Day 9! The people of Villers-Bretonneux

It was poignant the final concert of the tour would be for the people of Villers-Bretonneux. But first, the day began with rehearsals at the Australian National Memorial.

Overnight the temperature dropped approximately 10 degrees and the wind picked up. It made for a very cold start as the choristers sat in the shade of the monument awaiting the sun.

“Today we were shivering, instead of sweating, during our rehearsals at ANM! The warmth of spring disappeared, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped to create a chilly morning on the Western Front. We could not help but realise this was a taste of what is to come on Anzac Day morning,” chorister Meg Ingram said. 

“Many choristers began formulating plans for choice of layers of clothing to wear during the Dawn Service given today’s windy and cold conditions. It did however solidify our purpose in remembrance of our Aussie soldiers who would have battled similar conditions 100 years ago on this same terrain,” chorister Georgia Davey said. 

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At the Victoria School, next to the Franco-Australian Museum. 

After the rehearsal the group visited the Musee Franco-Australien in Villers-Bretonneux, with some of the choristers who had visited in 2016, noticing the beautiful renovations since.

The museum demonstrates the strong friendship between Australia and Villers-Bretonneux through displays of personal effects and letters which have all been donated to the museum.

Villers-Bretonneux Town Hall (pic by Brian)

The choristers then got ready for the evening’s concert, for the town of Villers-Bretonneux, with many marking it a highlight so far, with chorister Kate Holley noting she felt the locals’ appreciation for the Australians.

“Seeing all the students’ Australian-inspired artwork on the walls and hearing them sing along with us to Waltzing Matilda in the performance, made me realise how much this appreciation for Australia is ingrained into their culture and education. I couldn’t help but smile. It made me want to give my best performance to show my appreciation for the beautiful people of Villers-Bretonneux and thank them for making me feel so at home,” she said.

Meg Ingram noted: “The reception of the town to our presence and music was incredibly appreciative. I think it has been my favourite concert so far, because of the overwhelming feeling of happiness that was sustained for me through the whole night. The feeling you get from singing in Villers-Bretonneux as an Australian, is a precious experience.”

“Tonight’s concert was also the last gig of the tour (apart from Anzac Day), so for a lot of us it was quite emotional, myself included. I think I had tears in my eyes for half the concert. I’m going to miss singing with this group. We’ve gelled really well and sound great, everyone is so happy and we just love it. This past week has gone far to fast,” chorister Chris Wood said. 

“The concert in the covered market was spectacular as ever- seeing the kids singing along with waltzing Matilda was super special,” Fergus Harte said. 

A huge thank you to everyone who made this concert possible, including Villers-Bretonneux Mayor Patrick Simon and Deputy Mayor Benoit Decottegnie and Lorraine El Yabouri from Franco-Australian Museum as well as the entire Villers-Bretonneux community.

While the past week has been a great deal of fun, with a number of emotional moments, it has never been too far from the choristers’ minds why they are here and the horrific events that took place in this part of the world 100 years ago.

“As I come closer to the day I find myself thinking about all the men who came over here. There were all roughly my age and that is what hits the hardest. When I sing on the 25th I sing for them, my great grandfather and nothing could make more proud of being an Australian than those heroic soldiers,” chorister Phillip Suschinsky said. 

One of the choristers, and a keen observer of history Andrew Messenger notes his experience and thoughts surrounding this centenary, along with why he believes the memories of war and sacrifice should be kept alive.

“I’m a member of the first generation in history never to be asked to kill by my government. We have records for “war” dating back to 1457 BC in Egypt, and organised murder has been a consistent feature of human civilisation ever since. Perhaps even one of the defining features. And along with the blood, pain and fire we have produced unit histories, individual memoirs; memory.

“Why do we remember war? What is the value of lingering on pain and horror, on the worst of our behaviour? I do not think it is because war occasionally, rarely unleashes the better angels of our otherwise immiserated nature.

“In this tour I’ve been actually angry only once. In the 20s, the French built a memorial at the site of the humiliating ceasefire they forced the Germans to sign. It shows a French bird stabbing a German eagle. Triumph! We win! The site was later used by the Nazis to humiliate the children born of such empty hubris.

“The British memory of the Great War is dominated by July 1 on the Somme, a day of tragedy and defeat in which they lost sixty thousands of men killed or wounded. The Thiepval museum has an entire room filled with nothing but last letters to parents. A Corporal writes “My one great hope is that I may prove brave in the midst of all the horror which my comrades describe so dramatically”. The next day he jumped off and was immediately hit; his war ended within a few seconds of its starting. Was there time for bravery?

