“The earth had been pulverised, blown and blasted out of all semblance of what it once was.
“Not a blade of grass, not a tree or bush showed the slightest sign of life. The area was a jumble of tremendous craters and shell-holes ??? piles of swollen bodies of horses and mules??? a wrecked tank here and there??? filthy, putrid lakes and mires???
“Screaming, blasting shells were falling about us. We ran, we gasped our way through this hell.”
This was the war in 1917, 100 years ago, remembered again this Anzac Day among the farmland and villages of the Somme and Flanders.
In the cold, dark hours before dawn, you cannot see the idyllic quilt of fields around you.
The black sky and invisible land become a canvas on which nightmares are drawn.
Then grey-blue dawn traces in the present, and the bugle tells us death was followed by hope, and now peace.
Private Bert Bishop of the 55th battalion wrote the above account of his journey to the front line in Flanders, near Polygon Wood, trudging out through the Menin Gate at Ypres, over corduroy tracks heading linewards. It was a depressing march into the jaws of the machinery of war.
That night they slept in groups of twos and threes, huddled in the “least repellant of the shell holes”.
The land has long healed, but the stories are raw.
At Villers-Bretonneux, on Anzac Day, at the dawn service at the heart of the Anzac legacy in France, they remembered.
They remembered Private Bishop, and the thousands who fell and sank nameless into the ground, now honoured by white headstones in cemeteries along the old front line, and in ranks of names on the walls of the Villers-Bretonneux memorial and the Menin Gate in Ypres.
Around 2000 members of the public attended the service at Villers-Bretonneux this year. It was 1000 fewer than last year, and a third the figure of 2015 – the smallest crowd in about a decade, organisers said.
France’s continuing terror attacks and state of emergency are thought to have deterred some visitors, others are likely waiting until 2018, the centenary of the Anzacs’ great battle at Villers-Bretonneux.
In 1917, victory was still a distant mirage. Following 1916’s Somme offensive by the Allies, the Germans were hunkered down the brutally effective Hindenburg Line: belts of barbed wire and corridors of raking machinegun fire that decimated any assault: such as Australia’s ill-fated attack at Bullecourt in April 1917.
There has never been a year when Australia lost more to war than 1917, said Dan Tehan, Veterans Affairs minister in his commemorative address.
He said he was struck by a son’s letter home to his parents, on the eve of a big assault.
The letter read: “I am sure I will be either killed or wounded. I will do my duty as a soldier and fight to the bitter end. I am your loving son, Denver.”
Mr Tehan wondered what would bring a man to carry on past the hope of survival.
“He fought for a world where the war would end, not for him, but for others. He fought ??? believing if he did his duty that (the world) would change and for the better.
“This was the life of the Australian soldier on the Western Front ??? in this darkest year, they did their duty and fought to the bitter end.”
Australian ambassador to France Stephen Brady said the ceremony at Villers-Bretonneux this year was an enduring “emblem of comradeship” between Australia and France.
“At these treasured sites and ceremonies, we want to reassure those who lost their lives – and reassure ourselves – that we will keep talking about what they did??? and to remember them as they would have hoped to be remembered.”
Corporal Dan Keighran, 33, took part in the dawn service at Polygon Wood, just over the border in Belgium.
Corporal Keighran was awarded a Victoria Cross for the highest military decoration for valour, for his bravery in drawing enemy fire in a 2010 battle in Afghanistan to save an injured comrade.
“When you’re standing here it’s always hard to believe so much life was lost where we’re standing,” he said.
“I always look at the terrain and it’s pretty flat around here. There’s nowhere to hide. When you’ve got two opposing forces coming together, something bad’s going to happen.
“It would have been bloody terrible.”
Cpl Keighran said it was “really disappointing” that numbers of Australians on the Western Front were down this year – though he did understand people’s concerns about their safety in the wake of France’s terror attacks, he said.
“I’m still here and I’d go to all the services if I could. It’s not going to stop me, but I do understand why it does play on the mind of some people.”
He said he would like to think that, in a way, he was here on their behalf this year, to maintain the connection.
On Monday, Corporal Keighran visited a new “Peace Wood”, close to the site of battle, a project of the Flemish government. More than 500 trees have been planted in a field, each dedicated to a fallen soldier: Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, German and British.
As the centenaries of the Western Front’s bloodiest battles come and go, this new symbol of the lost will draw water from the earth, grow, and live on.