What do you call Help For Heroes in Australia? Mates 4 Mates of course, mate. Ten former Australian servicemen - who have fought from Vietnam to Afghanistan - are riding with us this week from the group, sporting a particularly fetching orange, black and white lycra kit. Our Mates 4 Mates contingent lead the service of remembrance at the Australian Memorial, 10 miles west of Amiens on our 60 mile journey to St Quentin today.
As well as its stunning tower memorial, 2,100 Australian soldiers are buried here, and a further 11,000 with no known grave are commemorated on its limestone walls. It was the last major national memorial on the Western Front to be finished, in 1938. Two years later, it became a battle ground again as the French Army tried to hold up the invading Nazis, pock marking its walls with their machine gun fire. The irony could not have been lost at the time either.
The ceremony began with one of our riders, the model and Help For Heroes supporter Jodie Kidd, reading an Australian military poem she had discovered six months ago, fittingly called 'Mate', and had saved up specially for the occasion. Then we heard from one Mate, 37-year old PTSD sufferer Brent New. He had served in East Timor, and has struggled to come to terms with what he saw there since. Brent told us how he was once sitting in the front seat of his car and was seconds away from swallowing enough painkillers "to kill a horse", washing them down with a bottle of vodka, and then opening his wrists with a knife. By good fortune, his best friend just happened to ring him to ask how he was at that very moment and he didn't go through with it. Twelve months ago, he discovered Mates 4 Mates, and now he is with us. Brent also told us that the Australian Defence Force has lost already lost more Afghan and Iraq veterans to suicide than the 26 that were killed on operations in the two countries. His testimony was a very moving reminder that many of the most damaging and lasting war wounds aren't physical. Back in 1918, things were very different. Anyone going home was told not to talk about their shell shock (as it was called in those days), largely because it was unmanly. There was no Mates 4 Mates or Help For Heroes for them. Instead, their wives had to deal with their screams in the middle of the night.
From the Australian Memorial, we pushed on East to inspect thin gauge old railway track at Dompierre Becquincourt, which by 1917 is how the British Army shifted so many millions of shells to the frontline guns. Then it was on to Pargny Bridge, where Acting Lt Col Frank Crowther Roberts won his Victoria Cross for pushing several hundred attacking Germans back across the Somme by leading a charge of just 26 men from his headquarters. The final stop of the day was Manchester Hill just outside St Quentin, where an entire battalion of the Manchester Regiment was wiped out to hold up an enormous German offensive by ten hours on March 21, 1918.
It also rained on us for the first time today, and quite heavily. But that was ok. It wouldn't be a Big Battlefield Bike Ride without a bit of rain.
Photo credit Mark Dawson | Help for Heroes