“What about the sacrifice of Lt. A.R. Allan, 10th Battalion Australian Infantry? His parents had ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” inscribed on his gravestone in Ballieu – but was there really anything sweet and seemly about dying at age 22? What about Henry Gunther, a 23 year old American who proved his valour charging headlong at a German MG position on November 11 – they begged him to stop, but were forced to fire. It was 10:59. Another eleven thousand men were pointlessly killed that day, after the terms of the war had been decided, because their commanders wanted the nice number thing.

“But I think the people of Villiers-Bretonneaux have the best approach. Australians captured the town from the Germans in 1918, then rebuilt it in the 1920s, and they will never forget. They teach their children Waltzing Matilda in school, and hang Australian flags from light poles.

“I’ve never sat in a dank trench under fire; I’m not one of the wounded, dying, blind or insane war must always produce. That’s a really big deal for me. Let’s keep the lights on all around the world. Let’s light them where they remain dark. And let’s remember what happens when arrogance or cowardice or lack of charity leads us to fail.” 

***

The countdown is on for Anzac Day!

More soon.
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Day 8 – Rehearsals continue & the realisation sets in

On Sunday our choristers had their second rehearsal at the Australian National Memorial (ANM) for Wednesday’s service.

Oh and while you’re reading, please make a note to tune into the ABC at 1.30pm this Wednesday for the broadcast of the Anzac Day and Villers-Bretonneux Centenary Commemoration. 

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The view from the Australian National Memorial tower, Villers-Bretonneux (pic by Tilly)

Being back at the ANM, it was amazing for the choristers to see how everything will fit together, with all elements of the service running like a well-oiled machine to make the commemoration effective and respectful in remembering this time in our history.

The realisation of what the choristers are here to do is setting in.

“From my seat in the choir today, I looked out over ANM and could see a clear blue sky, the Australian flag flying high next to the French and a group of Australians coming together to create something special and memorable. It makes me proud to be an Australian and blessed to be able to honour our servicemen and women in a place as beautiful as our host country, France,” chorister Kate Holley said.

 

 

In an extra special moment, the choristers got to climb the memorial’s tower for an impressive view which allowed them to imagine the sort of strategy behind how Australian might have pushed back on the German spring offensive 100 years ago.

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The rising sun, but from another perspective, inside the ANM tower (pic by Kerry)

After rehearsals and lunch on site, which allowed the choristers a chance to meet lots of people, including some from the band, the group had the afternoon off, with some choosing to wash clothes, collect essential snacks or have a nap.

Dinner was shared at a restaurant on the canal in central Amiens, just as the choristers began to notice the change in weather. This seemed to herald the end to a week of beautiful Spring sunshine, with cooler weather now expected as we get closer to Anzac Day.

Today (Monday) our choristers will participate in another rehearsal at ANM, with the evening spent in Villers-Bretonneux, performing a concert to the locals.

We look forward to bringing you more news soon, but in the meantime, we’ve shared some clips below from earlier in the tour. This includes Fields of Allonville (words Joshua Clifford and music Joe Twist), performed in Allonville.

The second piece is After the War (Paul Gross & David Keele, arr. Mark Sirett), performed in Vignacourt and shared by Intercultural Consulting Group -travel leisure education.

Thanks so much for following!

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Day 7: The first rehearsal at ANM, and arriving to Vignacourt

The countdown is on for our choristers as they prepare for Anzac Day.

Saturday marked the first rehearsal for the commemoration service, beginning with meeting the Australian Army Band, before heading to the Australian National Memorial (ANM), in Villers-Bretonneux.

It was all super exciting for the choristers as they arrived at the site to another sunny day. With all the immense set up happening, it began to set in what the choristers are here to do.

Chorister Kate van Bruggen noted: “It was surreal having so many Australians all in the once place in France – but it made a foreign place feel like home which was lovely and comforting,” she said.

“I found this morning to be very moving – even though it was just a rehearsal. It’s incredible that so many people are working tirelessly to ensure that the Anzac Day service at VB gives our Anzacs the recognition and commemoration they so rightly deserve.”

 

Fellow chorister, Meg Ingram added,”Many of us found it surreal to realise that after many months of hype and preparation, we were finally singing in the grounds of the beautiful memorial. The rehearsals today, though very hot and tiring, were incredibly exciting and made us realise how humbling this ceremony will be.”

After the morning’s rehearsal, the group left ANM for Vignacourt and stopped to explore Thuilliers’ Farmhouse museum.

