At the end of 2018 I spent 5 weeks at The Somme, in France, on the old Western Front. This is a yearly trip for me. As well as running this blog I also run Loyal Poppy Crosses, set up to honour and Remember our Fallen heroes.
On the 10th and 11th November just over 4,000 handmade poppies were placed at the graves of the Fallen in and around Beaumont Hamel. Pouring with rain, and soaked through to the skin, I sloshed around the battlefield, placing the poppies and thanking each soldier as I went. Karen, a wonderful lady from Western Australia assisted me on the 10th, and despite the weather we thoroughly enjoyed, and reached, our objective.
Placing the poppies was only a part of my journey. Writing the biography of a young officer who died at the Battle of Ancre, the last Battle of the Somme, took me to many of the places his Battalion went. Following in their footsteps, armed with trench maps and trench maps superimposed on Google Earth maps, I trudged through mud, endured rain, chilled to the bone in the frost and most days could not feel my feet when I got back to my gite! But every time I felt uncomfortable I would remind myself that it was nothing compared to what the soldiers had to endure in 1916 – how dare I complain…
Archaeology is not just digging – I am a research archaeologist and I ‘dig up’ the hidden stories behind artefacts, and in the case of the biography I am writing – Captain Jude – his personal life story, all be it a short 20 years.
Whilst visiting Avril for a well deserved coffee at her Ocean Villas Tea Room in Auchonvillers, I was ushered into a meeting of the Hawthorn Crater Mine Association – and found myself on a dig! Due to a workplace accident I cannot excavate anymore as I have a torn knee, but the beauty of this excavation was that it was on the rim of the mine crater – and I could stand and excavate!!
The funny thing about following your passion and being in flow is that time passes so quickly and whatever is happening around you fades away. The dig was cold, it rained, was slippery and under difficult conditions – but none of this mattered – I was part of an amazing team, we all got on really well, we laughed a lot, joked a lot, and had a great time. I can honestly say that I have never felt so welcomed or accepted as I did with this team of intrepid archaeologists and volunteers.
Andy Robertshaw headed the dig, and he also took us on a tour of The Somme. With my focus being purely on the 10th Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, it was refreshing to hear of other stories, legends and tales from the knowledgeable Mr Robertshaw; some amazing facts, stories from the Front and even some tear jerking poetry has helped me to understand more about the men who made the ultimate sacrifice just over 100 years ago.
Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson, MC
By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.
By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
To hear Lieutenant Hodgsons poem, read at his grave, in the way Andy read it, resulted in tears running down my face. I am not ashamed to admit it. It was moving……
I also had the privilege of meeting Will Davies, editor of Somme Mud and author of many more books. I was at the Pozières British Cemetery to lay a couple of personal poppies for the volunteers who had attended our poppy making workshops. Bumping into Aussies around the Somme is something that happens frequently, and especially around Pozières.
Laying two more personal poppies, this time at Thiepval, I walked into the Visitor Centre and came face to face with a living ANZAC! All I could say was “G’day Mate!”. David Barron was retracing the steps of the 16th Battalion AIF for the Centenary, and with his collaborators Karen and Derek, they travelled the length of the Western front as did their ancestors who fought in the 16th.
Although I was on my trip alone, I was never alone…. The French around the area are so welcoming especially to Australians. I cannot even count the number of times they shook my hand when they found out I was from Australia, especially around Villers-Brettoneux. Even after 100 years they are so thankful to Australia for all she did during WWI. A gratitude that has stood the test of time and one that I can see stretching far into the future.
This is why it is so important to educate our children about the war. It does not glorify war – it is ensuring that the memory of those who died live on – many who had no choice but to fight, and many who fought not fully understanding the horrors they would face. Their actions forming a bond between two nations on opposite sides of the globe. A bond that goes beyond mere words, but heartfelt gratitude and friendship.
My trips to France, my research and the knowledge that I have gained mean I am able to offer unique and hands-on talks, school incursions and holiday programs that go towards this education, and also include artefacts from the Somme, which can be handled – holding history in the palm of your hands…. The sessions I offer, which are WWI themed, including those leading up to ANZAC Day this year, will ensure that in 2019 we lay more poppies across the Somme. Proceeds will go towards purchasing the materials, and posting the finished poppies to the villages – and postage can be very expensive! In 2018 I carried the poppies with me, but this year we have so many people wishing to adopt cemeteries who would like our Loyal Poppy Crosses poppies that we need to raise more funds.
I do not see what I do as work, in fact I really do not like to use that word. I love what I do, I love teaching and educating about our past and I love being able to pass on my knowledge to others, stretching their learning boundaries and enhancing their education.
As you can see, archaeology is so much more than digging ‘holes’ – it is world education; the education of humanity both past and present; and by learning from the past we can make sure we do not repeat those past mistakes, like those from 1914-1918.
Archaeology also helps us to make better informed decisions for our future, understand that it has economic importance – tourism, protection, etc, covers many areas of the curriculum, including, Social sciences, History, Maths, Environmental studies, Art, Questioning and Reasoning etc., and in relation to future careers, it also contributes to the understanding of statistics, economics, politics, cultural geography, ecology, agricultural practices, linguists, interpretations, exhibitions and exhibits, etc.
I am proud of what I do – it is not work……..it is my passion………..