As Anzac Day draws near, the towns and villages of the Somme Valley prepare for the annual Australian invasion.
The memorial at Villers-Bretonneux is filled with French workers bustling to and fro, setting up lighting, audio and a complex seating grid in anticipation of another packed dawn service.
Each year the crowds grow bigger here, with road closures in place for miles around and a squadron of shuttle buses needed to ferry the crowd from nearby Amiens.
Despite the activity all around me there is plenty of opportunity for solitude and contemplation in the sea of headstones. It’s a cliché, but the sense of loss and despair at so many boys and young men – mostly it seems under the age of 25 – is overwhelming.
Reading the gravestones feels slightly intrusive, as the heartfelt messages from loved ones inscribed there offer slight clues about each one who was denied the chance to live the life that might have been.
It makes you wonder how the world might be a different place now if they had lived: what would they have contributed to art, science, politics? What children would they have fathered? No doubt some would’ve contributed little or been general no-gooders, but overall the loss to humanity is grievous.
My reverie was disturbed by the arrival of two Australians, about the same age as many of those who died, and I immediately judged them when I saw the sweatshirt one was wearing “I’ll make you wish you were dead”.
But they were actually lovely guys, albeit somewhat fashion-challenged, and were genuinely interested in, and respectful of, the sacrifices that were evidenced around them.
Watching them muck around with that youthful mixture of sweetness and profanity that they no doubt shared with those who lay nearby just reinforced the poignancy of the moment.