Our uncles were sent to kill each other

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1 Our uncles were sent to kill each other The true story of Ben and Adam, Ivan and Rudolf Adam and I grew up together. We were bosom buddies. We lived in the same quiet, middle class neighborhood in Melbourne, Australia and spent our weekends riding our trusty Lawrencia bicycles around the numerous parks, next to the railway, or just simply to the Hawthorn Football oval to watch the last quarter of Saturday s game. As supporters of the rival team Collingwood, Adam and I felt like colluding traitors as we joined the post game celebrations in the hope of a free can of soft drink. We would get away with it because we had the collective courage that true friendship gives. This courage gave us both a taste for adventure. After high school we spent a summer riding our (newer) bikes around the island state of Tasmania - with a small tent, a poorly scaled map and the confidence that we could handle any challenges that would surely arise from such an enterprise. And we did. Adam went on to become an economist at the Productivity Commission, then into the airline business which took him to postings in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Kuala Lumpur then Paris. My studies took me to Glasgow, then to Paris where I established myself as a designer, met Nathalie who became my wife, then onto the Loire Valley where we began a family and a life in rural France. Adam, forever traveling for work, would make time to come and visit us on our little farm. He enjoyed swapping the suit and briefcase for boots and a wooly jumper, the sleeves of which he would roll up and throw himself into whatever building project we happened to be doing. We would spend the evenings around our woodstove, open a bottle of wine, and let the conversation take us to pretty much everywhere. It was on such an evening about three years ago, the conversation somehow turned to the first world war. I had a growing interest in the battle of the Somme ever since my parents had visited in the late 1998 and took me to see where my Father s uncle had been killed. On that trip I remember thinking how difficult it was to reconcile the absolutely misery and destruction of trench warfare with the bucolic pastures and picturesque landscapes of northern France. Even standing in front of the memorial plaque on the side of the road looking across to Mouquet Farm, I didn t really get it. Here was my father, in his mid sixties, looking out across of field with a date clearly in his mind - August 16, That date had become the identity of the uncle he had never met. The landscape gives you only the slightest suggestion of what once was. We looked hard, and I still didn t get it. Our blank expressions must have been evident as a small van pulled up, and three portly gentlemen - local farmers it appeared - asked if everything was all right. I explained in my basic French, that we were Australian and had come to meet my father s uncle. Their jovial dispositions vanished instantly into solemn understanding. All three took a step back and removed their cloth hats, pressed them to their chests, and gave a nod of...what was it, Our uncles were sent to kill each other - Benjamin Walker 1

2 recognition? These men, who must have grown up with not just stories of the great battle, but also the evidence. Each season, plows turn up rusted helmets and rifle buts, shell cases - a collection of which can be appreciated at Pozieres solitary cafe/ diner. At that moment, I got it. Warmed by the fire and wine, I hadn t noticed but Adam had become attentive and quiet. What date did you say? he asked. 16th of August, Adam paused, put down his glass and said that he too had a great uncle who died on the front in exactly a month later - September 16th. Really! I enthused, astounded that our friendship may have begun two generations previous with our great uncles, side by side in the trenches....was he in the first division too? No, said Adam, he was a grenadier in the Stuttgart- Cannstadt Olga regiment 119. His name was Rudolf. I was stunned. My mind quickly dismissed the improbability - of course Australia was a multicultural nation, and I did remember meeting Adam s affable Grandfather - Opa - who spoke with a heavy accent and even wore lederhosen. All right, Adam s grandfather was German, no big deal right? Then I put my glass down as it dawned on me... You don t think they... My mind raced again as it addressed the possibility - and this time probability - that our great uncles were in the trenches of the Somme, trying to kill each other. Yes, that was it. Our uncles had been sent to kill each other. And here we were, almost 100 years later, enjoying four decades of friendship. Considering the length and depth of our friendship, this struck us as a poignant illustration of old world idiocy, futility, and how lucky we have been growing up in Australia not to be tainted by these prejudices. Or so we thought. Adam realized that he knew very little of his great uncle Rudolf, and information about him not surprisingly, was hard to find. Rudolf's brother - Adam's grandfather (or 'Opa' as he was known) left shattered Germany with his wife and embarked on an extraordinary journey ending up in Australia by way of New Zealand. As an electrical engineer in New Zealand he was too valuable to incarcerate during the second world war. After the Our uncles were sent to kill each other - Benjamin Walker 2

