Category Archives: Anzac Day 2016

The AP experience – What our accompanying people remember from our tours

Since our tours began as part of the WW1 Western Front Centenary Choir project, we’ve always shared experiences from our choristers’ perspectives.

So, for this post, we’ve taken a different approach, asking our APs (those non-choristers who have accompanied our tours) to share their memories.

Tour 1: 2015 Anzac Day Commemoration Choir (Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux and Service at the Digger Memorial, Bullecourt) 

Philip and Sally Willington toured in support of their daughter Jane Murtagh and her husband, Brendan. The trip was especially relevant to the Willingtons having an ancestor who served on the Western Front from 1916 – 18.

2015 Anzac Day Commemoration Choir

The 2015 Anzac Day Commemoration Choir, taken by the Willingtons at the Victoria School.

“We had the great pleasure of accompanying the choir on the tour to Villers-Bretonneux for the Anzac Day Dawn Service and each of the other performances in the various battlefield towns around the area of the Somme.

“The afternoon service on Anzac Day at Bullecourt was very inspirational in beautiful spring afternoon weather. There seemed to be a great sense of relief that came over the members of the choir once they had finished their formal performance commitments after several days of touring. This relief culminated in some drinks in the main road of Bullecourt, and an impromptu performance of The Parting Glass as a show of thanks to the organiser of their tour. I understand it was the favourite song amongst the choir members and it was very emotional and inspirational.

“The members of the choir spent some time experiencing the history of the war at local museums and other displays and seemed to be quite affected by the tragedy. They were wonderful ambassadors for Australia, delicately balancing the celebration of the Anzac landing centenary and also demonstrating great respect for the tens of thousands of Australians who were killed or wounded in the area of the Somme.

“I am sure they impressed everyone who had the pleasure of seeing them perform with both their singing ability as a choir and also as young Australian ambassadors to an area of France that holds Australia in such high esteem.

“One highlight was the choir’s performance in the Villers-Bretonneux Covered Market with some of the local primary school children singing Waltzing Matilda which resulted in a rousing standing ovation and was very moving. It was a fitting end to an evening in the town which proudly displays the sign ‘Do Not Forget Australia’ in the nearby primary school playground, with local students apparently sings the Australian National Anthem every day.”

Tour 2: 2016 Anzac Day Centenary Choir (Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux and Service at the Digger Memorial, Bullecourt) 

Miree Le Roy supported her daughter Isabelle Fielding on this tour.

“The Dawn Service was very organised but somewhat sterile (not to mention freezing), however, the service at Bullecourt was much more intimate and meaningful. The rain during the service seemed very fitting,” she said.

“I would highly recommend the experience. The visiting to the various memorial sites and museums is not something you would typically do except on a trip such as this.

“It gave me a greater understanding of a terrible time in history that we tend not to consider here in Australia.”

Tour 3: 2016 Western Front Centenary Choir (Centenary of the Battle of Fromelles and Pozieres) 

Kym Boon toured as an AP in support of Sarah Morton.

“The beauty and solemnity of the ceremonies was a highlight. It was great to be a part of it all and witness it in person.”

Other highlights included being able to “… share in some small way the choristers’ experience of this special event, to experience the beauty and magic of what the Birralee choirs can do in such an emotional tour, to learn in a more intimate way about what happened to those who defended our country during WW1.

“Observing the obvious bonds between the choristers and seeing them further develop during the tour was another highlight. The impromptu performances in Amiens and Albert cathedrals were intimate and beautiful and reflected the emotional investment of the choristers in the overall experience.”

Tour 4: 2017 Anzac Day Commemoration Choir (Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux and Service at the Digger Memorial, Bullecourt) 

Brigitte Deeb accompanied her son Anthony, while being a manager of the tour. While she didn’t have a family member who served in WW1, she was grateful to learn so much and enjoyed hearing family stories from others.

Reflecting upon the services she attended, she noted:

“It was an almost sombre, eerie feeling, and I had to pinch myself a few times. It was a wonderful experience and one I would highly recommend to anyone considering being a part of such an event and tour,” she said.

