Once in a lifetime excursion for students

It’s being described as a once in a lifetime opportunity, and one that St Peter’s Campus, All Saints College, student Georgia Fillis and two other Catholic secondary students from the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, will soon have the privilege of being able to say they experienced.

Next week, Georgia will join St Joseph’s Lochinvar student Samuel Guadagnini and St Catherine’s Singleton student Brigid Thomas as they depart for Gallipoli to commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli landing on 25 April. They will represent their school and travel with 17 other students from the Hunter, all of whom were selected from more than 150 applicants to travel to Turkey as part of theHunter Valley District Council (HVDC) of RSL Sub-Branches Anzac Tour.

The application process took almost three years and committing to the process required a sense of maturity and foresight well beyond the students’ years.

Finding out about the opportunity on her very first day of high school three years ago, Georgia said that as her teacher described the “tour of a lifetime” to her, his enthusiasm was contagious.

“I was grasping onto every detail of the trip, and nearly burst with excitement as he explained the itinerary. Sitting in that hall, on my very first day of Year 7, I promised myself I would try my hardest to be part of this wonderful experience,” she said. And now, three years on, she will be.

HVDC decided to embark on the ambitious project to help young Australians connect with the legacy of Gallipoli and the significance of Anzac Day. As part of the selection process, students were required to research a family member who fought in World War I, preferably at Gallipoli, or select a name from their local War Memorial and research that soldier; a process which took 12-18 months.

Samuel discovered he was a direct descendant of a Gallipoli veteran: his great great grandfather, Joseph Potter. “I didn’t even realise I had a relative over there prior to this process but I learnt so much; that he was discharged after being stabbed six days before the ‘Battle of the Nek’ which was lucky as he probably would have been there as he was in the Third Light Horse. So this makes the trip more special, knowing people of my blood fought over there. It will be an amazing experience,” he said.

Brigid said she learnt more about her mother’s family, “including my great, great uncle, Hugh McAlary from the 35th Battalion, known as ‘Newcastle’s own regiment’ because of the number of boys from Newcastle in it. The soldiers who fought were not much older than me and faced unimaginable horrors,” she said.

Georgia agreed and said that as her research project progressed, she was “engrossed in the history of the War and how much these men…most of them not much more than boys, sacrificed and went through to achieve the world we live in today.

“I was consumed by the Anzac spirit. I was completely enthralled by the stories I’d stumbled upon, putting pieces of my project together and creating an understanding of the War.”

Georgia was so inspired, she took her research to a new level, travelling to Canberra to see what she could dig up at the National Archives and Australian War Memorial. “It was there that I requested specific documents be unsealed (because even 100 years after the war we still haven’t published half the documentation from the time). I got the honour of being the first person to see certain documents since the War. It was with great pride that I brought all my information on my soldier back to his family to see for the first time.”

Teacher chaperone and tour organiser, Michelle Archer, said “the panel has seen how much the students have already grown through their research projects and how much they have learnt.

“We are hoping the tour will give the students that first-hand, tangible experience of the country and culture that is so intrinsically linked with the story of our Anzacs.

“The students will visit all the places they have only ever read about and it will give them a greater appreciation of what ‘their’ soldiers (and all soldiers) went through.”

Georgia said she’s already been inspired by what she’s learnt but is looking forward to learning more, standing on the soil where the soldiers stood.

“This trip has already started to open our eyes to the history of our ancestors, and it has started a yearning inside of me to learn more, not just about history, but about the world.

“Being accepted onto a tour this memorable and life-changing has really influenced me to be the best I can be…I expect more from myself now.”

And what she’s most looking forward to? “Standing on the shores of Gallipoli on the day it all happened 100 years ago. It feels like everything has led up to the moment I will be standing on that shore, with the waves softly crashing behind me, the atmosphere dense with emotion and the ghost of suffering whisking by us, lightly grasping at our clothes. I will be able to not only see, but touch the ground where thousands of diggers have died, their blood shed to bring the poppies to life. I daresay I’m ready to become overwhelmed with emotions as I stand on the shore, as I’m sure it will be one of the most emotional things I will do in my life.

“It will change us indefinitely. We will have the weight of our knowledge on our shoulders, as the Anzac legend is one we will never be able to forget.”

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Emma Blackford

Emma Blackford is the Communications Manager for the Catholic Schools Office, Maitland-Newcastle and a regular contributor to Aurora Magazine.

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