Lunch was in Peronne, which has absorbed Mont St Quentin and happens to be Sylvestre’s home town. It was getting a bit grey and we were pleased that he insisted that we enjoy une dejeuner a la Francaise (I need to check my grammar when I have a chance). A beer and a great omelette gave us the fuel to face an increasingly cold afternoon.

Mont St Quentin, with the reconstructed 2nd Division Memorial on the site of the German lines, was a study in the defensive skills of the Germans and the immense attacking panache of the understrength Aussie batallions of 1918. I was still seeing the battlefield as a relief map, taking some pleasure in AIF victories, but an informed visit to Pozieres – where twenty- three thousand casualities make it more Australian than any spot on earth – would cure the most gung-go of any idea of glorifying war.

From the Australian Memorial at Gibraltar ( the main German bunker), one can see all the way back to the July 1 starting point. It took three weeks for the BEF to grind its way over the valley and up to the Australian jumping-off point – twelve hundred yards of gently undulating Picardy farmland. The 1st Div stormed the redoubt and held it – and then had to endure perhaps the worst shelling in the Somme sector in the whole war. It becomes obvious that none of these places had strategic significance: they were a means of forcing the Germans to defend and be absorbed by the attacks. It worked the other way, of course: Haig forgot that attacking risks higher casualities, and that is what happened.

Thiepval, with Lutyen’s massive memorial to the missing, only reinforced the impression. Light snow became heavier as we gazed at some of the more than seventy-eight thousand names on the monument, each regiment in it’s order of precedence. Sylvestre found the KOSB and the photos explain it far better than I can: name after name, each one a cipher for a doubly-lost life.

The day finished in Beaumont Hamel: rather than the few decrepit trenches around the new AIF memorial, Sylvestre took us to the Newfoundland Memorial. Better hands than mine have written about the disaster that befell this batallion and also the Ulster Division. The extraordinary park is one of the Somme’s most evocative places. I still have goosebumps about the moment when Sylvestre stood a point in the path and explained that the majority of the batallion had fallen on the spot we now stood, facing the German Lines and cut down by three enfilading machine guns within a hundred yards of the front line.

Sobering, thought-provoking: it is not enough to pray for peace, for history tells us that peace is always a struggle. Somewhere on the battlefield, I believe, the ghosts of those who fell and those who lived demand of us better responses to conflict than embargo, intimidation and war. The Aussies need to be seen, not as heroes, but as victims of a brutality that they transcended not through their warrior moments, but in their optimism, individuality and acts of sacrifice.

Our world needs such transcendence every day, in so many situations.

Lest we forget….