For those future APs, Brigitte offered the following advice:

“Do some research on your family prior to tour to make it more memorable. There is quite a lot of free time for APs, particularly in Paris so make the most of this amazing city and make some plans.”

Claire Grebert supported Tilly Lawson on the same tour, with the family having two distant relatives remembered at The Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux. She laid a wreath at the Anzac Day Dawn Service in their honour.

Reflecting on the service, she noted:

“It was very cold – the conditions 100 years ago must have been horrific, I also wondered about the experience of the locals and their interaction with the troops,” she said.

Experiences that will stay with Claire include “… the choir’s performances in the churches. The sound was magnificent. Also, the war graves were sobering.”

“Overall, the tour was excellent – the care taken at the beginning of the trip when we received our envelope of metro tickets and other items touched me with the thoughtfulness of it.”

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The APs! Michael, Phil, Steve, Robyn and Sandra.

Tour 5: 2017 Western Front Centenary Choir (Centenary of the Battle of Polygon Wood, Belgium) 

Steven and Robyn Davey, parents of chorister, Georgia, attended the tour where our Western Front Centenary Choir performed at the Centenary of the Battle of Polygon Wood.

“It was so memorable to have the opportunity to join with members of the choir representing our county at these important events. On many occasions the emotions were overwhelming for the choristers and personally for us. It was extremely well organised in terms of performances, visits to cemeteries and memorials, museums, as well as accomodation. The Birralee tour organisers were amazing too. It was a very happy tour group as well.”

For the Daveys, there were many highlights including the choir singing at Menin Gate on two occasions, meeting the locals for choral performances, impromptu performances upon visits to various cemeteries, along with the Dawn Service at Polygon Wood.

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Steve and Robyn Davey.

“As dawn broke, a mist rolled in on us. After entering via the impressive re-enactments during the Reflective Trail we experienced the haunting sound of a didgeridoo and later the bagpipes were played.

“It was a chilling reminder of what it might have been like for the young men who sacrificed all for their country over 100 years ago. The Australian Memorial sits high on the butte as a reminder of the sacrifices made.

“There are rows and rows of headstones as reminders of what occurred here and how significant it was. It was special to be a part of the commemoration with the choir, the Australian Army Band, Crown Princess of Belgium- Princess Astrid and our Governor General. It was great to be an Australian overseas.”

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Thanks to all of the APs who have been involved in each tour and have added so much to the experience through supporting our choirs as a cheer squad and providing support during emotional experiences.

Are you a past AP? Tell us about your experience by commenting below, or email marketing@birralee.org.

Day 8: The last post

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.

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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!

#vobanzac2016

We will remember them, Lest we forget. 

(Follow the latest tour news via Friends of Birralee’s Anzac Centenary Tours group on Facebook).

Day 7: Rest day, and exploration.

The countdown is almost over – it is Anzac Day tomorrow!

We enjoyed a rest day today (Sunday), where we opted to chill out, or set off and explore more of the region. A number of us took it as an opportunity to discover the Somme.

Our first stop was the 1st Australian Division Memorial in Pozières. This is one of the sites where our July tourers will perform for the 100th year commemoration of the Battles of Pozières. We learnt from the history plaques that during seven weeks from July, 1916, more than 6,700 Australian soldiers lost their lives; which marks the most soldiers lost in one battle field.

Next stop was The Museum of the Somme, in Albert. The museum is set upon very cool tunnels, which were built like many in the region, for the purpose of taking cover from any Spanish or Normand invasion around the 16th century. The museum tunnels now feature artefacts and historic displays, with a focus on WW1.

Over the past week we have been immersed in Australia’s WW1 history in France, however, visiting this museum provided us more of an overall picture on other countries’ involvement, including the allied forces and Germany. We saw what a German trench looked like, while viewing each countries’ choice of weapons and uniforms.

Photography included a picture of what the town of Albert looked like in 1916, a town that was flat and destroyed, compared to what it looks like now.

The museum also featured letters from soldiers, satirical post cards, while drawing attention to identities that became known from WW1 for  various reasons, such as John Mc Crae, a field sergeant with the Canadian Artillery. He wrote the poem, In Flanders Fields, which is part of our repertoire. Mc Crae died in 1918 in Boulogne, Northern France, from pneumonia.

