FFFAIF Members Johan Durnez and Anny de Decker travelled from Belgium to Fromelles for the service for the interment of the first of the 250 Australian and British soldiers in the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery at 11 a.m. 30th January, 2010. FFFAIF member Carole Laignel, who is also Secretary, Fromelles Museum (Fromelles Weppes Terre de Mémoire 1914-1918), has also sent a report that may be seen in RECENT NEWS Item: Fromelles Service.
Johan’s account of the service follows.
Hello dear friends
When I looked outside the window this morning, 7 am, everything looked still dark (of course – it’s still Winter after all) but also ok. I mean: no snow and the street looked safe (no slippery conditions.) A quarter of an hour later… snow, snow, snow! And in less than no time we had again a white Waregem.
The road conditions ? Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaangerous !!! By moments I had the impression to drive/slide on pure ice. A good training to drive without using the brakes !
We got a big load of snow in Waregem and the Ieper-Fromelles area hardly got any snow compared to where we live, but it was more than enough to make driving extremely dangerous.
We arrived at Fromelles for the start of the service there at 11 am (as you can see on the clock of the church) !
Sun and a blue sky. Temperatures ? I guess it was about 2°C but the sun made if feel lovely.
They had changed the access to Fromelles for that day to keep the traffic under control and the men of the gendarmerie along the road were very helpful. So, we were able to drive pretty close to the town centre and another gendarme showed us in which street we could park the car.
I had the feeling that everything had been organised very well and that everybody there was really helpful. If this was a try out for the big ceremony in July, I can say: very well done! As visitors we had the feeling that we were welcome and that we got the help we needed.
The service was also very well organised. The audience was not allowed on the cemetery and a cord made that everybody had to stay away from the wall that surrounds the cemetery. So, no sitting or standing on the (white top stone) of this wall. And as the cemetery is situated on a bit of a slope, everybody can see enough of the ceremony. Okay, the distance is maybe a bit far away to make pictures, but I think that many of mine turned out pretty well. What was very good: the press was kept on a safe distance and no photographer or cameraman could do anything to disturb the service. Congratulations to the organisation for that!!!
The location of the cemetery is really beautiful and peaceful.
Today, there was a thin layer of snow (made it at moments hard to make good photos as there is a contrast between the dark and the light parts of the photo) but this added to the atmosphere for this service.
At the entrance we all got a service booklet with the order of service.
I did not count the people who were attending, but there were at least a couple of hundred. And I can imagine that the road conditions made that some will have preferred to stay at home. But the atmosphere among the people was ok. You felt that those who were there wanted to pay their respects to the men who will now get their final resting places. I also noticed a large group of standard bearers of French patriotic organizations. I really felt sorry for them that they too had to stay outside the wall of the cemetery (same for the French military guard of honour). But that’s probably a decision made by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. But I must say that every time that I attend a service of remembrance in France that I notice that the French always have a fine delegation of “porte drapeaux” (standard bearers) who show that the French “never forget Australia” (as the school in Villers Bretonneux says). I wished I could get such large numbers of Belgian standard bearers for the commemorations we have here in Belgium!
To tell about the service, I will tell the story by photos.
The raising of the flags. After the opening prayers, the flags were lowered to half mast.
The bearer party were officers and soldiers from the Australian Army and from the 1st BN Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
The hearse arrived with the coffin of the first soldier.
The coffin is taken out of the hearse, you see the French military guard of honour and the flags of the patriotic associations.
This is a view on the cemetery. The graves are very good visible.
The bearer party enters the cemetery.
The bearer party walking between the lined up men with arms reversed (on one side of the path a Fusilier, on the opposite side an Aussie digger.)
As you can imagine, this happened in complete silence, but what was very moving was that you heard two (or more) great tits (I mean these little birds – parus major) calling to each other.
Just like they wanted to give the sign that dead is not the end and that life goes on. Or maybe their own tribute to these men?
Then the bearer party went back to the entrance and got their headdress back.
After the prayers by the chaplains, the collects of the Australian Army and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and the exhortation, three volleys were fired.
Last Post, one minute of silence and Reveille followed.
(I think that not only the bugle but also the cheeks and lips of the poor bugler were frozen. It did not sound perfect, but I think that nobody will blame him for that.)
After that, tributes were read by the UK, Australia, France and by the War Graves Commission representatives.
End of the service – marching off of the party and dignitaries.
Photo: The Australian Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, The Hon. Alan Griffin
Photo: Royal British Legion National Chairman, Peter Cleminson walks past Guillaume Moreel holding the Australian flag, who is the grandson of Madame Marie-Paule Demassiet, the lady who owns the land at Pheasant Wood where the soldiers were buried by the German Army following the battle of 19/20 July 1916)
We signed the register (and as you can see: I was wearing my FFFAIF cap!)
And after that… time for the “verre d’amitié” (glass of the friendship)
And I can tell you: Fromelles knows what this means!!!!
If this kangaroo will appear in one of the news reports on television (they have filmed it!): this is Ozzie. [For more details on Ozzie see RECENT NEWS ITEM: Ozzie’s Digger tribute]
And some of you will of course recognize these people!!!
Photo: FFFAIF Member Johan Durnez with Rod Bedford Chairman of the RBL Somme Branch
Photo: FFFAIF Members Carole Laignel and Johan Durnez
Our thanks to Johan for his report and photos – “Well done, mate!”
The Families and Friends of the First AIF applauds the joint Australian–UK decision to conduct a full DNA testing program on the remains of Australian and British soldiers found in mass graves at Pheasant Wood (Fromelles), and for their continuing commitment to identify as many of the fallen as is possible. We also thank the Australian, UK and French governments for affording dignified individual reburials for these soldiers, buried by German soldiers following the Battle of Fromelles on 19/20 July 1916, in the new Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery with services commencing on 30th January 2010.