3 war, the family moved to Australia - never talked about their German origins of which post war Australia was not too willing to accept. The death of Ivan Walker, left a humble blacksmithing family bereft of their talented, generous, musical first son - and a breadwinner for the struggling Walkers of Mitcham. The second, a more streetwise sibling, went on to establish what is now Kingswood college. His first son was initially named Ivan, but later changed to Evan at the request of my grandmother... so it would sound 'less Russian'. These things mattered in Adam and I decided that night, that we have been such good buddies that there is no reason why Ivan and Rudolf would not have been the same if they had had a chance. We decided that it was our duty to go and introduce them to each other...and thus was born the Rudolf and Ivan Anzac ride which Adam and I undertook in April 23-25th, Our plan was, as usual, simple and last minute. Adam had learned that his uncle was buried in a German cemetry just across the Belgium border near Menen. This was our objective for day 1. We boarded the train at Gare du Nord (after a mishap with Adam s ticketing) then settled into an hours ride to Lille. With bikes, gear and a daypack stuffed with might needs we headed for the first cafe open outside Lille railway station. I left Adam to mind our bikes as I went in and ordered up our breakfast. My ears caught a familiar accent as I noticed an Australian couple struggling to order a milk coffee. Gidday.. I said. Ian and his wife Gale joined Adam and I outside on the terrace. They were clearly excited to meet fellow countrymen and launched into a story about Gale s great uncle who died on the Somme. After a lengthy description of what was to become a familiar story of Australians looking for lost great uncles, Ian asked,...and what are you two doing? We rode north from Lille and after following bike tracks, found ourselves in farming land dotted with rural houses. As usual, we were navigating more instinctively than cartographically. Not surprisingly we were quickly stymied by dead end roads and no signage. It didn t bother us to head off across freshly ploughed fields in the direction we considered the good one for finding where Adam believed Rudolf was killed. This manner of navigation may seem wholly naive and impractical to many, but it is a way that Adam and I have grown up together doing this very thing - heading off for a as yet to be specified adventure relying on good will and improvisation. Our uncles were sent to kill each other - Benjamin Walker 3

4 It wasn t long before we were starting to feel very lost. Following yet another path between anonymous fields we happened upon a curious little memorial of rotting soccer balls and flowered wreaths. A panel had been erected on the site explaining that this was where the Christmas truce of 1914 had taken place. Where in the middle of winter, the allied troops dug in hard against their German enemies. As night fell on the eve of Christmas, the British troops could hear Silent Night being sung from the German trenches, and hundreds of little candles began to twinkle all along the front line. The Brits applauded then broke into song themselves, which was met by an equally enthusiastic ovation. It wasn t long before soldiers from each side were venturing out into no-man s land, swapping cigarettes and chatting with the enemy. On christmas day there was a game of football between the waring nations - a game filled with camaraderie and understanding...all until high command got wind of this unmilitary activity and ordered troops back into their respective trenches in order to prepare for battle once again. This place has become the subject of much writing, and remembrance. It is seen as man s capacity to empathize as being stronger than national forces and geopolitics. Where, given a chance, people share in a brotherhood of humanity. Would Ivan and Rudolf have played football that day? We left the field of the Christmas truce and headed toward Ypres where we stopped for lunch. We had only been riding for 4 hours but our office softened bodies appreciated the chance to relax, stretch out and enjoy a Belgium beer (or two). We got back on our bikes and rode through the Menen gate towards Menen in order to find the Cemetery where Rudolf was apparently buried. We made the ride to Menen in pretty good time which was just as well, as finding the German Cemetery in Menen proved a tricky task. All through the Somme there are splendid memorials and cemeteries designed by Edwin Lutyens to commemorate the fallen Allies. The german cemeteries however, were far more discrete and not nearly as well signposted. We stopped and asked the rare local (not many people in Menen on a saturday late afternoon...) and once we had resolved some conflicting directions, we found ourselves at the gate of the Cemetery. I was very impressed by its modest grandure. There were no weeping angles on fallen swords, it was all brick and granite with lots of trees and immaculately kept grass. In place of headstones or crosses there were simple slabs of dark grey granite - polished and carved each with the names of 50 soldiers. there were hundreds of them. This graveyard alone remembered over young germans...and there wasn t a living soul. Adam knew Rudolf s full name and regiment - so with the help of the well kept archives at the entrance we were directed to an area of the cemetery where we simply just had to start looking. Back and forth we walked scanning hundreds and hundreds of names. I wondered how many of these young men had relatives come and visit them almost 100 years after the Our uncles were sent to kill each other - Benjamin Walker 4