After the museum, we explored the gardens and the town, had a quick bite to eat, before jumping on the bus for the next historic destination.

Exploring the Australian Corps Memorial was next on the list. The site, which overlooks the town of Le Hamel, with vast and stunning views, acknowledges Australia’s efforts in the region. It is said that the Battle of Hamel took just 93 minutes in July 1918 – more info here. The significant work of Lieutenant General John Monash from Melbourne, whom Monash University was named after, is recognised here. One of the plaques includes a quote from Monash, where he describes a battle plan as being similar to orchestral arrangements and musicians.

“A perfect modern battle plan is like nothing so much as a score for an orchestral composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments, and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases…” 

The memorial features the Australian, Britain, American, France and Canadian flags. We decided to honour those lost with a song.

The day was rounded up with a stop at The Adelaide Cemetery in Villers-Bretonneux. It was from this cemetery where the remains of ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’ were transferred to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

We located this grave, where Governor-General, Peter Cosgrove had already visited this morning to lay a wreath. It was beautiful to also see a cross from Como West Public School, NSW saying; “Thank you for helping me, my family and my country. Lest we forget.” 

One of our choristers, Gerard, had been tasked by the Caboolture/Morayfield RSL to locate a grave of a soldier known to one of their member’s families. 

At the Adelaide Cemetery, Gerard found Lance Corporal William Overend Wilson’s grave to lay a poppy.

Wilson was in the 31st Australian Infantry Battalion. He was the son of John Radcliffe Wilson and Marie Catherine Maud Wilson, of Mount Surprise Station, Frewhurst, and was born in Cairns, Queensland, however, was associated with Esk. He was a Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal recipient and died on 25 May, 1918, aged 25.

Gerard will now be able to return home and share pictures of his findings with the RSL, while noting the location of the grave. It is in a place that is so geographically different to what Lance Corporal Wilson would have known in 1918.

Today was an awesome way to further explore the history and stories of WW1, which amplifies the importance of why we are in France for Anzac Day.

We are all going to have a rest now, to be on the bus for 1am (Monday) to head to The Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux for the Dawn Service, followed by a service at The Digger Memorial, Bullecourt.

It’s going to be an incredibly emotional, tiring day, which will be so rewarding as we honour the Anzacs in this significant commemorative event.

We can’t wait to let you know how it goes!

Lest we forget.

(Stay up to date with news at Friends of Birralee’s Anzac Centenary Tours).

Day 6: One and a half more sleeps…

After a massive Friday with rehearsals and the Grand Anzac Concert, we were set to face another big day today, this time at The Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux.

We arrived at VB just before 9am, ready for all types of weather and found our place on the stage, next to the Royal Australian Air Force band.

As mentioned in the last blog, the rehearsals are mainly to ensure a smooth process when the ABC broadcasts the Anzac Day Dawn Service live (1.30pm, Monday 25 April).

That means many run-throughs to ensure all the technical / people aspects are set. During rehearsals, everyone was in good spirits and we did our part; singing our best to showcase how we intend to sound on Monday.

We were hopeful of some sunshine to see us through, however, we instead endured frosty air with blasts of icy wind.

It’s fortunate that we are a creative and resourceful bunch, so started working out the best ways to use the clothing we had to be as comfortable as possible while we waited between sets. Some fashioned jumpers into scarves, while others chose to wear their uniform cap with a beanie to ensure sun protection and warmth.

The prize for ingenuity, however,  went to chorister / piano accompanist Brendan for how he used his plastic poncho. Instead of wearing it like the regular person might, he wrapped it around his legs, to resemble a plastic skirt. This apparently contributed to his general overall warmth. He did have the advantage of hindsight though, having participated in last year’s Anzac Day trip.

The trend soon caught on, and by the end of the day a number of choristers were using the same technique, especially when the wind was fierce. People must have thought we were strange…

A little girl was overheard asking her mother, “Why are they wearing plastic bags around their legs?”

When we had breaks off the stage, we had our own ‘green room’ marquee, where we were able to defrost by reinstating the ‘penguin huddle’ mentioned in the last blog, complemented by coffee.

