It all ended when a war, far away on the other side of the world broke out and the young men downed their pick axes and went off to fight in places they had never heard of - Gallipoli, the Somme, Belgium. Even those who survived never returned to Walhalla. The mine became unviable, the population drifted away, the railway line was pulled up and slowly the town of Walhalla died. Today it boasts a population of 12.
And yet this will be where we will commemorate Anzac Day, as we did last year. Before dawn, the town’s bag piper (one of the population of 12!) will climb to the highest point (above the spoil heap of the old gold mine). As an autumnal dawn, wreathed in mist, begins to break, they come from all around, speaking in hushed voices, maintaining the respectful silence of the brooding hills around them. Hundreds of people… Scouts, locals, campers, members of the SES and the CFA, farmers... to pay their respects beside the war memorial in the centre of town. The ringing notes of the Last Post echo around the steep gorges, to be swallowed up in the silent, deserted mines that dot the hillsides.
We pause for the Minute's silence, broken by the sound of Kookaburras laughter high up in the trees and the answering melody of the magpies.
Walhalla, being Walhalla, brings its own touch to the traditional service. Even though I know it is coming, the sharp crack of 3 rifle shots still makes me jump and brings home vividly what a terrifying experience warfare must be. As the shots reverberate off the hillsides there is no way of knowing even which direction they came from. And then there is the Walhalla cannon... forged in the fires of the mines for the visit of Victoria's governor. The old girl still lets off a humungous bang and fills the valley with smoke and the smell of cordite. It is incredible the Governor didn't turn tail and run with such a greeting!
As the day breaks, the scent of damp gum trees will mingle with the scent of eggs and bacon (courtesy of the local Scout group). Discreet nips of rum may be added to coffee... for the traditional 'gunfire' breakfast.
Two former serving Army officers, my husband and I have walked on the beach at Anzac Cove, we have seen the dawn rise on Anzac Day in Kranji Cemetery in Singapore, Villers Bretonneux in France, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and in our own home town but there is something about the touching simplicity of this commemoration in a tiny town the world forgot that brings home the devastating impact of the war on this fledgling country.
LEST WE FORGET