The old farmhouse is where a collection of glass plate negatives (photos from the war) were found in recent times. The photos were taken by Louis and Antoinette Thuillier in WW1 who set up a photo studio to capture photos of soldiers who passed through the town.

The collection is now displayed both in Canberra and at the museum in Vignacourt.

The collection features amazing photos – some thought provoking and some hilarious, showing the residents of the town and the soldiers who passed through, going about their daily life and also posing for portraits.

The choir had fun trying to to recreate some portraits in the same style, but using much more modern technology.

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After the museum, the group got ready for the evening’s events in Vignacourt.

The Vignacourt townspeople provided the group a generous dinner before the choir sang in a Mass for Peace at Église Saint-Firmin de Vignacourt. The Mass for Peace involved priests from various countries and also a non-Catholic minister from the ADF. It was an amazing service of inclusion and friendship.

Following the mass, the choir performed a concert to a very receptive local audience who seemed to know all the words to It’s a Long Way to Tipperary as well as the choir’s French repertoire, A La Claire Fontaine and La Vie En Rose.

Like all of the concerts the choir has presented over the week, the concert in Vignacourt had its own share of emotions.

“Tonight’s concert was quite emotional at Vignacourt Cathedral as there were several French Army Veterans in the audience who wept throughout every piece – they came up to us afterwards and were so thankful that we had shared our music with them,” Kate said.

Meg added, “We are all continually astounded and moved by the overwhelming gratitude of the French people that we sing to. There were many tears tonight – both from the French audience, and the choristers too. Suffice it to say that we all love singing here in France!”

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The entire tour has been an incredible experience, with more to go. Chorister Emma Anstey-Codd summed up her experience so far:

“My experience on tour thus far has been both deeply moving and inspirational. The newly opened Sir John Monash Centre at the Australian National Memorial was a particular highlight, and was the most immersive and emotional museum I have ever visited,” she said.

“To hear of both the tragedies and the incredible victories of our Australian soldiers is a humbling experience. I have shed many tears visiting the memorials and cemeteries which are so lovingly cared for by the communities these men gave their lives to protect. The stories of the Diggers also fill me with great pride.

“A quote from French Prime Minister Georges Clémenceau found on the Memorial at Le Hamel states: ‘When the Australians came to France, the French people expected a great deal of you… we knew that you would fight a real fight, but we did not know that from the very beginning you would astonish the whole continent… I shall go back tomorrow and say to my countrymen, I have seen the Australians, I have looked in their faces, I know that these men will fight alongside of us again until the cause for which we are all fighting is safe for us and for our children’ (1918).

“This spirit of perseverance and mateship, and the opportunity to remember the great loss and tragedy of the Western Front is what we take with us moving forward to rehearsals at ANM, preparing for Anzac Day.”

We’ll bring you more news soon!

#vobanzac2018 #ww1 #lestweforget

Day 6: On the battlefields of the Somme

Day 6 (Friday) marked the choir’s first day off with no rehearsals or performances scheduled.

It had been such a wonderful evening on Thursday night with the Bailleul community, so it was time to explore a little more of the town, including visiting the Bailleul Communal Cemetery, which is where Sergeant JD Batty is buried, the first Australian to die on the Western Front during WW1.

Upon arrival the group was greeted by local school children also visiting the cemetery to learn of its importance to both France and Australia’s history.

The choristers gifted the children a small koala and performed Waltzing Matilda. 

Bailleul Communal Cemetery marked the beginning of a day of battlefield and museum visits, with the next stop, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. 

“The memorial is majestic and inspiring featuring large statues representing the shared ideals of Canada, France and Britain. The names of 11,285 Canadians who were killed in France and have no known grave are carved into the walls of the memorial,” chorister Georgia Davey said.

Fellow chorister Kerry Pickering noted that it was interesting to see the landscape of the nearby Vimy Memorial Park still pockmarked with remains of trenches and shell holes.

“The German and Canadian/allied front lines were within 30 metres of each other in some places which just seems crazy,” she said.

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Another chorister Rachel Rollo added it was incredibly surreal to be where, 101 years ago, an enormous and important battle was fought, and really brought home the magnitude of the war.

“It was particularly surreal to see how beautiful, peaceful and serene the area is now, in particular with the birds singing, daisies and spring sunshine, which to me was incredible that an area that experienced so much devastation could be so at peace now,” she said, and shared the below video.

Next up was the Thiepval Memorial, which is the largest Commonwealth memorial in the world and commemorates the lives of more than 72,000 British and South African soldiers reported missing in the Somme.

