At 1am we were on the bus.
“Now, everyone double check – red scarves, Birralee badges, poppies, trench coats, beanies!” our tour manager Sue requested as we scrambled to do the quadruple check.
Surprisingly upbeat for so early in the morning, we were all ready for the half hour or so trip to the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux to perform at the Dawn Service.
As popular tunes came on the French radio station, choristers were heard mumbling the pop tunes, or going over the French National Anthem, just one more time.
Passing through a few brief security checks, the bus eventually crawled up the driveway onto the site, and we each checked for the fifth time if we had everything…just as Simply the Best came on the radio as a kind of ‘rev up’ song.
To ensure the safety of the site, we went through security checks similar to what you get at the airport, before we walked up to the memorial and to our green-room marquee.
We had already spent 1.5 days at the Australian National Memorial, and while it felt familiar, the darkness and stillness of the early morning gave it an eeriness, as lights lit up the grave sites that flanked the paths.
Grabbing a few photos on the way, the choristers dropped off their bags at the marquee before all meeting at the memorial for a quick group photo, as it was the only chance that this photo would be possible all day.
Grabbing a quick bite to eat for a very early brekky, Paul conducted a warm up, as he counted down to when we were needed for the pre-dawn service entertainment.
It wasn’t long before we headed to the stage to take our places, but not before passing the Royal Australian Air Force band as the choristers and musicians wished each other luck.
The pre-dawn service was announced, and we all felt such pride as ‘the Voices of Birralee choir from Brisbane’ was read out.
And then we were off, easing the crowd into the Dawn Service with songs such as Ubi Caritas, Waltzing Matilda and We Will Remember Them.
As we came out for our second set it was lovely to hear the familiar sound of a recording of the Birralee Blokes singing ‘In Flanders Fields’ as a slide show was projected onto the tower.
We sang in two pre-service sets, alternating songs with the band, while there were a number of songs we performed together.
Between the breaks, we re-fuelled on coffee and snacks, while adding layers to brace for the frosty cold of dawn.
The morning went very quickly and soon we were ready to go out for the Dawn Service. The bugle sounded the live broadcast was beginning on the ABC, as we hoped our families at home had remembered to tune in!
It was freezing (not as cold as the rehearsal day though), as we absorbed what was in front of us; thousands who had travelled in the icy cold morning to pay tribute to the Anzacs; the 46,000 people who had died in the Western Front region during WW1, the troops that lay to rest in Turkey and various other regions, the servicemen and women who fought in subsequent wars, including those who continue to serve within our current defence forces.
Beyond the crowd were the graves, where fallen soldiers lay, many with the message ‘known unto God’. And behind us, the walls of the memorial listed the names of the 11,000 soldiers ‘missing’ in action in France.
During the service we were reminded of the sacrifices the Aussie and NZ soldiers of WW1 made, while the presence of military icons such as His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd) Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia and Victoria Cross recipient Corporal Daniel Keighran reminded us of the continued efforts by Australia’s current servicemen and women.
We participated in the service by singing the hymn, The Lord is My Shepherd, and the French and Australian National Anthems, while providing background music for the public wreath laying. Our choristers, Dan O’Regan and Sam Bosa laid the wreath on behalf of Birralee.
All the while, the sun came up; the same sunrise our Anzacs would have seen in this very spot around 100 years ago, however, without the beauty we witnessed. Choristers, including Sam Bosa and Lucy Heywood, soaked in the atmosphere, paying tribute to their ancestors who served in both France and Turkey.
Once the service had finished, and the crowd began to clear, we headed back to Amiens for a couple of hours’ rest before the afternoon services.
Meeting for the Town Service in Bullecourt around 2.30pm, we were part of the audience this time, paying tribute to the toll on Australian, British and French troops in WW1.
When the service concluded we followed the French veterans, band, school children and dignitaries in the march along the road to the Australian Digger Memorial.
Arriving to the Digger Memorial, it started to drizzle, but we didn’t mind, as we were back in ‘official mode’ with a job to do. We sang a hymn, Amazing Grace, and the two anthems again at what seemed to be a more casual service, however, still incredibly meaningful.
At the end of the service, we presented the band’s musicians with Birralee badges to show appreciation for their work, which one official described to us earlier that day as ‘very schmick’, (he also said a number of people had been commenting on the proficiency of this ‘Birralee choir’ who would be providing choral services over the centenary period!).
With official duties completed, there was only one thing left to do – head into the town of Bullecourt, to none other than “Le Canberra” Pub on Rue du 11-Novembre, to enjoy a beverage…or two.
After a huge day (that we were delighted had gone extremely well!), we enjoyed debriefing with our fellow choristers, while mingling with the defence personnel and local community.
Oh and the second thing we needed to do was sing a few songs: As we raised our final glass of the day, for The Parting Glass.
When asked for an encore, we sang Waltzing Matilda and had a few surprise soloists.
Overall, the ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ chant summed it up. What a day to feel patriotic, when you have succeeded in representing your country doing what you love most – singing.
Performing at Anzac Day 2016 has been an incredible day for the 30 Voices of Birralee choristers. No Anzac Day AND no singing performance will be the same again.
A huge thank you must go to:
Voices of Birralee’s Artistic Director, Julie Christiansen OAM for initiating this opportunity which will provide many choristers an international singing experience where they can represent their country on one of the Australia’s most significant days of the year, Anzac Day, among other prominent WW1 commemorative events across Europe.
Our conductor, Paul Holley OAM for his hard work, professionalism, perfectionism and overall love and dedication to choral musical which he instils in choristers everyday. He ensured we could provide the best choral representation for Birralee and the country, while doing justice to the sanctity of Anzac Day.
Our assistant conductor, Jenny Moon, for her support of Paul. We were fortunate to enjoy Jenny’s expressive and beautiful conducting a couple of times on the trip, while she was always at the ready to step in at any moment if Paul was unable (however, knew when Paul was faking a cough at the Grand Anzac Concert and declined to step in!).
Sue Holley, our tour manager, and sometimes ‘Mother Hen’. She ensured we were all on the bus each morning, were wearing the right clothes, ensured we were well fed, enquired after us if we were flailing, plus so much more. Thank you!
Voices of Birralee’s Events and Operations Manager, Rochelle Manderson for her incredible organisation of this trip, with unrelenting attention to detail and passion for ensuring the choristers would have a trip of a lifetime. She has succeeded!
And to the families, friends and supporters in both Australia and France, and those who have helped us along the way, allowing for performance opportunities in Paris, Villers-Bretonneux and Amiens. We are very appreciative!
Finally, a huge thank you to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for affording us this remarkable opportunity, and for the support you’ve provided in helping Voices of Birralee achieve its commitment.
Thank you all!
We will remember them, Lest we forget.
(Follow the latest tour news via Friends of Birralee’s Anzac Centenary Tours group on Facebook).