I wrote a little booklet last year and am now making it available for everyone to read here on my blog. In light of growing tensions with China and between Russia and Ukraine, what does the past teach us about the human condition and the prevalence of warfare?
“In Symphony from the Great War an Australian takes his family to northern Europe to retrace the steps of his Great-grandfather during the First World War on the Western Front. As they visit famed places like Plugstreet, Messines, and Villers-Bretonneux, Murray Campbell offers theological insights into the nature of warfare and the human condition.
History records moments of courage, genius, and creativity. Not everyone who participated in the dramas of the past is afforded such roles. William Campbell fought on the Western Front but he was no Ajax or Achilles. This is the story of an ordinary Australian who survived the Great War without fame or note.”
It’s about a 2 hour read, but the chapters are divided into bite-size pieces. Dip in and out as you like. I hope you enjoy it
A Prelude: Into the past
Movement 1: A road where there was once a trench
Movement 2: The girl with the lilac hat
Movement 3: Pools of water
Movement 4: A lonely cemetery
Movement 5: Christmas again
Movement 6: Villers-Bretonneux
Movement 7: Confutatis maledictis
“About the same time Caesar, although the summer was nearly past, yet, since, all Gaul being reduced, the Morini and the Menapii alone remained in arms, and had never sent embassadors to him [to make a treaty] of peace, speedily led his army thither, thinking that that war might soon be terminated. “
“The following winter… those Germans …crossed the Rhine, not far from the place at which that river discharges itself into the sea.”
Julius Caesar once visited the shores of Britain but he never conquered her. In fact, he barely stepped further than a Roman foot onto that greenest of grass which occupies visions of England. Caesar did however overcome Gaul and defeat encroaching German tribes who dared cross that once self imposing barrier of civilisation, the river Rhine. A little over two thousand years after Rome’s bloody march through Gaul, new armies arrived and did battle. Descending on this land of the Celtae and Belgae came an army from an island considerably more distant than that of Britain, and they journeyed not to invade but to redeem her.
History intrigues and causes us to ponder the axis upon which the globe moves. Whether it is Ancient Rome or Medieval Scotland or 19th Century America, the past has a way of repeating messages and teaching us of the best and worst of humanity’s soul. Standing on a hill in Northern France, halfway between Dunkirk and Lille, is the perfect example. Today the village of Cassel features in travel magazines, known for its pretty buildings and for the tree lined roads that wind their way around this ancient hillside. For more than 2000 years Cassel has been the sight for history makers. Julius Caesar stormed its heights in 53BC, defeating the Menapii who had used Mont Cassel as a fortified position. Cassel was then destroyed by Vikings in the 10th Century, and was the scene of major battles between the French and Flemish in 1328 and again in 1677. During the French Revolution, the Duke of York dumbfounded the enemy and confused his own army as he marched them up to the top of the hill and down again and then neither halfway up nor down. The very same hilltop served as headquarters for the commander of the French army during the early months of the First World War, Marshall Ferdinand Foch. Thirty years later, blood again ran down Mont Cassel as British troops fought a rearguard action against a rapidly advancing Panzer division. At times history appears as a Ferris wheel stuck in rotation and unable to stop, while at other times there is forward motion and development, but there is never a step forward without the footstep that preceded it.
History not only informs us but forms who we are today. The past grows roots and branches from which today’s twigs and flowers burgeon. History fascinates, yet it takes on a new life and poignancy when the events closely relate to oneself. From a young age, I would read books and watch documentaries about the First World War, and of the astonishing contributions made by Australian troops. Stories of battle and bravery, heroism and hubris, and of nations manoeuvring arms against each other have the power to ignite curiosity. This inquisitiveness however takes an interesting turn when the subject matter involves you and connects your past with the events of history.
As a boy I dreamed of visiting the Western Front in France and Belgium; to see for myself places that have been immortalised into the Australian myth: Ypres, Messines, Bullecourt and Villers-Bretonneux. Conceptualising the unthinkable is not without precedent among boys, let alone some adults as well. Imagine standing in a trench where one century earlier men younger than myself huddled, slept, ate, and fought. What would it be like to imprint my feet on the ground where Australians influenced the game of history? In my childhood, I would take scenes of battle that I had come across in war photographs and transport them into a reconstructed but imaginary world of 1914-18. It is however a futile and immature chimera. How can one conceive of a landscape where a soldier peers over a water drenched sandbag and across no man’s land, knowing that ahead men lay waiting with rifle and machine gun, intent on killing any shape that appeared over the parapet? What would it be like to experience the thunder of howitzers and the deep roar of heavy artillery as it inched closer and closer toward your position? And what of the mud, that infamous mud, that sank body and soul alike into despair and misery?
In December 2018, an opportunity arrived to take my family into a cold, dark, and muddy Christmas. Living in Melbourne we are more than familiar with eating roasted turkey and potato on a 40 degree day. Hot summer Christmases are the norm, although we had once been mesmerised by a white Christmas in the deep snows of Montreal. The Christmas of 2018 would offer little chance of sun, or snow for that matter, as we were heading to northwest France. The original plan was to spend all our time in London. Susan (my wife) and I lived in Samuel Johnson’s town some 20 years earlier and we had always wanted to give our children the opportunity to walk about her streets, museums, and shops. Every suburb and every road is yet another reference to a famous moment from history or a line in a pop song! London contains enough culture and history and amazing experiences to last 10 lifetimes. I did however pack a supply of fresh coffee beans and my trusted aeropress! (and a jar of Vegemite).
London never disappoints but we cut short the intended stay, deciding instead to take the train to Lille, where we spent 8 days. Why France? The food of course. France is the nation where waking up at 6am every morning is a sheer delight, for it involves a beautiful stroll down to the local boulangerie and purchasing daily manna from heaven.
In the time in which it takes to travel from my home in Melbourne to the neighbouring city of Geelong, you can leave England and find yourself in another country. Lille is situated only 1½ hours from London by train. Lille may not have the international reputation of other French cities, but there is no shortage of insanely delicious bread, cheese, and chocolate. During December her central square is transformed into a Christmas market with dozens of tiny stalls selling all manner of unnecessary trinkets. Isn’t that Christmas after all? The birth of the Christ is relegated into the myths of time by a sack full of shiny traditions and presents wrapped in glossy paper from the $2 shop! The Grand Place is dominated by a gigantic Ferris wheel, which towers over the surrounding buildings and whose coloured lights bounce off the cobblestoned paths below. Streets spread along the Rue Royale like spokes from that oversized wheel, their shops displaying haute couture fashion and fine foods. All this is intertwined with carefully arranged Christmas themes that have been given the detailed attention of artisans who create a Hermès Carré or a Chanel perfumer perfecting a new fragrance. The French celebrate Christmas in a less ostentatious way than what I have seen in cities like New York, for example. The French Noel is less Disney and more Noir, less dazzle and more sophistication. It is enchanting, a European fable made of stone, brick, and glass.
Apart from eating our way through baguettes and buche de noels, Lille has the advantage of providing a suitable base for those wishing to visit the sights from the Great War: Fromelles, Passchendaele, Arras, and the Somme, are all within an hour’s drive. The city of Lille was captured by the German army in the earliest days of the war, following a short but terrifying ten day siege which left much of the city centre in ruins. Following that brutal introduction to modern warfare, the population of Lille experienced relative peace in the ensuing four years (that is, for those who didn’t escape the city in time), until finally the Germans retreated and Lille was liberated on October 17th 1918. Lille remained near the front lines throughout the entire war, always within earshot of the cannonade, but sufficiently removed so as to avoid the utter destruction that befell other towns in Flanders. Lille had been hurt but not obliterated. Only 20 minutes drive away is Ypres. This elegant Belgian town became the face of the First World War. The famous Lakenhalle (the Dutch sounds somewhat more impressive than the English translation, ‘cloth hall’) has been rebuilt and its resurrection body is a magnificent sight, but in 1916 its crumbled facade was a picture postcard depicting the pain endured by countless French and Belgians whose homes stood unceremoniously in the path of war. Lille is located even closer to the French communes of Armentières and Houplines. This 3.5km stretch of trench line was known in 1916 as a quiet sector. Houplines is where the British high command delivered virgin troops, to experience their first taste of life the front. It was here that we would begin our visit along the Western Front, to see for ourselves the place where my family’s First World War journey began.
My Great Grand Father’s name was William Campbell. He was born in January 1893, in West Wallsend, NSW, then a small town outside Newcastle. It remains a small town today. West Wallsend, like so much of the region around Newcastle, existed because of coal production. In 1916, at the age of 22years and 11 months, William Campbell exchanged a coal mine for a trench, his miner’s cap for a soldier’s helmet, one shovel for another and he added a rifle with fixed bayonet. To be truthful, he was not, in fact, a Newcastle miner, but a local fireman who joined the 35th Battalion of the 9th Brigade, 3rd Division. The 35th were known as “Newcastle’s own” and they were largely made up of volunteers from the coal mines surrounding Newcastle. While the battalion may have been immortalised by images of miners come soldiers, the reality is that they represented a breadth of class and career. But such is the mythical qualities of history making; the stereotype characters are canonised and the particulars and peculiarities of individuals often lost.
No one knows why William Campbell joined up. He left us no written diary and no letters home have survived. Usual reasons may have played their part: love of King and Country, the opportunity for adventure and touring the world. Perhaps he felt the pressure from watching all his mates sign up and he feared a backlash if he didn’t. Like many who soon found themselves en route to the Great War, he was probably ignorant of the geopolitical chessboard manoeuvres that took place in the months leading up to this unwanted war.
Few residents living in West Wallsend, or in Richmond, Victoria, Orange, NSW, and from Dalby, Queensland would have heard of or cared for Sarajevo. An Austrian Archduke and his wife are assassinated in Sarajevo by some obscure radical with the name of Gavrilo Princip? Should Australians be concerned for the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire or their antagonist Serbia and ally Russia? Should a poorly written letter to the Austrian Emperor from Kaiser Wilhelm II have worried the coal miners of Newcastle? Britain had no desire for war, and there was no foreseeable necessity to enter a continental drama, lest Belgium become embroiled. But why would tiny Belgium want to throw her weight into a potential arms race between Austro-Hungary and Germany, and Russia and Serbia? The answer was France, for France had made a pact with Russia to counter any imbalance of political power in Europe. It wasn’t that Belgium needed to ally with France, but that they made such an agreement with Britain. Initially, Britain stood on the English Channel declining to do anything more than send envoys urging peace. After all, behind these agitating Generals and revolutionaries was one family. The King of England, the German Kaiser, and Russia’s Tsar were cousins; they knew each other and spent holidays together as children. Why should close relatives ignore familial blood and instead declare war on each other? There are times when the bonds within a family are not enough to prevent political storm clouds from descending. Germany, aware of two great armies that would press in on her, one from the West and the other from the East, designed a strategy for victory. She would look for a swift victory over France, to then speedily move east to engage the Russians. To do so, the German High Command agreed to take a short cut. What if they marched into France through the back door, namely Belgium? When Germany invaded Belgium on August 4th 1914 the British had no option other than to keep her word and send the army into Belgium. Of course, as soon as Great Britain entered the war, her Commonwealth said, ‘we will follow’. Most of the populations in the majority of the nations who put on a military uniform that August month were not spoiling for a fight. But through a series of poor diplomatic choices and a small but powerful number of Generals in Berlin manipulating events, men from Wallsend heeded the call.
No one can comprehend the realities of war until its stench lingers in the nostrils and mind, tarnishing whatever semblance of innocent conscience that once existed. Whatever the rationale that caused William Campbell to sign his name to the AIF, he soon found himself huddled on the HMAT Benalla, bound for England and to war.
First Movement: A road where there was once a trench
By the time I was 23 years of age I had long finished university and was now working a job. It was not a career move but I was grateful for the opportunity to find employment and earn an income. I married the girl whom I fell in love with while I was at high school. To me, she is the Juliet of dreams, with a brightness that would shame the stars, “as daylight doth a lamp”. We were now living comfortably in the inner Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn East and thoroughly enjoying those first months of life together. We were also making plans to move to London later that year, where I was to study and Susan to work at a local hospital.
At the age when we were bringing our new life over to England, William Campbell was leaving his behind. Our journey was a 23 hour comfortable flight with entertainment, cushioned seating, and with drinks and food available to us at the press of a button. His was to be a two month sea voyage filled with the monotonous daily routine of drills, boredom, and a bucket at hand. As his Battalion sailed around the Horn of Africa, the realities of war were now firmly realised back in Australia. The Gallipoli campaign had ended in disaster, with thousands of Australian men killed and many thousands more horrifically injured. The surviving Anzacs had already reached England and were preparing to embark for France, to places they had never heard of, let alone pronounce: Fromelles and Pozières. Their role would be to support the British who were bleeding red along a river called the Somme. More Australians would be killed in these opening two engagements in France than who died during the entire nine month campaign in the Dardenelles.
The 3rd Division was the final of five AIF Divisions to reach France, following months of relentless training on Salisbury Plain in accord with their commanding officer, General John Monash. During the Gallipoli campaign, Monash had risen in rank, noticed for his brilliant organisational and tactical abilities. He carried his learned skills to the training ground, ensuring that his men would be thoroughly equipped for the art of trench warfare in Europe. Indeed, his potency for making war would create a name of renown throughout Australia. Statues, a university, a freeway, and an entire region of Melbourne are all named in his honour.
“You are about to embark for France in order to take your place by the side of our Australian kinsman who in Gallipoli and France by their valor have made Australia famous throughout the world.
In the name of our Commonwealth I call upon every one of you to resolve that in the task that lies ahead you will endeavor to display the highest qualities of self-sacrifice, discipline, devotion to duty and self-restraint under all temptations; in order that the reputation you may earn may rank you second to none.
You have undergone training in the arts of modern fighting and in the conduct of disciplined soldiery. Remember to apply everything that you have learned at all times and in all places; for on the manner in which you do this you will be judged.
While your future renown will rest chiefly on your fighting qualities, your courage in the face of the enemy, and your perseverance under hardships, it will depend also on your soldierly behaviour, whether on or off duty, your prompt obedience, your respect for military superiors, your smartness of appearance and bearing, and, particularly your regard for the welfare and property of the woman and children of France whose men-folk are away from their homes helping us to fight our common enemy.
Keep in mind the crimes of that enemy against our Empire, our Allies, and humanity, and be determined, now that the opportunity for which you have waited so long has come at last, to work and to fight with all the strength and all the skill of which you are capable.
Major General: Sir John MONASH Commanding the 3rd Australian Division. Salisbury Plain.
22nd November 1916.”
My Great Grandfather disembarked at the French port of La Havre, along with near 1000 men who made up the 35th Battalion. La Havre was made famous by Henry V and his eventual march to Agincourt some six hundred years earlier. The port town had not long been painted into posterity by Monet and the impressionists. It was transportation through time, from Caesar to Napoleon. Even the sounds of Debussy’s La Mer which had only been composed ten years earlier could almost be heard amidst the salty air along the coast. From La Havre, they boarded a train through Normandy and into the region of Picardy until they reached the commune of Armentières, where they were billeted, before marching the final miles through the town of Houplines. They entered the trenches for the first time on November 26th, 1916. Today, Houplines is home to 7000 residents, smaller than Armentières which is only 2kms to south and has a population of 25,000. In 1916 few residents remained in these towns because their homes no longer existed. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe Houplines as a former town, for it was little more than a demolition site. I recently walked past a city block in Melbourne where a once tall building had stood. Workmen had dismantled her before heavy machinery sent her walls crashing to the concrete path below, leaving behind tangled steel and broken brick and concrete and shards of glass. Think of an entire town experiencing this trauma and without the carefully timed precision of workmen who are looking out for public safety. The only people crazy enough to travel through Houplines or to shelter inside its cellars were troops moving between the front line and support trenches.
We pulled over the car at the intersection where Rocade de la Lys meets Rue Roger Salengro. On one side of the road is a school. On the opposite side is a Commonwealth War cemetery where the bodies of 466 servicemen were reinterred at the end of the war. Facing east and across the Rocade de la Lys are flat open fields. It is here that the front trenches once ran parallel to the road, and just beyond them, the German lines.
It is an unimpressive battlefield. Other than the cemetery, there are no signs of World War, no markers or remains. I have trekked across other battlefields which befit the place of military struggle as if such a thing were possible. Their topographical features or an uncommon and almost haunting atmosphere at least give these places the appearance of importance, a site worthy for combat. Culloden Moor, Bannockburn, Waterloo, Gettysburg, and even the nearby Mont Cassel, suggest a natural reason for the struggles that have been witnessed onsite. But here at Houplines there are no standout features, no heights to capture, no major city to defend, no major road to protect. It is a small village looking across depressed farmland.
The area also holds a modern touch of the absurd. A little more than 1km to the northeast of this former death trap is a small shop with the ironic name, “Happy Corner”. This store is adjacent to a family campsite which sits in the middle of what was formerly the German front line. This was no area for camping and playing, but a desolate wasteland where no man dared to move. Don’t misunderstand, this was not the scene of a major engagement during 1914-18, but as was the case in many sectors of the Western Front, there was still constant fear with the daily reminder of death on account of a ‘soft’ barrage or sniper’s rifle.
This stretch of trenches was referred to as a nursery sector in December 1916. Houplines was about as safe a place as anyone could find along the Western Front. Men died. Men were wounded. Men grew weary, sick and caught disease, and yet only at a fraction of the cost that was endured in the war’s hot spots. This was where soldiers would learn to dig, repair scaffolds and replace broken barbed wire, and be schooled at observing enemy positions without getting shot. This was a place where toddler soldiers first heard the ignominious sound of shell fire, the smell of decaying flesh, and taught to bear with that possessive friend, fear.
The days spent by William Campbell along this front were cold and uncertain. The blackened filth of the Newcastle coal mines now seemed like a heavenly paradise compared with trench life. The worse part of it wasn’t the sight of endless lines of barbed wire or the makeshift latrines, but the unavoidable thick grey mud that sapped every man’s energy as they pulled their mates, their equipment, and themselves along the line, one yard at a time.
It wasn’t raining on the day we visited the area. The ground was however soft and wet, and any foot of earth that had been even slightly churned had turned into that dreadful thick clag.
Mud. The mud. The landscape may be unimpressive, even underwhelming, but one feature sticks with you, the mud. The endless porridge muck that sucked your boots into the earth. Statue like figures would stand, readied to be shot at by a sniper, not by choice, but forced into the posture by the thick claggy mire at their feet. The fate was worse still for those unfortunate wretches who fell into shell holes, too exhausted to lift their wretched bodies out of the mud. This wasn’t the kind of mud found on a wet July Saturday morning when we played football as kids; that was fun and we were as excited to cover our bodies in the mud as we were to win the game. This mud was different, both in volume and curse. It would seep its way into equipment, clogging rifles, rotting uniforms, and draining the fittest of their energy. And one couldn’t leave the mud behind after a few short hours, to enjoy a hot shower and put on clean clothes while the soiled were washed clean by Mum. The mud experienced in this sector during the winter of 1916 was as notorious as the more famed mud in the later slaughterhouse of Passchendaele.
What were those trenches except open graves, occupied by humans hanging on to their humanity? Mud and barbed wire. Mud mingled with blood. Mud churned with the flesh of dead men. I once caught a squid while fishing. As I grabbed hold of this sea creature to take out the hook, its tentacles wrapped around my right hand, declining to let go in fear of life. The mud reminded me of that squid, obstinate and refusing to relinquish anything that touched it.
The days in the nursery didn’t last forever, because boy soldiers grow into men. Those weeks spent in the trenches hardened men to the realities of mud and cold, to the noise of mortars and the sight of human flesh being torn apart. This was a season of learning and maturing, for in June 1917 they were about to engage in one of the war’s great battles.
Second Movement: The girl with the lilac hat
Walking along a path deep inside Plugstreet Wood was a young girl wearing a lilac hat. The pink woollen beanie with pom pom bobbed about as she danced happily down the stony footpath.
The colours of the woodland had drained away with the coming of winter. The trees had long shed their leaves and been absorbed into the soggy earth beneath. Elms, oaks, and maples stood tall with naked branches stretching across the grey clouded sky. Everything was a shade of grey: the ground, the trees, and the light splintering through the overcast heavens above. Even the grass that lay across the forest floor appeared grey-like, such was the underlay of neutral tones covering the canvas in front. The single note of contrast was the gleeful lilac beanie worn by my daughter who ran and skipped as though Plugstreet was a place of fun and laughter.
Other than the soft thud of her sneakers landing on the final vestiges of the leaves that had fallen to the earth, the only sound that could be discerned was the distant singing of a bird. There were no cars driving past with engines interrupting the quiet and no tourists rushing about with cameras and loud voices. Despite the cold on that December afternoon, the woodland walk was pleasant enough. It was nature at rest, featuring a young and innocent girl enjoying her freedom on its stage.
Ploegsteert Wood is only a short drive north of Houplines, known famously among the British and Commonwealth forces as Plugstreet. Plugstreet was the site of vicious fighting throughout the war. It was occupied by the German army for a short time in 1914, while the Schlieffen plan was in full force, and again in 1918 for a few days during the Spring Offensive. Otherwise, Plugstreet was just that, woodland with a road that plugged an otherwise gap in the Allied lines. Winston Churchill was stationed there during his 100 day post-Dardenelles detention in the trenches. Adolf Hitler was positioned only ten miles to the South East, where he would face the Australian troops of the 5th Division at the butchery called Fromelles. While such historical details are of interest, especially to those standing on the precipice of 1940 and looking to the past, contemplating the what if’s of history, we were visiting Plugstreet because of events that took place before the dawn of the great battle of Messines on July 7th, 1917.
Today, remnants of battle can be uncovered in Plugstreet, hidden among trees and lying beneath the soil. The bombardment leading up to the morning of July 7th is believed to have reached 2.5 million shells. Besides, millions more bombs and high explosives were served to ace throughout the war by both armies. The astonishing thing is that the land today is not nearly as disfigured as one might expect. There are unnatural discoveries to be seen, covered with moss and vines are slabs of concrete and mounds of dirt behind which lay curved geographical pimples where once a trench snaked its way through to the front lines. The passing of time has however enabled life to return.
One hundred and two years before a girl in her blue coat and wearing her winter’s hat entered the wood, thousands of men sat waiting; waiting all night, trying to sleep…impossible to sleep. Perhaps they leaned against the trunk of an Elm at an anxious rest. Some clenching their weapons and others distracting themselves by giving further attention to their already clean and ready Enfield rifle. One can imagine tiny huddles of men playing cards, a few offering nervous laughter while others waited silently, wondering. That night was warmer than the day we visited for it was the middle of summer. The sun went to sleep late that night and its warmth endured on the grass beneath. As midnight passed and troops began marshalling into their units, readying for the two mile march into no man’s land, there was a mass interruption. The same trees which surrounded my daughter and me on that winter’s day witnessed on that July night the screams of men writhing in agony. Hundreds of gas shells had been fired from behind the German lines.
It is not known whether the Germans were aware of the imminent battle that night. Had spotters from the air taken note of the heavy buildup of troops between Ypres and St Yvon? Did a growing volume of noise from trucks and clamouring men raise alarm three miles away? Was this surprise a calculated military strategy to dampen the forthcoming assault or a spontaneous eruption of horror designed to remind the enemy of their power to produce death? Whatever the chain of events that led to the bombardment, within minutes 500 men and officers of the 3rd Division were being stretchered, carried and led from Plugstreet Wood: the dead, the dying, and hundreds suffering the most grotesque of internal injuries.
I have read that the effect on the sensors is different to ‘normal’ exploding shells for there is no boom and crash but the almost comical sounding ‘plop’ as these canisters landed on the grass and released their toxins into the air. It wasn’t burning shrapnel that would kill you but the inhaled gas which would melt your body from the inside out. What a horrible way to die. The Division did not, however, waver from the task at hand. Wearing their facial apparatuses impaired vision and sense of direction, causing battalions to lose order and direction for a short while, but soon enough they were back on track, heading toward the assigned starting off points.
One young lieutenant in Monash’s Division spoke of the gas attack,
“Have to wear box respirators. The remainder of the march…was one long drawn-out hell.
The night was fairly dark, one’s gas mask glasses were continually becoming forged with perspiration, one tripped over obstacles – barded wire and groaning men”.
The Australian war reporter, Charles Bean was in the vicinity that night. He was approaching the wood when he was met with the smell of gas, “Pretty strong…we put our helmet nozzles in mouths…gas shells began to fall fast – pot, pot, pot all around…trenches were pretty well steeped in gas”.
William Campbell escaped the gas. Presumably, he was quick to grab his gas mask and protect his face and lungs. Despite appearing like a prop from a sci-fi movie, the gas mask saved lives. Fixed on survival and contemplating the battle that he was about to enter, this once young Australian soldier could not have imagined that one day his Great Great Granddaughter would venture into the very same wood, without fear of violence or death, but with an innocent and joyful demeanour, enjoying the sights around her. Would he have smiled, if he knew? Would he have been glad to know that one day his own Great Great Granddaughter would follow the same path he took, yet under very different circumstances? Could the jarring juxtaposition even be contemplated? Or would fear and the gutting sense of dread not allow room for such exquisite imagination for the future?
Third Movement: Puddles of water
A satellite image of the region between Ypres and Houplines reveals dozens of pools of water, splatted randomly across the landscape. Some stand out as large and round, while others are small in circumference. Perhaps they are not so arbitrary, but exist through design, like the sporadic appearance of blue paint dripped onto the canvas by the skilled hand of Jackson Pollock. While it is impossible to know with certainty from a map, the shaping of at least some of these watermarks suggests unnatural origins.
As one drives or walks about the area, on the ground these watering holes look innocent enough: a pond for fishing perhaps or for catching eel, a watering hole for livestock, or an enviable puddle where children can’t but help attempt to leap over or to stamp their feet inside. Who doesn’t enjoy splashing water high into the air and trying to wet friends passing by? The idea of a hidden pond surrounded by tall grass and oak trees, knowing that unlike Australia there are no snakes or crocodiles or other guests waiting to bite or eat us, is an opportunity too tranquil to miss; either to dive into the waters or simply to lay down by the water’s edge and lap up the beautiful scenery.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.”
These water holes may well be idyllic places today, but they are not meadows and woodlands for holidaymakers or a romantic afternoon out of town. These puddles were made by man shelling hell into fellow man. The ponds are not habitats for fish but buried beneath are the skeletal remains of thousands of human beings, whose bodies were smashed and often disintegrated by mines laid deep under German trenches. These are not quiet waters, but the “valley of the shadow of death.”
During our visit to the area, we pulled over the car and climbed a small embankment to view the Ultimo Crater, one of 19 mines that were detonated at 3:10am on July 7th, 1917. These explosions signalled a massive attack on the German lines and with the deadly intent of killing any life living above or below ground. The mines were so successful (if success is a suitable word to describe the ensuing carnage) that concrete bunkers were hurled into the sky and upended, and the few surviving Germans paralysed by shock. Imagine a company of men resting, sleeping, inside their bunkers and with sentries alert outside, when without warning and within a millisecond the earth erupts with such force that thousands of tonnes of soil lurches tens of metres into the air and flesh and bone is pulverised. One instant there is mass life, and the next, nothing remains. Eyewitnesses described the sight as “pillars of fire”. Not one, but nineteen gigantic fireballs illuminating the ground in front. The force of these explosions was so immense that buildings in London shook and scientists in Lille believed that France had been struck by an earthquake. It was the largest human made noise ever created, until Hiroshima in 1945.
The British Major General, Charles Harrington, had spoken with reporters on the day before the attack and alerted them to this monument of human striving,” Gentlemen, I do not know whether we shall change history tomorrow,” he said. “But we shall certainly alter the geography.”
Indeed, a century later the ground remains disfigured by these acts of human violence. Some of the mines have been covered and returned to farmland, while others are permanent fixtures in the landscape. Alongside the nineteen craters are many more holes in the ground, smaller in diameter, and splattered about like a golf course made for Thracian Gigantes. No one knows how many soldiers were injured, lamed, and killed in the now quiet sector of the Western Front. Historical records reveal that the majority of casualties came from artillery fire, rather than by machine gun, rifle or bayonet. It is a tragedy of warfare that we can step in ignorance of where once lay the body of a fellow human, fighting to preserve a way of life that today we enjoy. Children may splash and jump, and animals lap at the water’s edge; beauty for horror, agony exchanged with fun.
There are also holes that lay under the ground. A subterranean war was waged as miners were recruited to dig miles of tunnels, deep beneath no man’s land and under key enemy positions. Men died as scaffolding collapsed and under falling earth or through flash flooding from the high water table across the land, and there was the occasional brief and brutal encounter when opposing tunnels ran into each other and men fought it out with spades and knives. Of the mines that were prepared for that July morning, six were never detonated, as the front lines had altered in the months leading up to the battle. One of these exploded in 1995 during a storm when lightning struck an electricity pylon that had been built over the site of one of the birdcage mines, unbeknown to workers. It is a reminder that the terrible war has not yet finished is work.
It is the paradox of the worldly situation. There is intense quiet today where ears once bled from the megaphonic reverberation of high explosives. Today there is an understated calm where one century ago there was fear, anxiety, and dread. Does time cover these experiences? Can a farmer’s hoe or decades of new woodland growth cast aside the bloody mess of war? Is time passing suffice to forget and to move on? Or should the scars remain until the end of time, as long forgotten and hidden memories to be retraced only by a few?
Fourth Movement: A lonely cemetery
The cello is an instrument for loners. One might immediately retort, what about the orchestra or a chamber group? While this is true, such arrangements are corollary to the cello’s design. It is the scene for a single chair, room for one, and with a sound of solitude, voice for the forlorn. A dark timbre emerges as the bow leans across the strings and fingers move over the bridge, with gentle yet earnest intent. The resonance that rings from the wooden frame is beautiful as it is haunting. It is as deep and clarion as a chamber inside a cavern. There is a ghost like quality, an individual lost in a wood, yearning to find solace, and striving through the melodic line to find peace and resolution.
Surrounded by the trees, almost hidden by its isolated corner in Plugstreet Wood is one of the smallest cemeteries of the entire Western Front. It is without grandeur and fame. There are no broad driveways leading up to the cemetery nor any gigantic monuments that can be seen at a distance. The cemetery is typically meticulously kept, grass cut with precision around each marble marker. Few people however ever visit the Toronto Avenue Cemetery for it is tucked away and out of sight. The cemetery has only one entrance, and that is at the end of a single dirt track that winds its way around the wood. It is too narrow for a vehicle; only walkers stumble across this garden of death, either by accident or because they are in search of relatives who are among the dead named by the graves.
Toronto Avenue Cemetery is the site for seventy-six known graves of soldiers from the Great War. All seventy-six were members of the AIF who fought and died in June 1917 during the Battle of Messines. Among the fallen are several members of the 35th Battalion. The sight of these graves drag history out of the distant past and into an eerie present. These tombstones name men who fought alongside William Campbell, and perhaps even knew him. He had advanced across no man’s land with them on June 7th 1917 towards enemy positions, to the tune of screaming shells and the rhythm of German machine guns. They had run together, walked together, ducked and covered, weaved and dodged and then cut down the enemy with rifle and bayonet. They pushed Germans regiments into retreat while hundreds more laid down their arms and surrendered. Yet despite the full exertion of human effort, mates and comrades fell aside, to lay dead or dying in the churned up ground in front of the Messines ridgeline.
Their dying cries harmonised with the cacophony of war: screams, groans, a final sigh. But in the rush of the assault could anyone single out this sound? Could a mate pause his advance to bend over and acknowledge the dying utterances of his friend? How many simply fell, shot through the head or blown apart, offered no chance to farewell this world? Death is a lonely course. Whether a friend’s hand is there, present and ready, or no one notices the moment of your passing, the entry into Hades is solo.
Today, laying under Flanders soil and beneath those famous trees of Plugstreet, are the remains of human beings killed by the music of war. On their tombstone is inscribed their serial number, rank, name, battalion and date of death. We read their names, unaware of their final acts, words, or thoughts.
We might say of these diggers that they are today saluted by grateful Australians and French alike. Certainly, their names are forever written in stone but do we know them? Do we recognise their faces? To most Australians, they are long forgotten, except for this secluded inscription, plus any that can be found on one of the thousands of war memorials located in Australia’s suburbs and towns. How many of those who fought can we recall today by name? The word Messines is remembered because of the magnitude of the 19 mines which exploded that July day and for General Monash who orchestrated this first Allied Victory of the First World War, but otherwise we recognise very few of all the thousands who combined to create this feat of human gore and achievement.
To the naturalist, immortalising the dead is a paradox of terms. The dead remain dead, all that they were is carried with them into Sheol. As our bodily remains are consumed by the earth, digested by worms and feasted upon by bacteria and all manner of microorganisms, do we cease to exist? Does all but a disconnected name survive? Do the dead survive in any meaningful way other than as a tombstone? Or perhaps remain only in a photograph or signed letter that is now encased in glass in a war museum or all but forgotten in a desk drawer with other paraphernalia of previous familial generations?
Posterity sucks, except for those for whom through personal intelligence, strength, or luck, are counted among history’s famed or infamous. Not that men joined the AIF for the prospect of historical acclaim, well, this was an unlikely reason for the majority who enlisted. Accomplishment for most of us has little to do with gaining national recognition and much to do with familial embrace and personal realisation. We fight for personal satisfaction, to prove ourselves worthy of bravery. We fight to protect, out of moral duty and sometimes out of love for our brother.
Whether in obscurity or in Homeric glory, the singularity of death is a common ailment. That is not to say that the purpose of death or the life once lived are irrelevant details; such things matter, for without them we lose grasp of meaning. Yet, in death all are equal. No matter their army, rank, or age, the ground does not differentiate. Whether their deeds were noted in dispatch or went unnoticed, whether receiving the unenviable award of the posthumous recitation or later dying in bed at an elderly age, there is no hierarchy in the grave.
Did the dying peer momentarily into the future and say, people, will remember my actions on this day? Did it cross their minds that their name would be etched into the annals of war, as though achieving a participation award? Or did they consider the possibility of life beyond the grave? Hopeful. Prayerful. Did their families back home upon hearing the impossible news, join the chorus in hoping, praying?
“I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:18)
Fifth Movement: Christmas again
We spent Christmas in Lille, warm and well fed. We roasted a duck…make that two ducks, with an accompaniment of roasted vegetables and gravy, and finished off with a traditional French Christmas log, filled with chocolate, raspberries, and cream (make that two logs!). With the element of surprise that cold and wet bring to a winter’s day, the weather in northern France wasn’t enticing anyone outdoors on Christmas morn. We did venture for a short walk around local parkland, but otherwise, we enjoyed the interior of a comfortable French home, situated one street behind the home where Charles de Gaulle was born. Only twenty km to the west, although 102 years earlier, my Great Grandfather experienced a very different Christmas.
His Christmas in 1916 was without the warmth of indoors and the sumptuous meal that we ate. At best, his company received the welcome, “you are relieved from the front line” and could spend the day under shelter in the rubble that was then Houplines, eating tinned food and perhaps a bottle of some kind of alcohol to warm their bodies and spirits. The months passed, and soon it was summer 1917. It was during one June morning that William Campbell revisited one of the most famous Christmases of all. Two years earlier in 1914, the war had begun with the aggression of Titans in a boxing ring. The first round was swiftly won by the Germans as they launched their long awaited strategic plan, known as the Schlieffen plan. It however soon lost power due to toughening resistance and a string of mistakes in the machine that was the German military hierarchy. The opposing sides started to dig into the earth, and wait. The trench system quickly took shape, an engineering feat that weaved 1500kms from the North Sea to the French Alps. Armies too exhausted to fight another major engagement, took to small raids, sniping, hurling bombs, and more than anything, just trying to survive.
On that first Christmas Eve of the war, in 1914, something extraordinary occurred. There were thousands of witnesses but no one knows who went first and who was second. During the evening, along a line of trenches in the southern portion of the Ypres salient, the sound of “Stille Nacht”, floated across no man’s land.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Something stirred in the hearts of the British soldiers; a commonality was uncovered, the Christmas story. Instead of gunfire, the troops exchanged Carols and each side applauded the other’s rendition. The British launched with The First Nowell, and the Germans replied with O Tannenbaum. Come morning with a heavy dew descending, no one planned a temporary truce, no orders came down the chain of command to celebrate the birth of the world’s Saviour. Someone or someones crept out of the trenches and greeted the enemy in the middle. Others soon joined on that bogged ground and soldiers began exchanging small gifts of cigarettes, chocolate and a little rum or cognac. A soccer ball was kicked onto the field, and one of the most memorable football matches ever played took place on Christmas Day between Germany and England. Of course, the final result remains hotly disputed, but for a few hours the war paused and foes became sportsmen, not killing but weaving a ball around opponents toward two goal posts that were stuck into the mud.
The field today doesn’t look much like a place for sport. Then again, neither did it in 1914. While the ground is soggy and uneven, in 1914 it was filled with shell holes, barbed wire, unexploded bombs, and human body parts. War is an ironic and awfully sardonic affair. “Silent night” hovered over a battlefield. The message of “peace on earth” found a temporary home on that violent soil of Flanders.
The unofficial Christmas armistice lasted for one day, although along some other sectors of the Front, troops were reluctant to fire their weapons for several days. It required officers to threaten their men with disciplinary action, should they not repent of fraternising with the enemy. A snippet of grace amid continual bloodletting. A single day of peace during four years of unspeakable suffering. But like the sudden clock alarm that arrests a serene night’s sleep, peace evaporated with the inevitable although probably reluctant, first shot fired.
This famous soccer pitch can be visited today, as we did two days before Christmas in 2018. Two markers note what took place on the field. One is located on the very edge of the ground, placed by the khaki chums, and across the road, UEFA unveiled a humble yet befitting memorial on the centenary of that game with a modest sculpture, and laying in front is a box filled with soccer balls of all colours, although now fading with the seasons. Standing behind is a fir tree decorated for Christmas.
What makes this field pertinent for Campbell history is that this is where the 35th Battalion ascended on the morning of the battle of Messines. That morning when the whistles blew, it wasn’t to start a football match, but to announce the launch of an attack; what General Monash referred to as his Magnus Opus.
The three brigades (of which the 35th Battalion belonged to the 9th Brigade) of the 3rd Division streamed out of Plugstreet wood from the Northern Eastern corner along a three mile front, headed toward Messines ridge. There were no soccer balls being kicked along the field that day, only the deadly game of war. In the moments leading up to the shrilled whistle, the clamouring of bodies up ladders, rifles hitting the woodwork and bayonets knocking tin helmets, and the roar of 800 voices crying war chants and inaudible yells of enthusiasm and also fear, it is often said that there was a resigned silence as men said a final prayer, finished a hurried letter back home or clasped their head in their hands to contemplate the unknown. There was little time for quiet in the moments before battle, for they had hurried to the launching places on the wood’s edge. Then the blasts of the mines had been so immense that even the Allies looked on with terror at the sight.
William Campbell was one of thousands who trod the same ground where the Christmas truce had been made. How different were the circumstances of that day. I guess war is like a team sport in some ways. A captain is leading his team, there are strategists sitting safely away from the pitch, and medics waiting to be called upon. William Campbell was a member of the team. It is a good thing that today we resign ourselves to being bloodied on sporting fields, for the real thing is far too terrible. Imagine fielding 11 players and only 5 returning at the end of the day. Imagine a footy team sending out their best 18 and leaving 10 on the ground, their bodies contorted, limbs blown apart.
The battle would live up to the name given by Monash, for it was the first major victory for the British in the First World War. After two years of war, and with millions of casualties already suffered, they achieved a strategic success, and with the Aussies at the vanguard. Germany had won the first two sets of the match, and now the British had won their first set. There was however a very long way to go before anyone would be declared the victor.
Messines was a famous victory, and my Great Grandfather was part of it. We know the path he trod but we have no record of his precise involvement. We cannot be sure how he reacted to the day’s closure. Was it triumph and joy? Was it desperate tiredness and relief? Standing on this soil a century later I asked myself a hundred questions, trying to catch a moment of what he may have felt while knowing that the task is an impossible one. There is peculiar familiarity in the foreign place, knowing that you are a descendant of a soldier who once fought and bled on that soil. One thing was certain, I felt pride. This is perhaps anathema for many today, but I am not ashamed to know that he may have levelled his rifle at another human being and perhaps pulled the trigger. It is not naive hubris or a pro-war posture but satisfaction knowing that he participated in this moment of history, despite the extreme terror and danger, doing his duty.
This Flanders field speaks of the peace that we too readily assume today. It came at great cost. Is there ever peace without blood? War may be unjust, but so also is the enslavement of people to totalitarian ideologue and dehumanising ethnic minorities and robbing the poor and rich alike. It was choosing between Scylla and Charybdis, an Odyssean conundrum that was far from mythical.
Peace, even with the strongest of intent, eludes many generations. And when war is avoided between States there is often conflict within a bordered land. In addition, there is the proliferation of all manner of domestic disputes, harms, and abuses, inflicted by neighbour upon neighbour and family member on family. Ego is an obstinate creature, and when accompanied by economic prosperity, manpower, industrial strength, and opportunity, it has Nebuchadnezzar like power. The motivation for war is not always power, whether it is the power to protect or increase economic, political, or cultural influence. Most often war is about power, but sometimes the provocation is pure hate: the Armenian genocide, the mass slaughter of Jews, Gypsies and other racial minorities in 1937-45, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, Bosnia, Northern Iraq, and countless places around the world both yesterday and today. Humanity is capable of extreme evil on a mass scale. What is the human response to such villainy? It is often the case that standing by and doing nothing will not end the obscene and damnable.
The history of the world is a violent one. Australia has participated in more wars over the past 120 years than almost any other nation on earth. Not only that, as a faithful ally, Australia has been faster to declare war than most other independent States, whether it be the two world wars, Vietnam, or Afghanistan. Australians found themselves at war for 26 years in the 20th Century, that is 1 year in every 4. In the 21st Century, the percentage is even higher, with our troops being involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq, making up almost the entirety of the 19 years that have so far completed their course.
We noticed screwpickets in some fields that we passed. The screwpicket was a German invention from later in the war, that made laying barb wire a more time efficient task. Local farmers have since taken these and used them to build their own fencing. I am reminded of the Biblical prophets who foretold a day when,
“He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.”
Such a day looks to be a distant horizon, a desperately appealing vision that is currently beyond the grasp of the human condition. Let us not forget the inevitable shortcoming of that Christmas truce. The largest human made destructive noise that had ever been heard was only 18 months away, and its seed was about to be planted as miners were soon digging under the earth. Only the blind optimist believes that global conflict is a thing of the past. Did not the events of 1914-17 serve as a catalyst to the Russian Revolution and the rise of Communism? Did not the Great War create the political strife in much of Europe and especially Germany which seeded fascism and the rise of Nazism which birthed another world war even more bloody than the first? Did 1945 institute an era of global peace or what became known as the Cold war? This fridge like condition was ‘chilled’ alright, except for the tens of millions caught behind the Iron Curtain, and the millions who lived and died in China, Korea, and Vietnam. Today are we not reaping the judgements of previous mistakes and evils, and are we not making them anew and passing them onto our children? It is the very arrogance of human sufficiency and moral compassing that will, again and again, create monstrous bloodshed.
My Great Grandfather was one of a thousand who that day trod over the famed Christmas soccer ground. At the time, knowledge of that famous truce seemed irrelevant, even irreverent to the bloody task set before them. And yet, was this not the end goal, the match point to which the armies were leading? The final victory, not only of defeating a foe but instituting a new, longer and deeper peace. A century later, as my family and I overlooked this field of sport and battle, the question remains, when will this world be healed of its suffering and death and violent recourse? Who can heal the human heart, to wrench us free from such unworthy hate and replace this stone with flesh and spirit? A day without monuments and when memorials are no longer required to remind us for every thought of violence has permanently dissipated into the earth, never again to be taken up.
Movement 6 – Villers-Bretonneux
The first months of 1918 saw protests in Germany and even riots. The population had grown weary of the war and the hunger and destitution inflicted on the home front as a result of this never-ending conflict. The Austrians were also starving and bankruptcy was only a matter of weeks away. In the Middle East, the Turkish armies were in continual retreat, with British, Australian and New Zealand, and Arab armies winning victory after victory. Bulgaria was capitulating and would be the first of the Axis power to exit the war. Things were getting desperate, but the view among the Allied powers was not necessarily flying high with certainty. This war was a bout between a crocodile and a great white shark, with the constant thrashing of these muscular beasts churning the water, making visibility at times impossible.
In March 1918, Amiens became the target of Germany’s last ditch effort to win the war. The Kaiserschlacht (‘Kaisar’s battle’) was the plan of General Ludendorff, and it centred on smashing through the allied lines along the Somme river, capturing Amiens and beating the British into surrender. The tiniest of windows had opened following Russia’s withdrawal from the war to battle its own Revolution. This released 100,000s of troops from the Eastern Front, for use in France. There was though a suicidal urgency underpinning the offensive because the Germans were overall running out of manpower and equipment, and the Americans who had entered the war in 1917, were now beginning to pour into France in their 10,000s. If the Germans could win a decisive battle against the British, then just perhaps the French would also sue for peace and finally give the German people their long eluded victory.
Four operations together formed this last motion to push the Allies into capitulation. Each was given a code name: Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau, and Blücher-Yorck. Of these four attacks that were launched across France, the Michael offensive was the main thrust and it was aimed at Amiens. 65 German divisions accompanied by thousands of guns pushed forward with only 26 British Divisions standing in the way, including the Australian 3rd Division.
The offensive began on March 21st. On March 29th, German Divisions reached the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux. Standing between Amiens and the German divisions was this small French commune. Villers-Bretonneux was the “most important town in the war at the time”. The 35th Battalion took up a place on the line, 2800 yards in length, replacing an entire British Division that had previously controlled the sector. Depending on the strength of a battalion and that of a Division, a Battalion would consist of somewhere between 10-20% of the men making a Division. Already, they were outnumbered by the approaching Germans, whose vanguard consisted of stormtroopers (Germany’s elite shock troops, as opposed to the dudes wearing white helmets and armour in Stars Wars!).
The 35th was to defend an area to the east of Villers-Bretonneux, adjacent to the rail line that runs through the town from Reims to Amiens. Like Houplines, the terrain in the immediate vicinity is unimpressive. There are no distinguishing features in the landscape to admire. The ground does however turn in the north. Only two kilometres in that direction are hills which then lean into fertile and marshy valleys along the Somme River. One of these vantage points saw significant fighting during the second battle of Villers-Bretonneux. Today there is an Australian war memorial on the heights, commemorating those dark days of April 1918. The Monash war museum is there and now open to the public and there is a Commonwealth cemetery on the grounds, which includes the graves of those from the 35th who died during those assaults. Back in the town, we drove through the centre which only takes a couple of minutes, for Villers-Bretonneux is a small French commune. We went over a small bridge on the town’s outskirts that cuts across the train tracks. Today there are buildings on one side, a manufacturer of Asphalt, but otherwise, we looked across to where the battle was fought and saw farming fields that were lying dormant for the winter. There really is nothing to see. Shortly afterwards we turned back, pulling up at a service station to refuel the car, and then stopping at an Auchan supermarket (a French version of our Woolworths and Coles) to buy some groceries. Our activity was quite surreal in its ordinariness. Sighting seeing, filling a petrol tank and buying food within metres of where my Great Grandfather was fighting for his life and the lives of the men around him. Unlike Houplines, this was a critical junction, upon which lay the outcome of the war.
Villers-Bretonneux could easily have become France’s Thermopylae, a few Spartans from Newcastle blocking the path of King Xerxes. Accordingly, the railway line served as the narrow gorge pass in northern Greece and the greens fields that teamed with thousands of charging grey figures were the coastal plains from which the mighty Persian army approached. The clamour of battle was not with spears, swords, and shields, and against Hoplite armour but with the roar of howitzers and guns. A single Lewis machine gun could fire 500-600 rounds per minute. Imagine five of these light and easily manoeuvrable guns sweeping a field in front of a position. How could a regiment dodge 3000 bullets per minute that were aimed at their legs and chests? Too often in that war oncoming troops did not survive this leaden hail. By this stage of the war, these light weapons only came into use when the barrage of the heavy guns hadn’t completed the task of killing and maiming. Following the cannon and then the machine gun, the very last gasp of defence was the rifle butt and the bayonet, which was to be used by the Aussies in their famed counter attack on Villers-Bretonneux later that month. This was a bloodied business.
As the wounded were carried from Villers-Bretonneux and toward the hospitals in and around Amiens, William Campbell moved forward. He was returning from a period in hospital himself, because of sickness. He had only been back in France for a few days before finding himself hurled into one of the most perilous moments of the war. There was little time to settle in and be reacquainted with his company or with the new surroundings that was Picardy. All available men were being rushed into the line in response to the growing emergency.
For the sake of historical accuracy and to somewhat blunt the vanity of some great storytelling traditions with their embellishments of the truth, I must note that William Campbell was not present for those pivotal days where the battle hung in the balance. He missed the initial and most ferocious of the attacks. Upon his return, he did find action, or rather it found him. I have no information to describe the ordeal of those days, but I do know that William Campbell only survived five days before being wounded in combat. In what is the finest statement on his war record, we read that he remained on duty despite his wounds.
During the course of the war, the 3rd Division suffered 6674 deaths, and over 24,000 wounded. As one attempts to assess the size of such human loss, these numbers do not account for all the other Australian Divisions. My Great Grandfather was but one among many.
Once again the imagination takes hold where history is silent. It is impossible to appreciate the sight of thousands of men teaming toward your position, intent on killing you and all the men around you. Consider the ferocity of armed men yelling war cries and profanities as they charged, with bombs hurtling overhead and a million pointed lead missiles searching for your body.
The day William Campbell entered the foray, Charles Bean also arrived. He said of the town,
“It was a shocking sight – every house seemed to have been hit”.
Was it courage or commitment to his brothers that caused my Great Grandfather to stand his ground despite his wounds? Was the fight so urgent that withdrawal could not be contemplated? Were his wounds not so serious that he could resist the temptation to fall back? By the end of the battle, the 3rd Division suffered 65% casualties, an enormous count, but Amiens was saved, and quite possibly the war. A few weeks later the Germans would drive forward for the final time and take the town, but only for a short few days because the Australians drove them back like a wild herd of buffalo in the outback, and thus blunted the Michael offensive for good.
Today, Villers-Bretonneux appears more dinky di than many parts of Australia. There are streets named after Melbourne and Victoria, restaurants with Aussie names and a gymnasium called the ‘Koala Club’. There is a school, L’Ecole Victoria, which has a sign displayed on the outside of its building, “Do not forget Australia”. The people of Villers have not forgotten the sacrifice made by so many young Australians in 1918. Their blood has mingled with the conscience and thanks of a town to this day. They have not derided the cost born to our nation in order to keep them free. Distance can sometimes veil our appreciation of such circumstances. We are often too removed from place and time to understand the significance of history’s moments. We throw stones at what we do not see nor comprehend. We toss around predictions based on assumptions and moral inclinations, not permitting the possibility that we are not omnipotent.
Despite all the wretched business of making battle, this was an astonishing time to be alive. Villers-Bretonneux was one of the great struggles of the war, upon which hung the future of Europe. This wrestling match of humankind took place in a part of the world dotted with medieval towns and picturesque villages, and the meandering Somme river with Poplars lining its bank is a beautiful sight. Manfred von Richthofen and his flying circus flew in the skies above, and the ‘Yanks were coming’. There is no glory in war and yet glory is uncovered. There is no good in war and yet good was done. Men showed the greatest love for fellow man. Men acquired skills and passed on knowledge that was gained. Millions of separate interactions and decisions were enacted out of consideration for others and entire movements were constructed to not only defeat a foe but to institute a better freedom and security for the nations of the world (at least for those on the victor’s side). Empires fell and totalitarian regimes crumbled. New nations rose out of shell holes, and greater universal principles articulated. But of course, like all things, humanity is skilled at ruining the good.
The Germans never reached Amiens, having been twice defeated by the Australians and British. By the end of April, the German machine was broken. The war would last another seven months, and 100,000s more would die, but at last with the spring of 1918 hope budded. Although, William Campbell’s future was looking anything but sanguine.
Movement 7 – Confutatis maledictis
“what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4)
Amiens is a beautiful medieval city that follows a length of the Somme river, about 120kms south of Lille. Its impressive 13th Century Gothic cathedral dominates the skyline and can be seen 20kms away along with the eastern approach from Villers-Bretonneux. Even at a distance, this structure (which looks a little like a beached whale with a spire on top) is quite something to behold. We drove into the city at dusk, despite fading light the monumental cathedral stood proud, with the shadow descending upon her. Tradition has it that inside the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens, the head of John the Baptist was placed, a trophy from the Crusades. In our visit, we didn’t uncover any bodiless heads or headless bodies. We did, however, sit outside on the floor of the Place Notre Dame, in the dark and cold, to watch a most spectacular light display. The crowds were distracted by the pantomime of another Christmas market; we were there to see a religion of lasers and lights. The kaleidoscopic choreography integrated the cathedral’s stone facade with astonishing colours and shapes that cascaded and floated, dissolved and emerged, creating an undefined journey. Just before the program finishes, the Cathedral appears like it’s been draped with Joseph’s technicolour dream coat, before turning an eerily blood red, with thousands of what to me looked like blood corpuscles running through a vein. Then again, perhaps I had the Great War on my mind.
Amiens was a strategic point in the war, not for its churches or canals, but for its railway. Capture Amiens and a major artery was cut off from the Allies, excising the British from the French, and blocking supply lines. It was also the route wounded soldiers took as they were sent to hospitals before finally being shipped to England, should they survive long enough. Monash commented on Amiens in the Spring of 1918, that it was “filled with refugees and war-torn, mud-splattered, excited and starved-looking troops of all kinds.” Like so many places we visited on the Western Front, there was a jarring disparity between what we saw and how these places appeared during the war.
William Campbell almost certainly passed through Amiens after he was wounded. He may not have known at the time, but his passage was not for return. This was his final journey through France. He wasn’t to die of his wounds, but perhaps something precarious was waiting. It is difficult to say, for what is worse, death or shame, to end in the grave or to be marked for life? It would be too awful to suggest the former, and yet shame is like an unwanted tattoo; no matter what you do to try and scrub away its memory, it is the regular reminder of yesterday, for all to see.
It is probably time to share some hard truths about William Campbell. All that I have written about his war experiences is true. He did spend time in the front line, he did fight at Messines and he did experience many of war’s horrors. He survived a gas attack and he was wounded in battle, but William Campbell’s war was not the making of movies or memoirs. Nor was his information (if it was known publicly) welcome at Anzac Day marches and drinks afterwards at the pub. The reality is, he spent less time at the front than many of the 35th who survived the war. Part of the reason was sickness. He was hospitalised with illness on several occasions, which resulted in him being separated from his company for weeks at a time. The problem wasn’t sickness but that he often (not always) followed his hospital stays with going AWOL. And it’s not as though his was a quick night away, his army record suggests more than that. I suspect, from the little I have discerned the historical records, that his disappearing acts were more than a wave of the celebrated Aussie larrikinism that made the diggers a face of humorous anti-authoritarianism during the war. One reason for this unamiable conclusion is the frequency of times in which William Campbell was absent without leave and the seriousness of the charges that were addressed on at least two of the occasions.
What caused him to act so carelessly? It is one thing to disappear for a night away out of desperation for quiet or distraction, but to make a decision that resulted in leaving your mates to fight without you? To be fair, he didn’t abandon his post when on the frontline, but he did, however, take advantage of the time when he was away from the front. And yet, how can one settle on a course that could mean abandoning your own? It is this knowledge that disappoints and etches a small scar on the name Campbell. Loyalty is a little spoken about virtue in today’s Western societies and yet building community is an impossible task without it. It is difficult to work, to play, and to fight without trust built into the web of relationships and without the belief that you are supported by and are supporting those around you. It is his lack of loyalty (as seems to be the case), that makes this realisation uncomfortable. Of course, I don’t know the reasons behind this habit. We are not privy to his state of mind. Was he a sickly figure who found army life more than he could cope with? Were his hiatuses a sign of youthful immaturity or thoughtless pursuits? Did fear overcome him? Did his own experiences of the front hit him for a psychological six? None of the evidence, as limited as it is, quite fits any of these scenarios. The unfortunate fact is that we simply do not know. Second-guessing other peoples motives is at the best of times like a blind man leading another blind man through the outback on a blind and legless camel. Therefore, one wants to offer a sympathetic note, at least recognising the possibility of an explanation.
Whatever the rationale that attempts to explain his actions, William Campbell was no Ajax or Achilles. He was awarded no bravery medals and never mentioned in despatches. It is a strange reminder that the determinator of immortality are those who record names, places and deeds. Our history books remember feats of bravery. Our war memorials recognise the dead although we don’t know with certainty how they all died. There is a certain reading in between the lines that is required. We have adopted Thucydides’ posture, “For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war.”
His words are a truism, a noble yet simplistic memorial. Yet, without casting aspersions? on the memory of our war dead, did all fall valiantly or were some killed as they fled the field or as they cowered in a hole, hoping to escape harm? They are honoured and the very human circumstances of their deaths often looked over and forgotten. They died in the Great War, and for that, we give thanks and details that don’t follow the script are left alone. We can erase the uncomfortable facts of history, but it is rarely to our benefit. We are not required to applaud the past and neither is it necessary to refuse its pain and embarrassment. My Great Grandfather’s war record could be read through a sympathetic lens, but why should he be excused? The fact is that his absences had ramifications for the men in his company. He was not always with them when duty and mateship called. Where men lived together, served one another, and fought side by side as brothers, it is difficult to defend his conduct. War doesn’t offer the benefit of the doubt.