Below its towering arches some choristers performed two pieces including When the Earth Stands Still and Remember. The acoustics were stunning, with the sound of Birralee echoing across the rolling hills of the memorial.

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Lochnagar Mine Crater Memorial (pic by Georgia)

As the day drew to a close the group visited the Lochnagar Mine Crater Memorial, which was formed when a mine exploded on the 1 July 1916, creating the largest man-made mine crater on the Western Front.

As the choristers observed the memorial, a gentleman visiting the site stood tall with a bugle in hand and the sound of The Last Post rang across the crater and surrounding fields.

All visitors to the site paused to pay their respect, followed by a minute’s silence. When the choristers thanked the man for his performance, he said: “I visit all the Somme sites regularly as a small way of showing my respect”.

One of the final stops on the way back to Amiens was at the 1st Division Australian Memorial in Pozieres. This was where the Centenary of the Battle of Pozieres was held in July 2016, which involved one of Voices of Birralee’s choirs.

The choristers are now getting ready for their ‘official duties’ of the tour. Saturday will mark the choir’s first rehearsals at the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux,  for next Wednesday’s commemoration service for Anzac Day and the Centenary of the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux.

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The choristers do much needed washing in preparation for the important days ahead – Chris, Kate, Meg and Rohan (pic Tilly)

We’ll bring you more news soon!

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(Follow the journey! Follow our blog by hovering your curser on the bottom right-hand corner of this page and enter your email address, and you are also invited to join the Friends of Birralee’s Anzac Centenary Tours group on Facebook.) 

Day 5 – VB, Le Hamel & Bailleul

Day Five and the choristers paid a visit to the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, to explore the newly built Sir John Monash Centre, which will open officially on Anzac Day.

This centre sits discreetly behind the towering memorial (our choristers will perform in front of the memorial for the Anzac Day Dawn Service).

VOB France Tour 2018

The Sir John Monash Centre, Villers-Bretonneux (pic by Paul)

Choir conductor Paul Holley noted the centre was designed perfectly and respectfully.

“The design is fantastic and while it will add so much to the experience of people at the Australian National Memorial, the way it is hidden, largely underground behind the memorial, doesn’t take anything away from the present site,” he said.

“The information is presented so well with documentary style presentations throughout mixed with writings from soldiers, officers and historians. Visitors use an App which allows them to work through the presentations as they choose. It’s such a fantastic place to visit – we needed to add time to our schedule to take it all in.”

The centre is named after Sir John Monash, a significant figure of the First World War, who led the Australian Corps on the Western Front. This included a victory on 4 July 1918 at Le Hamel, a battle our July choir will help commemorate. Discover more about the centre here.

It was only fitting our choristers would also visit The Australian Corps Memorial Park, Le Hamel, which is an impressive memorial at the top of a hill.

More touring involved a visit to the Somme 1916 Museum in Albert to further delve into WW1 history.

Once the day tour was finished, our choir arrived in Bailleul, greeted by the hospitable townspeople and Mayor. Here they were gifted beautiful commemorative cups.

This was followed by our choristers providing the town a concert at Eglise St Vaast Church, which was attended by about 140 people, including some students from the local trade school.

It was such a wonderful evening! A special thank you to Bailleul Mayor Marc Deneuche and his councillors, Bernard, Sebastian and Catherine and their delightful helpers Lucy, Olivia and Martine, and the community for welcoming our choir so warmly.

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Today (Friday) the choir will visit the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Bailleul where the first Australian to die in Flanders in WW1 is buried. They’ll then head to Vimy Ridge and other battlefield sites, and will enjoy a concert-free night, after four nights of performances.

Saturday will mark the first rehearsals for the Anzac Day Dawn Service. The anticipation is building.

More soon!

#vobanzac2018 #ww1 #lestweforget

Day 4 – Fields of Allonville

Our choristers have left the bustle of Paris and are now in northern France, visiting many locations at the centre of Australia and the world’s WW1 history.

What a lovely drive, with stunning views.

On the way, the tourers stopped at the Armistice Museum in Compiènge. This was the site of the signing of the Armistice in November 1918 (and then Hitler used it for France’s surrender in 1940).

There is a replica (an original carriage in the same series, remodelled to the exact decor of the original) of the carriage in which this historic event occurred.

After learning about this historic moment (which another of Voices of Birralee’s choirs will help commemorate the centenary of in France this November) the choristers enjoyed lunch in the town, before their trip continued to Allonville. Any lunch in France involves pastries and cheese!

