A tombstone at Fromelles
A tombstone at Fromelles Contributed

A trip to remember

THE intense smell of cow droppings hangs thickly in the air. Quite different to the stench of blood, death, gun powder and fear that once lingered here.

I am driving through the French countryside near Fromelles on my way to find the graves of two of my ancestors - two brothers who never came home.

The area is beautiful, and despite the chaos of the past, it is quiet now - small towns surrounded by farms, most of them running cattle and growing crops. The Australian flag is to be seen everywhere, including in the town of Fromelles.

 It is hard to think this peaceful place was the site of what the Australian War Memorial dubs the worst day in the country's military history - 5533 Australians lost their lives at Fromelles in 24 hours. This contributed to the 45,000 who were killed on the Western Front during the First World War. It is also where Hitler got his first taste of war as a soldier. And while the French farmland appears serene, if you look closely reminders of the carnage are everywhere.

Some of the fields are home to bunkers. Their walls are pocked from artillery fire, and twisted bits of metal stick out from the basic cement blocks. We see some up close at VC Corner, an Australian cemetery. It has been raining, and the bunkers have about a foot of water in them.

The fields also continue to offer up artefacts of the past including shrapnel, scraps of clothing, boot laces and at times explosives.

The most confronting reminders are the graves. It seems every 10 or so kilometres we drive, there is another graveyard full of perfect white headstones. I imagine those headstones as men, many of them only boys. It's hard to fathom.

The first relative we visit is Private Raymond Charles Bishop of the 55th Battalion, my great great uncle. Ray was only 20 when he went missing in the Battles of Fromelles.

The last time he was seen he volunteered with a mate to go ahead of his brigade and drive off the Germans with bombs. He never made it back and 94 years passed without any of his family knowing where he had fallen.

Letters were sent between his mother and the army asking for news about her son but it never came. Ray was found in 2010 in a mass grave of 250 soldiers. He now rests at the Fromelles Military Cemetery in a plot of his own.

His brother, Second Lieutenant Harold McKay Bishop, we visit at Bancourt British Cemetery. He was 22 when he died in 1916, a member of the 3rd Battalion. At the gravesite I look at my own brother, only one year older than Harold had been.

He's still just a boy really, and I think about my parents and how they would react if an army official told them their son had been put in the ground so young.

We sign our names on the register for Harold before heading for Ypres, just over the border in Belgium.

Ypres is an amazing city, and a great place to stay if you want to explore the area's war history.

The city itself was a victim - the buildings you see today are built from the rubble left after the First World War. Nothing was left standing, bar the Roman wall.

When in Ypres, you must visit the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing on the eastern side of town. Etched into the memorial are the names of all the missing Commonwealth soldiers from the Ypres Salient area. Every night the traffic is stopped and the Last Post is played at 8pm, a tradition upheld since 1927. (except for a few years of German occupation in the Second World War). The experience is haunting. It is also heartening - a large crowd gathers for the ceremony and it's so good to know the names on the walls are still being remembered.

We return to the gate the next day and find ourselves horrified as we follow the list of Australian names along one wall, around a staircase, and up another. It's an effective way of putting the price of war into perspective.

 Another must-visit in Ypres is the Cloth Hall. Once a bustling fabric warehouse, it now houses the In Flanders Fields Museum where you can learn more about the impact of war. Be aware that some of the images used in the museum are graphic. About halfway through and I have reached saturation point. If, like me, reliving the horrors of war gets a bit too much, head up the belltower.

The only way up is to use the narrow stone steps that seem to go on forever. But it is worth it. Despite the protests from my burning lungs, when I make it to the top, my breath is taken away for a different reason. You get to see right out across the city and to the farmland beyond. Definitely the best view of Ypres.

We explore Ypres by foot - following the Roman wall, walking on cobbled streets and taking in the monuments, architecture, and general hustle and bustle. I think the city is an example of humanity's ability to pick up the pieces and forge on, even after such unimaginable horror as was experienced here.

You don't have to have ancestors who fought here to be moved by what you will see, and that is why scores of Australians make the pilgrimage each year.

This Remembrance Day I will have a better understanding of what it is my ancestors, and the thousands of men alongside them, fought through and for in all wars. A trip to Fromelles is more than a holiday, it's a learning curve.

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