Between rehearsing the music, our choristers who will be speaking at the pre-dawn service, practised their readings. This included our resident French interpretor, chorister Charlotte, who will read a poem.

We didn’t have a lot of down time during the rehearsal, but when we did, it was great to chat with some of the musicians in the band and representatives from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

The short breaks were also a good chance to check out the memorial, while viewing the graves at the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery, in the same site.

This was a good chance for our returning chorister, Sam Bosa to revisit a grave she discovered last year as part of an ‘Adopt a Digger’ program run by State Library of Queensland.

The library last year provided the 2015 Anzac Commemoration choristers a fallen Queensland digger to research and find their grave on the Western Front.

Sam’s Adopt-a-Digger was Private Percy Leonard Cooney from Brisbane, who served in the 26th Battalion. He was wounded in action and died on 11 August 1918, aged 31.

Sam had found Cooney’s grave during last year’s trip, and upon returning to Australia, she tried to find his descendants, to no avail. Sam decided to visit the grave again today, as she felt it was unlikely his family would have been able to. She is keen to continue to search for his family and to discover more about his history.

Sam’s interest in discovering more about her ‘Adopt a Digger’ shows we can make connections with those who served in WW1, without having direct ancestry.

It was such an important time in Australia’s history, and is so important to commemorate.

While we are having a fun time in France, we also understand the significance of this trip, and intend to be the best ambassadors we can be for Australia.

We can’t wait to honour those who made huge sacrifices to fight for our country, and most often in dire conditions (far worse than the small issue of being cold!). We can’t wait to honour them through what we do best – singing.

We don’t have long to go now! We have a day off tomorrow (Sunday) from rehearsals, so will be visiting Pozières and a number of other sites. I’m sure the tours tomorrow will further instil the importance of why we are here.

More soon!

(Make sure you join Friends of Birralee’s Anzac Centenary Tours group on Facebook for all the news!)

Day 5: Dawn Service rehearsal and mateship

“HUDDLE…like penguins!” one of the choristers whispered with haste. We were at the end of the Grand Anzac Concert tonight. It was a massive community effort with various choirs, soloists, and an orchestra, to commemorate WW1.

We discovered last night, during our rehearsal, how chilly Notre Dame Amiens can get – it was at least 30 degrees colder than outside (yes okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but even still, we ensured we were rugged up for tonight).

It was a beautiful concert, and the ensemble performed Ubi Caritas, We Will Remember Them, and Earth Song, while participating in the mass choir piece, Bach’s Ruht Wohl.

Being a part of this concert was a sensational opportunity. Where else would we have the opportunity to perform in a historic cathedral like Notre Dame, Amiens, with some of its structure dating back to 1220!?

While we had explored the space during the day on Thursday, it was very cool to see what it looked and felt like at night.

We watched the sun go down, shimmering through the beautiful stained glass windows. The cathedral was then in complete darkness, with a light-show highlighting the various performances, while a slideshow honoured our Anzac history in France.

We also were introduced to the emphatic spirit of the Amiens’ community. The cathedral was packed, and the audience gave the performers a standing ovation at the end!

So, after a ‘you could hear a pin drop’ type night, where the only sounds were from the stunning performances, MCs or a creaking stage, we wondered if anyone had heard the penguin comment. This was when most of the choir of 30 were indeed huddled like penguins while trying to look inconspicuous as a clump in the dark, while being tempted to journey in this clump up to the stage to maintain our warmth.

This moment, which I hope you understand was funny, showcased the level of ‘mateship’ our Anzac Commemoration Choir has developed over the past week as we’ve shared experiences that some of us will unlikely experience again.

The concert was a great way to wrap up what’s been a massive day.

We set off early for a rehearsal with the Royal Australian Air Force Band, led by Squadron Leader Mathew Shelley, at Megacite, Amiens. This was to run through some of the songs the choir will be singing with the band at the Pre-Dawn and Dawn Service on Anzac Day.

After the rehearsal Mathew presented our conductor, Paul and the choristers an Air Force medallion to recognise the work we have done together. This was such a beautiful gesture, and no one was more moved, however, than one chorister.