The choristers checked into their hotel in Amiens before heading to Allonville, where their host for the evening was the gracious and hilarious Marcel – a wonderful character who kindly showed the group around the town.

“We were given a short tour around the gorgeous town of Allonville and visited the cemetery where English, Australian and French servicemen were buried. We sang ‘Abide with Me’ in the cemetery grounds which was very emotional, but extremely special,” chorister Tilly said.

After the tour, the choristers performed at Allonville Church to a full house.

The choir had an excellent reception, with a special moment being the France premiere of  ‘Fields of Allonville’ written by Birralee chorister Joshua Clifford, and music by Joe Twist.

Josh was inspired to write this song after his visit to Allonville with the Western Front Centenary Choir in July 2016 who performed at the town’s first commemoration service for the Australian soldiers who died here.

While Allonville was mainly a location for respite during WW1, where the Aussie performance troupe “The Smart Set” would often entertain, it wasn’t immune to the horror of war.

Disaster struct on 31 May 1918, when the local barn, often used for performances, was hit by two German shells. Many soldiers of the 14th Battalion had been sleeping in the barn and there were 87 casualties, with 27 killed. Read more here.

To share this song with the locals was an incredibly special moment.

“The people of the village were so happy to be honoured in that way and in turn honoured us with a delicious and joyous town hall dinner,” chorister Rachel said.

It was a very moving day, which brought home just how much the Australians mean to the people of this area. One hundred years later and they still line the streets with Australian flags, lovingly maintain the Australian war graves, and teach their children to make Anzac biscuits!

The choir was given a massive Anzac biscuit to share!

VOB France Tour 2018

Anzac biscuits baked by the locals! (Pic by Chris)

The choristers are all looking forward to today (Thursday) where they will perform for the town of Bailleul. We can’t wait to share what they discover!

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Day 3 – Performing at the Arc de Triomphe

Tuesday was a fun-filled day for our choristers to explore more of Paris, while also experiencing their second performance of the tour.

Places ventured included Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower and popular museums, Musee d’Orsay and Musee de l’Orangerie, all the while enjoying the beautiful sunshine.

Some chose to visit the intriguing Les Catacombes of Paris, noting it was worth the three hour wait to enter the historic site, to explore the former quarries now housing almost six million Parisians.

APs Brian and Justine ventured to Montmarte to check out the fabulous view from the  spectacular Sacré-Cœur Basilica. They climbed the dome of the cathedral, over 3,000 steps, for the best view in Paris. They then explored the art market and the Salvador Dali Museum.

The choir regrouped in the afternoon for the tour’s second performance, this time at the Rekindling of the Flame Ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe.

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Our choristers Phillip and Georgia led the group (pic by Sue)

Chorister, Rachel Rollo did an amazing job as the choir’s official interpreter, trying to decipher what was expected, as the choir lined up to march along the famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe, including venturing across the world’s busiest round-a-bout, with police stopping the traffic to allow the group to pass.

Choristers Phillip Suschinsky and Georgia Davey were honoured to lead the choir as they marched with local school students, veteran French soldiers and dignitaries, before delivering the Voices of Birralee wreath to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Once the group had arrived to the Arc de Triomphe, they readied themselves to perform at the daily 6.30pm service.

“It was a moving service as we acknowledged the sacrifice of many soldiers who have lost their lives in war, but in particular the sacrifice of the unknown French soldier who gave his life in WW1,” chorister Georgia said.

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Our APs are also relishing the special moments as much as our choristers, with one AP, Dominik grateful to march with the group, noting it as “a very moving moment to begin the next phase of our journey.”

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Once the service began, our choir sang the French National Anthem to the local French audience (and tourists) along with the beautifully moving Sing Me to Heaven.

 

VOB France Tour 2018

The 2018 Anzac Day Commemoration Choir (pic by Brian)

A special thank you to Eric Brisse for setting up the opportunity for our choristers to perform at the Arc de Triomphe – it was such an incredible experience and a wonderful way to spend their final day in Paris.

After the ceremony choristers went various ways for dinner, yet most found themselves together again on the slopes of the Trocadero, watching the Eiffel Tower twinkle in the evening’s light show.

Today (Wednesday) our choristers are on their way from Paris to Amiens to be further immersed in First World War history. They are looking forward to performing tonight in a special concert for the Allonville community.

We can’t wait to share their experience!

In the meantime, we invite you to follow our tours via our Friends of Birralee’s Anzac Centenary Tours Facebook page, and make sure you subscribe to this blog by hovering your cursor over the bottom right hand side of the page.

More soon.

#vobanzac2018 #lestweforget #wewillrememberthem