France: An Australian schoolgirl unexpectedly wells up with tears over a nameless Fromelles gravestone. Zoe Bell, 17, of St Leonard’s College in Melbourne, isn’t usually like this, her teacher tells me. This isn’t hysterics or histrionics. Just history.
Here in northern France, the numbers and politics and cliches of a century-old war fall away, and the reality of it rises from the ground like the thick local fog. Its meaning chills you so sharply that it can force water from the most cynical, surprised eyes.
All those dead. On this soil, it doesn’t take a supernatural imagination to sense their presence.
There are a multitude of Zoes on the Western Front right now. Swarms of coaches buzz from one cemetery to the next. Language students, history students, music students from every part of Australia stroll solemnly or impishly, bored or captivated in the land where Australia’s youth once faltered in the German gas.
There are more young Australians in the Somme and Flanders now than any time since – well, since the mud and death of World War I. Walk into any town hall and you can’t move for school-uniformed teens belting out I Still Call Australia Home for the eternally grateful locals.
French tour director Wendy Billingslea is guiding a choir from the Hutchins School, Hobart, who performed at the Villers-Bretonneux town hall this week. ''There are more Australians [in France] than ever this year,'' she says. ''It is because of the centenary – there are also more English, more Canadian and German. There is a renewed interest. In Paris, they say 'why are you taking Australians to the Somme? Why not the Cote d’Azur? They are shocked. But they think it is actually very moving that there are so many.''
But why are they here? The war is done, and many more since. No Anzacs remain to hear us say thank you. The devastation is long vanished under patchwork fields of bright, bobbing yellow rapeseed flowers.
Every young Australian is here for a different reason. Tourism. National pride. Fascination. Education. Personal growth. But, like a century ago, individual stories add up to something bigger.
''[The war dead] were kids just like these kids,'' says Perth Modern principal Lois Joll, of 150 of her students who have performed a concert at a school in Amiens. Perth Modern is a school that prides itself on producing future leaders, and it wants those leaders to have this memory.
''We see it as a connection not out of a sense of guilt but acknowledgement and we hope our students will come to value their lives,'' she says. ''You cannot replicate the atmosphere of standing at dawn in a cemetery where some of your forebears are buried. It makes it more real and much more meaningful.''
Hutchins School headmaster Warwick Dean says young, multicultural Australia is redefining itself. Being Australian is no longer being white and English. So what is it? The young have decided that to answer that they need the Anzac story. ''Some things, like the Anzacs, are part of our common definition of what it means to be Australian,'' he said.
Student Tom Davie at first gives the standard, learnt answer, ''it’s to remember the people who sacrificed their lives to protect the freedom of our countries and to honour where they were buried,'' he says.
Then he thinks about it some more. ''When you look at the old trenches and craters you can imagine how it would be with all the grass and the trees gone and none of the birds singing,'' he says. ''There were some moments when I could imagine how it would have been. When you’re young you think of war as a heroic thing, almost a good, a natural thing to do. But based on what I’ve seen here, experienced here, it’s not a good thing. It has changed my opinion on war, it really has.''
''You don’t realise the full scale and ferocity of it until you come to a place where a war was fought,'' says St Leonards College student Zoe. ''It’s special but it’s terrifying. I can’t comprehend what they went through for our country and for French villages.
''You read over the numbers and you don’t think much of it. But the names. The amount of names. You want to pay your respects to each and every one,'' she says. ''This cannot happen again. We need to remember and we need to pass it down the generations.''
The story Anzac Day: in the shadow of those lost, students get a poignant reminder of war first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.