We won’t name her…but she must have been so excited and upon receiving the medallion she fumbled and it went flying to hit the ground with a loud and offensive ‘clunk’. Oops. The chorister was mortified, however, the band …and the rest of the choir, found it hilarious!

Next stop was the Franco-Australian Museum in Villers-Bretonneux, situated next to The Victoria School (a school funded by children from Victoria, Australia, showcasing good will to France. It was built from 1923 – 1927). The school is known for the iconic words in the Children’s Playground, ‘Do Not Forget Australia’.

The museum depicts the Australians’ stories of WW1, mainly their involvement in France.

The pieces were incredibly moving, including pictures of the soldiers with various looks in their eyes; fear, excited for adventure, weariness. Other pieces included poems about soldiers, written by the families with regrets of not being able to visit the gravesides in northern France, with artwork by soldiers sent home to loved ones as souvenirs.

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After a quick bite to eat, and a photo-stop at the Villers-Bretonneux Town Hall, we headed to the Australian War Memorial.

The landscape is beautiful, and the best way to appreciate it is from the tower. As you can see from the chairs, staging, marquees etc. preparations are well and truly under way for Anzac Day, and our preparations are going well too.

Today’s rehearsal included going through the Dawn Service which will be broadcast live on Anzac Day (that’s 1:30pm on Monday 25 April on ABC). It allowed us to sing through some of the songs, while some of our choristers practised their readings.

We claimed our spot in front of the memorial and soaked in the atmosphere. The choristers’ view from their position, where they will sing, is lush fields, with rows of graves in the distance.

At this stage, the choristers are feeling various emotions, some being overwhelmed, with others excited about Anzaz Day or contemplative about the history.

The next few days will include rehearsals while exploring cemeteries to discover more about our Anzacs’ history on the Western Front.

We’re not too far now from the reason why we’re all here  – Anzac Day.

The countdown is on!

(Stay up-to-date with Anzac trip news at Friends of Birralee’s Centenary Tours group).

Day 4: Official rehearsal mode!

We have now set foot at one of the locations which will be a huge part of Anzac Day, the Digger Memorial, Bullecourt.

We set off early this morning to the town, not far from Amiens, for the official rehearsal.

Travelling on the bus, we were further exposed to the beauty of the region, with its lush terrain and beautiful buildings, of course, complete with the Australian flags.

It’s difficult to think that 100 years ago this part of the world was destroyed by war.

The Digger Memorial commemorates the lives lost in WW1, while honouring the bravery of our Australian soldiers during the two Battles of Bullecourt.

To explain briefly, in 1918, Germany had taken Bullecourt, and Australia needed to drive them out. To do this, they decided to go in with infantry and tanks and not artillery (it was the first time they’d used tanks – on this occasion, they were supplied by the British). The Aussies’ efforts in the first battle failed; the Australian troops were driven back to where they had started, with 3,000 men killed. Three weeks later, Australia tried again, this time, with artillery support (with no tanks). By 17 April, Germany had admitted defeat in Bullecourt.

(More info here…or just ask our resident historian for the trip, chorister Andy). 

Walking from the town hall, we met at the Digger Memorial where the Australian Air Force Band, catafalque party, and representatives from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs were getting ready to begin rehearsals to ensure a smooth running of events on Anzac Day.

It was a great chance for us to rehearse our repertoire for this service, Amazing Grace, La Marseilles (the French National Anthem) and Advance Australia Fair with the band, while meeting their soloist and the musicians.

Between rehearsing, choristers Kerry, Yazmin and Jessica were interviewed by Channel 7 News journalist Chris Reason (with a possible feature on Saturday night’s programme). It was a great opportunity for them to talk about their ancestors who fought in the Somme, and the importance of Anzac Day.

Overall it was a successful morning and we left feeling confident for next week, while being able to absorb the solemnity of the setting.

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Next stop was lunch in Péronne, before exploring the Museum of the Great War. The museum features a section dedicated to Australia’s efforts. This was highlighted by the Australian troops liberating the town from German occupation on September 1918 (more here).

From historic photos of the Anzacs, to the marketing used to recruit Australians to enlist, the museum was incredibly interesting detailing how WW1 began, and how it ended, with fascinating stories in between.

