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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.