5 war. How many of them even had relatives? Let alone an Australian who was living in France. Found Him! Adam yelled. Like looking for the proverbial needle, I was starting to give up hope of meeting Rudolf - but sure enough - there he was. Obscured by some moss and dried bird dropping, we wiped the stone clean to see his name, Rudolf Gilitzer. Adam, sensing something should be said, was at a rare loss for words. As if mission accomplished, he paused, photographed, then readied himself for the next task, which was to get out of this somber place full of tortured souls and work out where we were going to sleep that night. I had prepared a laminated photograph of Rudolf which we placed by his name. Unlikely as it was that he spoke English, I said how good it was to finally meet and that if he would join us, we wanted to introduce him to Ivan on the following day. We were in the presence of great calm. Walking out of the cemetery Adam ruminated that he was the first relative of Rudolf s to have visited him. A remarkable thought. I could sense that Adam had turned his mind onto more pressing matters. With light fading fast, we found ourselves in a depressed industrial zone of grotty pizza bars, garages and brothels. There was certainly not anything even resembling tourist accommodation. Don t worry, Rudolf is going to look after us I said. We rode through the empty streets where in a few hours it would be the arena for Saturday night heros in their hotted up cars - a completely different time and world from where we had just been, but only a few hundred meters away. We crossed back over into France and into the township of Halluin. Again, accommodation was not obvious but we happened upon an establishment - Le Lion des Flandres - which along with its Saturday football game and bar, offered rooms. The bar lady took one look at us in our cycling shorts, then handed me the key to what was a simple room with a double bed. Sensing that she had taken the wrong cues I went back down and asked if there was a family room available - we needed a place for our bikes... She yelled across the bar to a elderly large man, cigar in hand, playing belote. Was it the weekly game...or did they do this every night? He grunted, then looked over his shoulder, looked me up and down, then nodded. I guess this was the approval procedure. After a much welcome shower and meal, we returned to the bar to, well, see if we could get to know the locals. The card game, the TV football game, the young chubby kid eating a huge pile of chips and washing it down with beer - we were in the heartland. After a couple of Chimays a chap at the bar asked where we came from. I guess it was pretty obvious that we were not local, so I explained to him who we were and what we had undertaken. His face lit up when he learned that we were Australians and even more so when he heard our story. I produced a map to explain where we had ridden that day and where we were heading tomorrow. Now that we have met Rudolf, we have to introduce him to Ivan... The bemusement was quickly replaced by fascination as we produced photographs of our great uncles, and maps of the area. He asked the bar lady to hand him the phone (again, with the bosses approval) and made a call. A short while later and old man arrived, did the Our uncles were sent to kill each other - Benjamin Walker 5

6 customary round of hand shakes (and kiss for the bar lady) before coming over to our table. René was his name and he remembered well the aftermath of the Great War and the impact it had on the land and communities around them. René was very critical of General Haig - calling him a butcher for blindly sending thousands after thousands of young men to the trenches. As René spoke, the TV was turned down and even the patron s card game became less noisy. Some of the younger patrons pulled up a chair within earshot to hear the stories of René and the strange looking cyclists from Australia. We stopped ordering drinks feeling that we had done well, but they kept appearing This ones on George the school teacher and trainer who had first spoken to us This ones on the patron and so on. The mood swung from respect and remembrance to camaraderie and exuberance. Rudolf did indeed look after us that night. Its was well past midnight when we finally scrapped ourselves into bed. We calculated that we had a 130km ride the following day in order to get to Mouquet farm - where Ivan died in the bloody battle of Pozieres in the summer of It was going to be a long day and we needed an early start - early and painful start. We didn t say much as we scraped ourselves out of bed, dressed and headed south towards Lille and then onto the Somme. It wasn t until after Lille - and several coffees - that we started to begin feeling human again. Adam spotted Vimy ridge on the map and suggested we should ride up there. It was a sunny day and the heat started taking it toll on us. Our uncles were sent to kill each other - Benjamin Walker 6

