The anticipation was building daily for our choristers, but it reached its peak when they got on the bus from Amiens, as the clock ticked over to Anzac Day 2018. They were ready.
The group arrived on site, to the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, at 1am. The choristers had visited the site during the daytime for rehearsals, but it had a completely different feel in the dark.
It was quite eerie, yet beautiful. Lights respectfully lit up the rows of graves, allowing people to wander and read the epitaphs on the gravestones, including those belonging to soldiers who died 100 years ago to the day.
Upon arrival, the choir was directed to their greenroom-tent and snacked on a classic French breakfast of croissants. They then made sure they had all their layers on, before venturing into the cool to the stage.
The night seemed milder than what the choir had been expecting, but after the choir’s first reflective set, the temperature quickly dropped.
In the pre-dawn service, the choristers were proud to watch Dan and Tilly speak, and getting closer to the official Dawn Service, the dignitaries began to arrive, with the choristers excited to see Prince Charles in the flesh.
When the service began, the choir listened to all the speeches with many stories of French or Australian soldiers who had served in the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. The significance of the battle was noted – how it was a turning point in the war for the allies, but also how it forged a relationship between France and Australia.
The service, while very much focused on Villers-Bretonneux, also paid respect to those who had served in Defence, from the landing at Gallipoli in 1915, to those who had served since, and continue to serve.
The magnitude of the commemorate service could be justified by the dignitaries there, including Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, and of course, His Royal Highness Prince Charles.
During the service, the choir sang the hymn Abide With Me, along with the French and National Anthems as thousands at the site watched, along with those at home who had tuned in.
The weather turned towards the end of the service, as the crowd began to retrieve their plastic ponchos and even Prince Charles reached for an umbrella. The choir could do nothing but embrace it and sing.
“Rain started lightly during the French National Anthem, then got heavier throughout the Australian Anthem but we all stood proud and with a smile on our faces – even if we were shivering!” Chorister Rachel Rollo said.
Towards the end of the service, the choir sang during the wreath laying. There were so many wreaths laid. It was a beautiful sign of all the people who had attended to pay their respects, but with many photos attached to the wreaths, it also showed the toll on life.
This period of time meant the audience could enjoy many beautiful pieces performed by our choir and the Australian Army Band.
Choristers Kate van Bruggen and Josh Beausang were the last to lay a wreath on behalf of Birralee, which was an honour as Kate and Josh both have ancestors who served in Villers-Bretonneux.
“It was an incredible honour to sing with the choir at such a significant commemoration in Australian history. The atmosphere and the service itself were extremely moving and emotional, which resulted in a great tribute to those who lost their lives 100 years ago. It was also a very special moment to lay the wreath with Kate and I was incredibly honoured to represent Voices Of Birralee,” Josh said.
After the service, our choir sang for a small group of people who had gathered. This was an opportunity to sing some lighter repertoire. Soon after, the choristers hurried back to their tent to defrost.
The choir then returned to Amiens for a much needed nap before the afternoon’s activities. The choristers’ official duties were over, but they decided to pay their respects at two services, this time as audience members. This included the Bullecourt Town Service and the service at the Digger Memorial.
As tradition goes, after the Bullecourt Town Service, the Australian Army Band led everyone, from the crowd to dignitaries, to our choristers and school children, up the road to the Digger Memorial.
After the service, the group wandered back down the hill to fulfil another tradition, to have a drink at the Canberra Pub.
It was the end to an amazing day of reflection and music.
It’s been an incredible week, with Anzac Day the highlight for many. Here’s some thoughts from the tourers.
“‘Lest we forget’ is a phrase often associated with remembrance. However, on Anzac Day those words hold greater meaning as we listen to the haunting bugle call at dawn, the reciting of ‘The Ode’ and ‘The Last Post’. I have been fortunate to have participated in three Voices of Birralee Centenary Commemorative tours – April 2016, Sept 2017 and now April 2018. It is an honour to acknowledge the sacrifice and legacy of so many Aussie soldiers who lost their lives on the Western Front – ‘Lest We Forget’,” Georgia Davey said.
“The 2018 Anzac Day tour has been especially significant as we commemorate the centenary of the battle of Villers-Bretonneux and the official opening of the Sir John Monash Centre. We have visited many small towns in The Somme region where we have been warmly welcomed as we shared our gift of music. In particular, I believe Paul’s choice of repertoire this year has allowed audiences to pause and reflect as they listen. Even with or without an understand of the text audiences, and choristers alike, were continually moved by the performances. This is the gift that we give these local French communities. Thank you to Voices of Birralee for this incredible opportunity, and thank you to Katie Littlewood for providing expert accompaniment. Finally, to Paul and Sue, you are a formidable team who have ensured this tour has been a success as we perform as ambassadors for our country.”
Chris Wood noted: “This morning was a truly special experience for all of us. Being there, when 100 years ago Australians our age were fighting for their lives, was surreal. Seeing the sky slowly light up was beautiful, from the darkness to light blue to finally dawn breaking. It was incredibly cold and windy today, so I can only imagine how the weather was when the Aussies retook VB. It was also nice to go to the services at Bullecourt and the Digger Memorial. Being a part of the crowd was just as good as being involved in the ceremony itself. I was so grateful to represent Australia this morning, I will cherish the memory forever.”
