When we walk in fields of gold

I spent last week in Amiens, in north west France, sharing in my daughter’s experience of singing at First World War centenary commemorative events and then at the dawn service on 25th April at the Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux and later in the day at Bullecourt, where the centenary of two dreadful battles with enormous Australian losses was commemorated.

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Australians are generally very aware of the battle for Gallipoli, beginning in the early hours of the morning on 25th April 1915; ultimately unsuccessful and having little or no effect on the progress or outcome of the war, the troops withdrawn on 19th and 20th December, 1915. It is the central event that is marked on Anzac Day, and is known by many as the birth of Australia’s national identity, an almost sacred day. But in terms of Australia’s continued involvement in the First World War, both the shattering losses and final victories on the Western Front in France, knowledge and understanding is much more scattered.

As I travelled through the area where this enormous conflict took place – Amiens, Pozieres, Vignacourt, Bullecourt, Thiepval, Baupame, Albert, Allonville, Peronne and more –  it was almost impossible to visualise battlefields and to imagine the destruction and death that had occurred here. The most prominent markers that something other than hundreds of years of peaceful farming has taken place in this beautiful countryside are the cemeteries marking the war dead, known and unknown. They are everywhere, more than 400 in total; in fields, by the sides of roads, at the edge of villages, and in large memorials.

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The numbers of dead are staggering; the total number of military and civilian casualties in the First World War was more than 38 million. There were over 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded, and the majority of these occurred on the Western Front. For Australia, with a population of fewer than five million, over 400,000 enlisted, and more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.

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I wonder if the impossibility of grasping the scale and size of the losses on the Western Front, and the complexities of the drawn out and bloody war there, in comparison with the more containable Gallipoli battle where the battlefield is still able to be seen little changed from more than a century ago, is in some way part of the reason Australians have traditionally travelled to Gallipoli for Anzac Day services rather than the Western Front, in addition to the prevailing cultural focus on Gallipoli since the first Anzac Day commemorations in 1916.

I feel that I was privileged to come to the western front and able to take part in the commemorative events and services. They were sombre and thoughtful, reflective and moving. The French people of the district were fully involved in the commemorations, and this was very touching – their losses were catastrophic also, and they live daily with the reminders of the war in their personal landscape, and have an enduring gratitude to the Australians who fought there and also helped them rebuild their villages in the aftermath.

My abiding visual memory of northern France is of beautifully tended rectangles of green and gold and brown and white – fields of canola, young wheat, carefully ploughed soil and thousands of white headstones, row upon row. And the sounds I will remember, not the faint echo of long ago gunfire, but the ever present notes of songbirds in the fields and villages, and the melody that would not leave me during my time in Amiens, Fields of Gold.

You’ll remember me when the west wind moves upon the fields of barley
You’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky as we walk in fields of gold
So she took her love for to gaze awhile upon the fields of barley
In his arms she fell as her hair came down among the fields of gold
Will you stay with me, will you be my love among the fields of barley?
We’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky as we lie in fields of gold
See the west ind move like a lover so upon the fields of barley.
Feel her body rise when you kiss her mouth among the fields of gold
I never made promises lightly and there have been some that I’ve broken
But I swear in the days still left we’ll walk in fields of gold
We’ll walk in fields of gold
Many years have passed since those summer days among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down among the fields of gold
You’ll remember me when the west wind moves upon the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky when we walked in fields of gold
When we walked in fields of gold, when we walked in fields of gold.

Lest we forget.

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