Saturday evening, but after being wet and cold at the dawn service earlier that day both of us were feeling a bit chilly and not really in the mood to set up a wet camp. So we (in other words I) drove back to Liverpool… This is not something I would really recommend with just a couple of hours sleep under your belt. It’s possible, but probably not advisable.
It was a whirlwind of a trip, but I’m glad I made the effort to visit Villers-Bretonneux and attend the ANZAC day dawn service.
Lest we forget