Two days of Somme battlefields, memorials, museums. Displays made up of kooky soldier manikins who look like the Thunderbirds; sweeping monuments to war standing over a spread of sunny fields; an aeroplane propeller, crafted from rich, brown hardwood; Otto Dix; Wilfred Owen, cigarette packets and propaganda.
I’m the designated driver, gripping the steering wheel too hard as I go anti-clockwise round the roundabouts, windscreen wipers lurching into action every time I try to indicate.
We have been seeking out references to medicine, sanitation, nurses or Australians. References to dysentery seem like too much to ask.
We visited Musee Somme 1916 built into a crypt turned air-raid-shelter under a church. It’s a long dank tunnel, limping through reconstructions of bunkers and dugouts and information displays. Villers Bretonneux where a kangaroo silhouette on the sign welcomes you into town and the school museum is full of photographs from the Australian War Memorial. Musee Historial de la Grande Guerre has a rich collection of artwork which touches me more deeply than the artefacts. Uniforms are laid out like corpses in indents in the floor.
There are moments I am stopped short. A photo of two small girls dressed as nurses, a display of artworks made from shell casings. Something about humans in awful circumstances, using their time and their hands to craft beautiful objects.
None of it is quite what we’re looking for - so much of it male and soldier/battle focused - but giving us a broader sense of the human-scale story. We really looking for images of the kind of toilets they used, and what water purifiers looked like. I’m also looking everywhere for references to the mobile laboratory, because I read about it in the Official History of the Australian Army Medical Corps. I’m starting to feel like we need to do some much deeper research and that maybe the internet would be more useful.
Every time Briony asks a museum attendant for references to dysentery in her fumbling French (wayyyy better than mine), we get blank looks and, “Non” “Non”.
But there's something which feels important anyway, about immersing ourselves in this landscape, where the human-scale section of the story is set.