Shire students’ tributes to fallen WWI soldiers are taken to Belgium and France

An epic journey that started with a commemorative walk at Woronora Memorial Park by students of St Patrick’s Primary School Sutherland has ended in Belgium and France.

Tributes of 100 small wooden crosses made by the students and carrying personal messages in memory of Australian WWI diggers were carried half-way around the world by Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust NSW chief executive officer, Graham Boyd to lay at two major WWI memorials.

Together with WWI historian and NSW Centenary of Anzac Ambassador, Will Davies, Mr Boyd made the pilgrimage to complete a solemn ceremony begun in Woronora Memorial Park.

A commemorative walk was held on April 11, which included students from nearby St Patrick’s Primary School.

They walked from the Woronora Memorial Park’s Military Memorial to the family  memorial for soldier and WW1 Victoria Cross recipient which is atop the grave of Walter Ernest Brown’s 7-year-old’s only son.

The grave has a memorial created by Walter’s widow to the soldier whose body was never recovered from when he served and lost his life in the fall of Singapore during World War II.

The students carried 100 crosses made from paddle pop sticks and 100 gum leaves in memory of all those lost in the defence of our Nation and the families who have suffered as a result.

Mr Boyd took these same gum leaves and crosses and retraced the steps of those young men over 100 years ago, back to the fields of Flanders, now Belgium and northern France.

There, he arranged for two special wreaths to be made, bearing the word “Legacy”.

One he placed during the Last Post service at the famous Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres in Belgium, which pays tribute to the millions of dead across the Western Front, whose bodies were never recovered.

“It was a deeply moving experience,” said Mr Boyd of attending the evening service which is conducted daily by the local volunteer Fire Brigade with thousands attending.

“You could not escape the knowledge of the great cost of war. There were so many, many names etched into the memorial.

“There were people from all over the world that had come to this service.”

The second wreath was laid at Australia’s First Division Memorial in Pozieres in France, which was, according to Australian WWI correspondent C.W. Bean, “more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on Earth”.

At the First Division Memorial, historian Will Davies brought a fallen branch he had obtained from the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and used some of the gum leaves and twigs to entwine  with the wreath of crosses and gum leaves bearing the ribbon of “Legacy”.

Later, Mr Davies used the remaining gum leaves to conduct a symbolic smoking ceremony at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, AIF Grass Lane near Gueudecourt, ensuring that wind direction allowed the smoke of eucalypt to waft over a vast field of Australian dead.

Woronora Memorial Park has a special connection with WWI, as many families whose sons, husbands and fathers died in the mud of the trenches erected stones in their honour.

Within only a few exceptions, no dead from WW1 were repatriated. They have become, as Graham Boyd said, “honorary Frenchmen” and are deeply honoured by the country to which they gave their lives.

For Australian families, the stones they erected became special places of gathering on anniversaries and the like where they would remember the names of those who had fallen, and who forevermore now rest alongside their mates with whom they had fallen while serving in WW1.

“Walter’s young son died a year after his father was killed in WWII and whose body never found, and I think he’s a powerful reminder that the cost of war is borne, not just by soldiers, but by the families they leave behind,” Mr Boyd said.

“It was why we used the word, “Legacy” on our wreaths, as homage to the magnificent efforts of the organisation Legacy, which began in the wake of the Great War to support spouses and children left behind.

“Ultimately, our pilgrimage is about ensuring we don’t forget and our children are reminded to pass onto to their own descendants that we should not forget the people who fought so bravely for us with the cost born by both those who die, and their families.”