7 The typography changed a little but what remained all throughout the countryside was the constant appearance of graveyards and their multitude of crosses, sometimes headstones. From Vimy ridge we road into Arras (splendid find and thankfully preserved from shelling) then onward south to Bucquoy. We had by this time run dry of water and the efforts of the previous day (and night...) were starting to catch up with us. But our sense of mission was strong, and water was soon to be found so the ride could continue down through Hamel en Beaumont then up a steep hill to Thiepval where Lutyen s most impressive memorial to the British forces towers over the Somme. The strategic vantage point of Thiepval was obvious. The ride up the steep road to the top was less so. Heat, fatigue and heavy legs in lowest gear slowly pulled us up meter by meter. As we arrived at the top there was a van with tinted windows and an Australian flag on the back with a couple of blokes smiling at us as we approached. Noting that we too were Australian, one asked how the ride was. Adam let rip tough! at which the side door of the van slid open revealing a van full of wives and teenage children. Pardon my French... apologized Adam to a roar of laughter all around. We had a good chat with the two families. They too, were visiting the Somme and retracing the steps of their great uncles. With words of encouragement, we set off down the salient toward Mouquet Farm and Pozieres, enjoying the rewards of our uphill effort. Thiepval monument and visitor center - as impressive as it is, could wait for another day. We were running late for an important rendezvous. We had a meeting with Ivan. Our uncles were sent to kill each other - Benjamin Walker 7

8 A kilometer or so past Thiepval, we rounded a corner to be met with a blaze of colza in full bloom. We had arrived at Mouquet Farm. Unlike Rudolf, Ivan doesn t have a gravestone as such. His name is one of thousands carved on the walls of the Villers Bretenoux memorial - our destination for the dawn service the following morning. But all that was in the distant future. We had arrived at Mouquet Farm, where on the 16th of August 1916, the Australian first division was sent back into the old German lines to secure ground that the Brits could not hold. This was Ivan's second time in action at the same place. He was injured and died like almost 20,000 of his Australian comrades on the western front in WW1. The toll on young Australian lives was especially heavy on the ground around Mouquet farm. The stunning colors and beautiful evening was so far removed from the vision of the battle scarred landscape that Ivan would have seen. Perhaps he could see this too, now, with us. As we had done for Rudolf, I had prepared a picture of Ivan and placed it at the the Mouquet farm memorial...and just like the previous evening at the German Cemetery, we were enveloped in an incredible calm. Shadows were growing long and after some time with Ivan, Adam asked where we were headed for the night. Rudolf looked after us last night, Ivan will do the same tonight. And so it was. We rode on into the Pozieres - an after thought of a village that seems marooned on the road between Baupaume and Albert. Large trucks, laden with sugar beets rumble through the town barely respecting the speed limit. The only commerce in this place is a roadside dinner/bar run by an affable chap by the name of Dominic Zianardi. Short in stature but long in history of WW1 he has made his establishment into a museum, with convincing demonstration trenches in his back yard stocked high with rusting mortar shells, rifles and other debris given to him by the local farmers who plough these objects up on a seasonal basis. I had visited the previous year with my sister. At the time I got chatting with Dominic and told him about my great uncle Ivan. He was very enthusiastic and if ever I could send him a photo, he would put it up on the wall with his growing collection of black and white portraits of lost Our uncles were sent to kill each other - Benjamin Walker 8

9 uncles and great uncles. Most of the young men on his walls were Australian. Not just because Pozieres was Australia's Galipoli on the Somme, but there is a growing number of descendants who come to the Somme to pay homage to their forebears. Some are lucky enough to have a proper grave and tombstone, but for many, like Ivan, there is just a name on the wall of Villers Bretenoux. Dominic has created an unofficial place where these great uncles can be remembered simply as well as visually on the walls of his quirky establishment. I had remembered his invitation and as we ordered our first libation, I produced a photo of Ivan. Dominic smiled a broad smile, and thanked me and tucked it away in his back room where it would surely join a pile of other photos waiting to be framed and put on his wall. Still in our bike shorts, Adam and I settled into our thirst quenching beer and took in the ambiance, or lack thereof. I was surprised to see only a handful of customers - I would have expected on the eve of ANZAC day for the place to be full. Instead there was a group of 4 english war trophy collectors and two french couples - one local and the other visiting the area too. Adam and I stretched out our cycle weary legs and began to discuss the meetings of of great uncles. We had passed by the Windmill before arriving at Dominic s and the words of Australian troops who fell more thickly on this ridge than any other battlefield of the war resonated in our imagination. The English trophy collectors sitting nearby overheard our conversation and blurted out Why is it that you Aussies think Pozieres is all about you! Adam and I looked blankly at each other. Before we could respond to the provocative remark, a frenchman, who had been quietly dining with his wife, cleared his throat and in wonderfully accented english, proceeded to give the room a short history of the pivotal impact the Australians had not only at Pozieres but for the allied effort in the first world war. It appeared to deflate the blathering souvenir traders who turned their attention to discussing a forthcoming souvenir auction. We began speaking to the frenchman who introduced himself as a high school teacher of history, with a special interest in the battle of the Somme. I complimented him on his knowledge of the Australian involvement in WW1 which, generally speaking, very few Our uncles were sent to kill each other - Benjamin Walker 9

