I have very mixed feelings about this day; certainly, I had looked forward to it as another immersion in the history of the Great War, but I hadn’t banked on the depth of the experience. It wasn’t just the graves and the memorials: that shock can be gained from any examination of the numbers. No, the realisation came from the relationship between the number of casualties and the flat, unassuming farmland. Did they all die for this?

We met Sylvestre at the station and immediately hit it off. He is large and friendly: one can imagine him as a Picardie farmer, but he is amazingly well-informed about the battlefield and about the Australians. Incredibly, he has not been to Australia but deserves to be an honorary Aussie.

As we were waiting for other clients delayed by the snow in Paris, Sylvestre took us to the Amiens Cemetary, where the military section has the bodies of those who died in the large base hospital that was nearby. French, British and Dominion troops lay all around, with some curiosities, like the odd Indian grave with a Sanskrit inscription for a member of the Labour Corps.

A perspective on the conflict that has visited this area for centuries was provided by the graves of aircrew from 1944, killed while attacking the railway and local communications links. The presence of the Roman Roads through the battlefield is a reminder of war and occupation over centuries. We were told of a Franco-Prussian War Memorial in the Valley and of an ambivalence towards the memory of the war on the part of many of the locals. There have been so many wars for them, and we have had so few – and only one has touched our national consciousness.

We returned to the station to collect our fellow battle-field detectives. These proved to be a family of parents and three boys from Sydney. Of course, the boys went to St Aloysius. Tony and Libby, with Christian (Year 12), Patrick (Year 10) and Will (Year 7), proved to be great company and gave the day a special flavour.

From Amiens, we travelled East to Villers-Bretonneux. I was suitably impressed by the monument and the names of those with no known grave. It is a site that has considerable nobility and, in the winter snow, was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop.

I had hoped that the topography would give some sense to the battles. Looking at the slope and the ridge on which the monument stood – the German lines in the battle to recapture the village, one was left amazed. How did two understrength batallions, with limited support, get up that hill?

The thousands of names on the memorial prevent any sense of glorification, however: Sylvestre explained that hundreds of “bodies” or groups of remains are found each year and he found a body only last year. The earth has a long memory indeed, and farming and the natural movement of the chalky soil yields up the dead as regularly as it spews up shrapnel and dud shells.

The village itself, completely rebuilt after the war, retains poignant reminders of the links between the AIF and the locals. Sylvestre is surprised by the numbers that are coming on ANZAC Days, although equally surprised that it has taken Australians DSL long to come back – after all, more than three quarters of our casualties were suffered on theWestern Front.

The museum in the school was all we had been promised and, as souvenirs, we purchased photos and guide books. The hall’s carvings are a pleasant reminder of the other aide of the world.

The German cemetary brings much home: the enforced plain-ness of the place stops any sense of heroics, yet these men has been no less brave than the Allied soldiers whose memorials dotted the skyline. In a space not one hundred metres across lay a thousand graves: the hopes of two thousand parents, one hundred teachers, many wives and sweethearts… Yet men died on all sides at the rate of five hundred a day, and for what?