Simon Garrett spoke about his pride in his fellow choristers: “Anzac Day started out great with our spirits high, but after each of the first three sets our resolve was strengthened. When the rain set in it became very uncomfortable, even grueling, but we kept on pushing and coping, and it served as even more motivation to give more, so we did. The result was a feeling of pride and achievement more than I have ever felt. After we finished and had time to recuperate, our wind down and farewell dinner was the perfect way to end the tour, from observing Bullecourt’s sense of community to realising our sense of family as a group. Despite the exhaustion, I feel the consensus among us is to do more. Certainly very telling of the Birralee spirit.”
Phillip Suschinsky noted, “It was an amazing and touching experience to perform again at the Dawn Service. We gave it our all, sung from the heart and I am very proud of our little group.”
The APs (accompanying people) have also had an amazing experience, including Brian Wood, who has been an incredible help with this blog, taking so many wonderful photos.
“We are all so proud of our kids and the resilience they showed in singing today in really cold and then wet conditions. I’m sure it was luxury compared to what the diggers endured though. The lead up to the service really set the mood, and had a lot of personal stories from servicemen. I cannot think how it would have been to be a parent whose 20-year-old went to war,” Brian said.
Fellow AP Maria Reid noted: As an AP, we have been gifted a wonderful opportunity to be immersed in the extraordinary talent and dedication of our choir, under sometimes challenging conditions such as the freezing wind and rain today. Yet they never miss a beat, nor does their musical performance or do their engaging smiles fade. The skill of Paul and Kate is a marvel to watch. Today will live in our memory always, as do those who sacrificed their lives so long ago for us all. Thank you all for the privilege.”
AP Dominik Suschinksy noted: “The last week and the last day of Anzac 2018 has been one I will never forget. The music, smiles, hugs and tears within the tour group was exhausting but totally energising, breathtaking. Today we’ve arrived in Paris and split up to return home – which I am looking forward to. Thank you to everyone that worked tirelessly behind the scenes everything was awesome.”
It has been a family affair for many on this tour, beginning with the Holleys, with Paul, conducting, Sue managing, and their daughters Kate and Tess singing:
“Every choir tour I’ve been on has been with another member of my family so I don’t really know anything different but this one did feel extra special,” Kate said.
“To be able to share such an incredible and humbling experience with the people I’m closest too was very exciting. It was so lovely to be able to represent our country as a whole family doing something that we all love to do together,” Kate said.
Other families on tour were the Ingrams, with sisters Meg and Tilly.
“Almost every Birralee tour that I’ve been on has been with my sister, so I don’t really know what it would be like without her! Our whole tour group has become like family over the past two weeks, so we definitely have not been short of close support. But it was very special for me to share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with Tilly. On Anzac Day, our family and friends were all watching at home and were so excited to see both our faces as we represented Birralee and Australia alongside each other. I am proud that we did this together,” Meg said.
Tilly added: “It was special to share it with Meg because we had a relative who served in the war, so it was nice to honour him together on behalf of our family. Meg and I are very close, so it was nice to be able to explore new places around the world with her and make lasting memories.”
Other siblings were Daniel and Lauren Elvery.
“It’s been great to share this experience with Lauren. We’ve both been in Birralee for years together and to get to come over here with her as well is a special part of us both being in Birralee. Also since we both share the same ancestors that fought in the war, being able to learn about their sacrifice and what they did has been cool to share with a sibling,” Daniel said.
Lauren added: “I feel the same way. It was very special to tour with Daniel and realise what our ancestors went through in the war.”
And that brings us to the end of another amazing tour. Congratulations to Paul, Katie and our choristers! You’ve done Voices of Birralee proud, while being fantastic ambassadors for Australia. Have a safe and happy trip home.
A huge thank you to some people who have made this tour possible:
- Voices of Birralee Founder and Artistic Director Julie Christiansen OAM for providing so many choristers an opportunity to travel for this special time in Australia’s history
- Conductor Paul Holley OAM for your hard work and brilliant direction and Katie Littlewood for your beautiful playing
- Sue Holley for being a wonderful manager (and tour mum)
- The Voices of Birralee team of tour organisers (Rochelle and Amirah)
- Department of Veterans’ Affairs for providing the opportunity and for all the support along the way
- Sue Edwards and the team at Definitive Events.
- Major Matt Chilmead and the Australian Army Band.
- Eric Brisse from the Somme region who helped set up a number of performance opportunities for us, and thank you to the communities of Villers-Bretonneux, Bailleul, Vignacourt, Allonville and Paris
- Hernan Alcala and Ensemble Mangata, Paris
- And thank you to Brian Wood for taking the majority of pics for this blog
Thank you to everyone who has followed the blog from home in Australia and abroad.
We hope you’ll join us again for our next tour as 15 choristers travel to France in July to sing at the Centenary of the Battle of Hamel.
Until then, we invite you to join our Friends of Birralee’s Anzac Centenary Tour’s page to keep up-to-date.
We’ll see you soon!
#vobanzac2018 #wewillrememberthem #ww1