10 frenchmen seem to know about. Living in France for 15 years I am getting used to - when the occasion arises - giving a little history lessons on Australia s involvement in France almost 100 years ago. For the french, WW1 is the battle of Verdun, les poilus, and the long lists of names read out every 11th of November in town squares across the country. Mort pour la France. Its almost unimaginable that a fledgling nation on the other side of the world would send its young men across the world to fight in a war - that was not their own. Adam and I settled in to easy conversation with Jaques and his wife. We explained our story, our long friendship and how we had just finally introduced our great uncles to each other. Jaques was very moved by the story, and said that history tends to be written by the victors. Dominic brought us over a round of beers, took our Boeuf Bourginon dinner order then muttered quietly how he didn t like English souvenir hunters. The bar began to fill up, we let the medicinal qualities of brewed hops do their work on our bodies. One question still remained...where we we going to sleep that night? Part of the whole trip was to finish off at the dawn service the following morning at Villers Bretonneux...which, on the scale of map we were using, appeared to be rather close to Pozieres...but come to think of it, so did Belgium. Dominic informed us that the Australian National Memorial at VB was only 45 kms down the road...a figure that just refused to register. Like the previous night in Halluin, our story attracted listeners, out came the photographs and the maps and the conversation flowed as easily as the beer. An english expat who lived locally joined us at the bar. He ran a B&B, but was full that night. He suggested we sleep in the local cemetery ( there are toilets there... ) which suited Adam and me - we didn t care, we had just done an extraordinary thing. Now it was time to complete the meeting with the Anzac Day dawn service at Villers Bretenneux, which - it finally occurred to us - was about to begin in a few hours. It was late, very late...again. Dominic said we could get a few hours kip in one of his rooms upstairs, which, judging by our somewhat compromised state, was a generous and responsible offer. I ll wake you up in time... Counting back from the 5:30 start for the dawn service, and taking into account the 45kms or so still left to ride meant we needed to be up and going by..mmm..2am? Our uncles were sent to kill each other - Benjamin Walker 10

11 hundreds - quite remarkable for such a remote place in a distant countryside - and at such an ungodly hour! Where were they the previous night? As the sole cyclists, we were allowed to park our bikes close to the entrance, hearing the first notes of the Last Post as we did so. We had made it. Perfect timing. The service was very sombre, respectful, and lived up to the expectations of all those who had travelled so far to be there. As dawn broke, I was struck by the number of young Australians dressed in our nations colors, and even more walking around with the flag draped over their shoulders. Where did this come from? When did we, as a nation, start this practice of flag wearing? I had seen it at some sporting events, but here, remembering the Australian soldiers in the first world war? Is this the right way to remember these men? Where is the nationalistic triumph in this?... and what about Adam, he is arguably more Australian than me...does that make Rudolf any more vanquished than Ivan?... and any less worthy of remembrance? On the eve of the centenary of WW1 how should be mark this pivotal chapter in world history? How should we remember the thousands of Ivans and Rudolfs who died a miserable death on that patch of dirt so far from their respective homes? The language of remembrance is heavily coded with the vocabulary of nobel sacrifice Is it time to remember differently? The acute pain of losing a son, brother or father, on the front line has dissolved with time. How would Ivan want me to remember him 100 years later? Would he want me to be sad? Would he want me to wrap myself in a flag? Would he be upset that Adam is my best friend? Would he ask us not to judge him too quickly with historical perspective? Would he want me to stand silent, in remembrance for a minute each year or perhaps its time to make noise, stomp my feet, join hands and 'go over the top' and into the no mans land of our own comfort zones, and reach out to our 'Rudolf's maybe he would just want us to 'do the right thing' Draft text by Benjamin Walker November rue Jehan Fouquet Nouans les Fontaines France Our uncles were sent to kill each other - Benjamin Walker 12

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