We then drove back to Amiens and straight to a rehearsal for tomorrow night’s (Friday’s) Grand Anzac Concert with various local musicians and choirs, as part of Australia Week.

The concert will be at northern Europe’s largest cathedral, La cathédrale NotreDame d’Amiens. Having visited Notre Dame, Paris, we were surprised at how impressively huge, and architecturally amazing this cathedral in Amiens is. It is possibly even more impressive than Paris’.

One of the songs we rehearsed was Earth Song, a beautiful a cappella piece, signifying the importance of music. Here’s a snippet from rehearsal…oh and the church may be built for awesome acoustics, but not so much for warmth!

It has been a huge day, with tomorrow set to be even more action-packed! It will include a rehearsal at the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, and conclude with the Grand Anzac Concert.

We’ll let you know how we go!

(Stay up to date with Voices of Birralee’s Anzac Commitment via ‘Friends of Birralee’s Anzac Centenary Tours‘ group). 

(And on another note, thank you to all the choristers and tour manager, Sue for taking great photos for this blog, with a special mention to one of our ‘accompanying people’, Tim Morel who has shared a number of the pics and videos over the last few days!) 

Day 3: Off to Amiens and VB – where it all begins

So the ‘leisure’ part is over – the reality of what this trip is actually about is just beginning to set in.

Today we checked out of our Paris hotel, heading for Amiens around noon.

Passing fields of canola flowers, wind farms and gorgeously French little villages, we arrived in Amiens two hours later.

With a number of choristers taking a stroll into the town for an afternoon snack, we were suddenly given a glimpse at how much the sacrifices of Australians means to the people in this region of the Somme. It is Australia Week, a week dedicated to the events surrounding Anzac Day, so the streets were flanked by Australian flags, however, it was the fixtures on this mall that gave us shivers:

‘Thanks’ is written on one side of the mall, with’Merci’ on the other, with the letters highlighted by historic WW1 images.

It’s incredible that what Australia did for this region about 100 years ago is still remembered as if it were yesterday. We’re constantly trying to discover more about the events that went on in this part of the world, and one significant event that stands out is what occurred in April 1918. Germany had taken hold of Villers-Bretonneux, a strategic position in their invasion of the Somme, but within 48 hours Australia had moved in and claimed the town back for France. The following words seem to sum up what the sentiment was at the time for our Aussie soldiers, and it is a sentiment that is still very much apparent today.

‘As Bishop of Amiens I owe you and your illustrious dead my heartfelt thanks because the land of my diocese has been your field of battle, and you have delivered it by the sacrifice of your blood. During the painful days of the invasion you made a rampart of your breasts, behind which you shielded and saved the last shreds of my territory … the children who in coming centuries will grow up in your homes and schools, will learn through your good deeds the lessons of patriotism. They will not be able to pronounce your name without speaking of the towns, villages, tablelands, ridges and valleys of the Somme.’ 

7 November 1920, Notre Dame d’Amiens Cathedral, the Bishop of Amiens (http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/villers-bretonneux/amiens-cathedral.php)

This feeling of gratitude was further amplified when we arrived in Villers-Bretonneux, for our concert in the Covered Market for the local community.

Inside the hall, there were the familiar colours of green and gold, Australian flags, with Australian-themed artwork from the local children.

We were treated to a generous dinner cooked by the Australia Week volunteers, before the Covered Market was packed with locals, including the Mayor and Deputy Mayor. We were also joined by Royal Australian Air Force Band flautist Vicky, who beautifully complemented our vocals in Ave Maria. 

It was a fun evening with our repertoire very well received, while a number of choristers bravely introduced various songs in French to the audience.

A highlight was the crowd-participation pieces, including Waltzing Matilda. The community joined in, with some singing the words, and others clapping along.

At the end of the concert, they clapped until we sung an encore song…. or two.

It was such wonderful recognition of the Villers-Bretonneux and Australian connection, and to know that we are now part of that, is something that none of the choristers are taking lightly.

Tomorrow we’ll be heading to Bullecourt for rehearsals, while exploring more about Australia and France’s WW1 history at museums and memorials.

We’ll let you know what we discover.

(Make sure you sign up to Friends of Birralee’s Anzac Centenary Tours for all the updates!).