Scarred ground still gives up its secrets


The sacrifice made by Diggers in World War I is duly honoured by the French village of Bullecourt, writes Karen Kissane.
The blanket of green fields around Bullecourt is peaceful on a misty morning, shaped by man and his machines into gentle slopes known for their production of those unromantic crops, potato and sugar beet.
Well tilled though they are, the fields still yield some surprises – or perhaps, given the history of Bullecourt, surprise is not quite the right word. The farmers here still occasionally turn a clod to find something beneath – a button, a knife, a bullet – left by a soldier long ago.
“Each year the plough blades bring to the surface unexploded shells, scrap metal, the bones of lost soldiers,” says Bullecourt’s mayor, Jules Laude.
In 1917, this small village in northern France sat on the formidable Hindenberg Line established by the German military in World War I. On April 11 that year, the British High Command ordered Australian troops to march across open, snow-covered ground without support from tanks or artillery to try to break the German defences.
The Australians took the forward German lines but the Germans attacked from the sides, forcing them into a bloody retreat. There were 3300 casualties among the 5000 Australians.
A second assault on May 3 resulted in the Australians taking the Bullecourt trenches. The two sides fought to a standstill and the Germans abandoned the area on May 20. This time there were 7000 Australian casualties, though they were supported on the left flank by the British 62nd Division.
One young soldier, Private John Ambrose Ware of the 3rd Battalion AIF, wrote without punctuation to his mother in Victoria about what such a battlefield looked like.
“If ever you saw a sheep camp in time of drought you will know how many sheep [died] in one night our men are lying about in just the same way only a drop of blood spilt to show where they are hit,” he wrote.
But the hard-won victory at Bullecourt was soon overtaken, with the village changing hands not long after.
More than 290,000 men served on the Western Front with the Australian Imperial Force, and 46,000 were killed. Eventually Bullecourt itself became a casualty, razed by bombardment over many battles. “Nineteen times this place was taken and retaken,” Laude says. “It was completely demolished.”
In the new war museum at Bullecourt, there is a grainy photograph of the pitted moonscape that greeted any of its inhabitants who returned after the war; every building was smashed to smithereens. “A town annihilated,” reads the caption.
The town was rebuilt from scratch in the 1920s. In the decades since, mementoes of the battles fought here have been unearthed and many are now in a refurbished museum that will be opened today in a ceremony attended by the Veterans’ Affairs Minister, Warren Snowdon.
The Australian government donated a large portion of the €980,000 ($1.23 million) it took to renovate and extend an old stable that had been donated by a former mayor, Jean Letaille, to hold his collection, which he had been gathering since the 1980s. He died last month, just before his dream came to fruition.
The museum is part of a wider project to establish an Australian Remembrance Trail along the Western Front before the centenary of the outbreak of World War I in 2014.
From the museum’s ceiling hangs a rusty art installation of battered shovels – the Diggers were given their name for a reason – as well as horseshoes, water canteens and helmets. Underneath lie the turret and gun of a tank.
On walls nearby are medical exhibits: a surgeon’s brass saw, a slatted wooden stretcher. There are small glass bottles that might have carried morphine and opium for pain relief, or the camphor and caffeine used to revive flagging hearts, or the iodine that routinely stained brown the lips of harried nurses who removed the corks of the bottles with their teeth.
In the backyard of the museum stands a deactivated shell, pointing at the sky. Authorities have yet to decide where it could be displayed to best advantage, Laude says.
While the British soldiers who fought at Bullecourt are also remembered – one display has an eloquent letter of sympathy written by a chaplain to the widow of an officer of the 62nd who died there, Captain H.B. Gallimore – it is Australia’s fighters who are best memorialised.
The town has a “slouch hat” monument outside the church, and along the Rue des Australiens is a memorial park with a bronze statue of the “Bullecourt Digger”. His kit caked in mud, he gazes out over the fields where the AIF lost 10,000 soldiers killed or wounded.
The statue was created by the Melbourne sculptor Peter Corlett, who discovered only after he was commissioned that his father, Kenneth, had fought at Bullecourt. He gave the statue his father’s features, trying to capture “the fresh face of a young man about to set out on a great adventure”.
In the lobby of the local council building is a photograph of Major Henry William “Mad Harry” Murray, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for the second time for his valour at Bullecourt on April 11, 1917. Despite many acts of derring-do, he survived the war.
Not so lucky was Major Percy Black of Beremboke, Victoria, who earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal at Gallipoli. In the second battle of Bullecourt, he saw his men pulled up at the wire of the Hindenberg Line; the tanks that were meant to have breached it for them had not appeared. He ran to the front yelling, “Come on boys, bugger the tanks!” He was killed shortly afterwards and his body never found.
There were terrible losses on both sides. There are said to be 45,000 German dead buried in this area, too.
For Letaille, who, with his wife Denise was made an honorary member of the Order of Australia for work on the museum, the emotional legacy of that era remained vivid.
Laude chuckles over the time Letaille found himself unexpectedly having to host a group of Germans who wanted to see the museum. Uneasy, he rang Laude to join him.
Laude’s eyes light up with mischief as he recalls how Letaille greeted the Germans: “It’s been a while since we last saw you.”

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald.