The scene of the (war) crime
Guest Blogger Victoria Carless, Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2016-17
It was in the surrounding countryside, over several months in 2017, that the muddy and bloody battle of Passchendaele was fought. In October alone, over 6,600 Australian lives were lost. Many of the headstones here remain unnamed.
I’ve always had a hunch that to write authentically about a place it’s important to experience it; to see the quality of the light and catch a whiff of what the locals are cooking for dinner.
I give weight to place in my stories, treat it almost as though it is another character. For my first book, the setting was easy to conjure. I had grown up in the environment I was writing about, so the description flowed like the creek that is central to the story.
For my second story however, which explores desertion both in battle and on the home front in WW1 and which I am currently researching as a 2016 Q ANZAC 100 Fellow, I am not so familiar with the territory my characters will be canvasing.
Recreating early 20th century European battlefields – the sights, the sounds and the smells – is a sensory challenge. War on the Western Front was an abstract concept for me, until the notion of desertion took hold. I didn’t expect my Fellowship journey to take me so close to the scene of this particular theatre of war. Yet here I am at Ypres in Belgium, known as ‘Wipers’ to the troops, tracing the steps of many who served in WW 1 and many more who have visited since, to honour and remember them.
On first appearance, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries and memorials are picturesque and peaceful places. Black birds sing in the spring sunshine and willows softly weep. Yet beneath these patches of well-tended soil scattered across northern France and Belgium, lie so many Australians - brothers, fathers, friends and sweethearts, who did not ever return home.
It’s humbling and heartbreaking to visit these sacred sites, where so many people gave their lives. People who had families who loved them. Families who sent small comforts from home, like tack biscuits, insect powder and embroidered postcards. People who had hopes and dreams of a future with their Australian solider.
I couldn’t sleep after visiting these places. I was struck by how many soldiers, still unnamed, rest here, so far from home. A local tells me that the remains of soldiers are still found from time to time.
The former battlegrounds, now turned over to farming again, gives up what it has been hiding and the process of identification begins anew. It seems the territory of the front holds a few secrets yet.
Each commemorative spot I’ve visited has been sobering, and yet a few stand out:
Their beautiful landmark, now rebuilt, was destroyed in 1917, burnt out, becoming a former shell of itself, a valuable part of Flanders history and culture gone. This image from the SLQ collection shows the ruins of the Cloth Hall at the time.
Here, at these gates, is where I imagine Private Herbert Bartholomew from Gympie, answered the roll call for battle, prior to the battle of Menin Road, then deserted their ranks before the attack took place. He was later captured and court marshalled, receiving the death sentence as a penalty for his act, which was later reduced to serving 10 years in prison. Had he not left, albeit in this unauthorised way, he too could have been any one of these wounded men in this image from the SLQ collection, or perhaps not even survived the attack at all.
And it is in shadowy glades like this one that many Australians suffered and were killed by enemy gas attacks. This is Ploegsteert Wood, where the AIF – and the enemy - could move through the cover of the trees unseen.
These are also the sort of places where I imagine men who found their war experiences wanting, hid, to have a moment’s reprieve. Perhaps even one or two fellows slipped away for good.
Having the opportunity to undertake this Fellowship over the past year, along with being in these sombre places, thick with memories and ghosts, has changed me. It has become part of my story. I hope that by visiting this setting, letting it get under my skin, I may be faithful to the stories of so many who served and died here, stories that are still permeating the air.
If you are planning a journey to the Western Front battlefields, the Australian Rememberance Trail website is worth a visit
Victoria Carless, 2016-17 Q ANZAC 100 Fellow