Not everyone is a hero. Not every failing is villainy. Some men, many men, most men are not as herculaic as self-belief would convince. Did William Campbell possess any degree of pluck or fortitude? With Messines and Villers-Bretonneux to his name, there must have been some resolve common to the average digger. Was he persuaded forward by the momentum of mates around him or by sheer determination to not let fear take him captive? Did he find in those moments the will to fight and move forward with reckless gallantry? Once again, we may ask but answers elude us..
“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it” (Thucydides).
Perhaps Thucydides is right, in fact, I’m sure he is., and Yet I doubt if he explains the totality of all acts of bravery. Yes, the First World War gave a million examples of such courage. It must also be said that sometimes it was innocent confidence that led men over the top, rather than guts or grit. When officers assured their men that a heavy bombardment had destroyed all enemy emplacements, soldiers naively believed the promise, until they were mowed down by machine gunfire. Bravery also makes use of different motivations: anger, love, frustration, the in-the-moment action spurred by desperation or by friendship, or the choice of following the perilous yet better of two unspeakable options. Of course, it is easy to theorise the array of possibilities from a warm and safe car driving toward Ypres in 2018.
My Great Grandfather missed Passchendaele in 1917 where his Battalion suffered 80% casualties. Only 90 men survived unscathed from the 509 who entered that battle. He also avoided the war’s final death struggles of Amiens, Albert, and Mont St. Quentin. His offences quite possibly saved his life, but not his reputation. Many years later he and his wife, and even a local return servicemen’s club would request to have his service medallions sent to him. Each time he was refused. “Automatically forfeited”was the official reply.
William Campbell returned to Australia in 1920, and like his war, details of his life are sketchy. I do know that he had a son born just before the war who saw active service in the Second World War. The son, James Campbell and his wife Mona had five children, the second eldest being my Dad.
Until a few years ago I never knew that my Great Grandfather fought in the First World War. I have since discovered that I had other ancestors who were involved, although their stories are yet to be uncovered. We do not choose our history, nor our ancestry or even our parents. We should accept the past, recognising that our understanding is partial though, acknowledging the good, the foolish, and the iniquitous.
The Biblical reference that I returned to again and again during this short visit to the Western Front, is from Psalm 8,
“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?”
Such inexplicable worth and wonder!. Consider Vermeer’s ‘girl with a pearl earring.’ It is a portrait of stunning beauty, and almost impossible to evaluate with the dollar. And yet, surely the woman herself is of greater value than the painting? Or consider that famous photograph of the young girl on the road in Vietnam, fleeing the napalm and her screaming from the burns on her body. It is one of the iconic images of the 20th Century and brought fame to Nick Ut who snapped this graphic photograph. Surely, that innocent girl is worthy of greater attention than this image? The point is that the care and price we attach to such famed pictures are at best an aid to telling the story of real human beings who are each of inestimable worth.
“You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.”
Such responsibility went asunder. In all creation, of all the billions and billions of creatures that fill the earth and swim in the oceans and caress the skies, we humans are rulers and carers, and we are also abusers. We are much like Tybalt and Romeo, two young men whose egos with a rush of rhetorical obstinacy led to an escalation of events.
Well, peace be with you, sir. Here comes my man.
But I’ll be hanged, sir, if he wear your livery
Marry, go before to field, he’ll be your follower;
Your worship, in that sense, may call him ‘man.’
Romeo, the hate I bear thee can afford
No better term than this: thou art a villain.
Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee
Doth much excuse the appertaining rage
To such a greeting. Villain am I none.
Therefore farewell; I see thou knowest me not.
Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries
That thou hast done me. Therefore turn and draw.
I do protest, I never injured thee,
But love thee better than thou canst devise
Till thou shalt know the reason of my love.
And so, good Capulet — which name I tender
As dearly as my own — be satisfied.
O calm, dishonorable, vile submission!
Alla stoccata carries it away.”
The paradox of the human condition bewilders such inexplicable worth and wonder and yet constant and repeated reproach. The height of creative prodigy with the ability to love and show kindness, and yet in our DNA are traits that stick like the mud of Flanders, and which no degree of education or scientific treatment can excise. At the best of times, we contain and suppress such things, and in others, they explode into a public and violent confrontation. The First World War wasn’t human madness, it was calculated depravity. It was genius used in the employment of destruction. This was a betrayal of Divine duty. I am not suggesting that this war was fought without any degree of moral integrity, for should we not defend the vulnerable? When an emerging global war sends signals of intent to its neighbours, to what point must we remain on the sideline and permit bullying and harassment? At what juncture do allies speak up as a buttress for justice but do not support words with deeds? How much politicising is mere virtual signalling?
“War creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” (C.S. Lewis)
As I consider the events surrounding William Campbell’s war, the temptation is to conclude that lessons have been learned and today we move forward with inevitable evolution. While the superficial has progressed enormously, that is with scientific, medical, and technological breakthroughs, and with cultures building bridges and better understanding differences. And yet, we mustn’t make the error in thinking that today we are somehow better suited to the task of humanity. This is an anthropological fallacy of cosmic repercussions. The bloodletting has not subsided, it’s just that we exercise our barbarity with clinical precision or behind closed doors. We continue to postulate and protect all manner of ignominious attitudes and actions, but these are often sanctioned by popular demand and therefore excused.
The world sees the doctrine of total depravity but cannot accept the veracity of this diagnosis because doing so would be leaving our children destitute, without hope for a better tomorrow. Surely wisdom causes us to look outside ourselves and beyond our institutions and authorities to find a cure that ails every past and future generation?
It does not take a prophet to understand that the world will once again serve as the canvas for a gigantic bloodstain. There will be wars and rumours of war. There will be small localised conflicts and globalisation will inevitably produce further large scale violence, perhaps outweighing the experiences of the first two world wars. We may see and even learn from the past, but we project a fools’ paradise when we envision the human capacity to finally overcome evil. Religion is often no better a repose than the honest diatribes of Nietzsche and his philosophical descendants. Religion, “in the name of God”, is often complicit with death making and at times it missing from the task of peacemaking, while other efforts are much like stacking sandbags against a flash flood.
Theologian Oliver O’ Donovan refers to the “nascent warrior culture” in the days of Israel, some fourteen Centuries before the coming of the Christ. This culture is no longer emerging but is now long tried and tested among the nations. Does war intrude upon peace? Perhaps it is more accurate to say that war is interrupted by periods of relative peace and at times by ugly appeasement. Soon enough another ideologue and another authority tests the socio-political temperature and attempts to scale the ethereal stairs of Babel.
The human predicament is perhaps a grotesque complement to the rising philosophical concerns of the late 19th Century. Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche began dismantling the imago dei with new and devastating honesty. Far from discovering superior freedoms, they justified authoritarian systems of Government and the mass sterilisation of ‘lesser’ human beings. To strip humanity of its origins is to leave us destitute and blind, but admitting this truth demands an epistemic and moral humility that few are willing to accept. Nietzsche was right, at least as far as his logic is concerned, that “the masses blink and say ‘We are all equal – Man is but man, before God – we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.” A contemporary of Nietsche, Anatole France retorted without regret,
“It is almost impossible systematically to constitute a natural moral law. Nature has no principles. She furnishes us with no reason to believe that human life is to be respected. Nature, in her indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil.”
If optimism seems out of place and if pessimism is a crushing and untenable alternative, where does the future lie? The lush green cemeteries of the Western Front with their gleaming white headstones convey a respectful and yet somewhat misleading definition of war. This halcyon scene covers over a land that was torn open and exposed the capacity of man to destroy. Perhaps, as a concession, the dead have received a quiet bed until the end of time, but the serenity of this sight mustn’t be misconstrued in any way to deify war or to minimise the sheer horror that befell so many. In part, we want to learn and so avoid repeating history, and yet history shouts to us a message that we don’t wish to accept.
There is an ancient wisdom that stands tall in the midst of time. There are words that demand closer inspection by those who are seeking to exegete the past and to consider an alternate tomorrow. Every step removed signals further hubris that we can ill afford, but epistemic humility and confession may well reorient toward the compass that offers peace instead of war, life instead of death, and love instead of hate.
“Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”
I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Carlyon, Les. The Great War, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2006.
France, Anatole. The Works of Anatole France in English: The crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, London: The Bodley Head, 1923.
Lewis, C.S. “Learning in War-Time”, in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, New York: Collier Books, 1980.
National Archives of Australia, https://www.naa.gov.au/
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Reginals John Hollingdale, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
Passingham, Ian. Pillars of Fire: The Battle of Messines Ridge June 1917, Spellmount, 2012.
Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, Dover Publications, 2017.