Thousands of Australians will gather in Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day and many of them will be honouring an ancestor who served on the Western Front.
Increasingly, Australians want to know more about the service men and women in their family, encouraged by the Anzac Centenary commemorations and aided by a range of archival websites.
Recently, the Sir John Monash Centre put out the call for Australian families to share the stories of their loved ones who served on the Western Front.
The responses were generous and overwhelming – poignant, heart-rending, tragic, unbelievably heroic and on occasion eerily coincidental – and now they will be shared worldwide, through broadcast media and Facebook.
Among those attending the commemorative service in Villers-Bretonneux will be a family of 14 with three generations, a group of Vietnam Veterans known as ‘Grocers and Gunners’, and two branches of one Australian family who never knew of each other’s existence.
Some are on guided tours of the battlefields, while others are travelling independently along the Australian Remembrance Trail, from Belgium to northern France.
Children are an important feature, with parents and grandparents wanting to educate the next generation and walk the fields together in their forebear’s footsteps.
Collectively, they are honouring infantrymen, gunners, pilots, artillerymen, stretcher-bearers, doctors, nurses, quartermasters, drivers, plumbers, tunnelers, clerks and carpenters – all of whom played a part in the Allied war effort.
There are ancestors with links to Australia’s colonial past – one descended directly from two first Fleet convicts and another related to John Adams, the last survivor of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty (1789), who settled on Pitcairn Island.
The constant theme is incredible courage and sacrifice: Men who survived the conflict and then re-enlisted 21 years later for the Second World War; men who made crucifixes or joined the Grave Registration Division to gather, identify and rebury the fallen; and survivors who returned home with wounds and disabilities.
These stories are reflected by corresponding tales on the home front: grief stricken families who held out hope for ever, devastated parents who never recovered from their loss, families who lost all their sons and daughters, and wives who raised children single-handedly and did a brilliant job of running farms, households and widows’ guilds.
Some guests have researched their ancestor’s military history and will place mementoes at the Australian National Memorial or cemeteries, while others are still trying to solve a mystery because their relative was missing in action or ‘wouldn’t talk about the war’.
If you are attending the Anzac Day Service in Villers-Bretonneux and you’d like to share the story of your military ancestor on the Western Front (1916-18) please email [email protected]