Thursday, April 24, 2008

Anzac pilgrims on the Western Front

After their calamitous initiation into warfare in Turkey in 1915, Australian troops were brought to the region in northern France that the Germans referred to as their Western Front.

Today, in a few hours, when the sun rises over Picardy, crowds of Australian visitors will be assembled for an Anzac Day celebration at Villers-Bretonneux.

The geographical heart of Anzac Day commemorations seems to be shifting from Gallipoli to France. By an amazing coincidence, the successful Australian action that liberated Villers-Bretonneux took place on Anzac Day in 1918: exactly three years after Gallipoli. But, between the events of Gallipoli and Villers-Bretonneux, by far the greatest number of Australian casualties on the Western Front had occurred in 1916 at Pozières: over 22,000 dead.

We must remember and celebrate solemnly these terrible happenings, but it would be a monstrous mistake to imagine for an instant that there might have been anything glorious or heroic, or even vaguely rational, in all that mindless butchery.

I feel ill at ease about the idea of a nice touristic "twinning" atmosphere between Australia and Villers-Bretonneux, culminating in the preposterous notion that people in that modern township might be expected to express some kind of gratitude to today's Australian war pilgrims. Obviously, the citizens of Villers-Bretonneux are unlikely to complain about this situation. Pilgrims are pilgrims, here as in Lourdes, and tourism is a business.

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