We are strolling towards Passchendaele, a ridgetop village in Flanders, Belgium.
Alongside the easy-rising, sunlit trail, a farmer aboard a tractor ploughs his field, the chocolate earth pungent.
Larks sing as the path enters the shade of elms. Remnants of a railway track, once used by the German military, moulder beneath lichen.
The road to Passchendaele is not like this in the chronicles of war.
There, it is a nightmare of men trapped in sucking mud, of artillery blowing lives and forests to smithereens, of horses bogged to the haunches, and clouds of a vicious new weapon, mustard gas, creeping through it all.
This trail, in the latter months of 1917, was the worst place on Earth.
Here, a series of battles began in late July with an artillery barrage of 4 million shells from 3000 British guns, tearing the landscape to pieces.
The heaviest rain for 30 years began falling on the first day of the battle, continued in August and resumed in October. Fields became quagmires. When it was all over in early November, the British forces had lost 310,000 men. The Germans were down 260,000.
Within this malevolent mincing machine were Australia's divisions.
They helped drive the Germans back to the top of the ridge marked by the little village of Passchendaele in a series of battles in September and October, 1917: the Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde.
The battles cost Australia 38,000 casualties. More than 12,000 Australians died, and more than half of them, blown apart or sucked into the mud, have no known grave.
And for what? The Allies captured a ruined village and gained a few kilometres.
All this madness occurred within eight kilometres of the medieval walled city known in Flemish as Iepers, and to the French as Ypres.
The proximity of Ypres means that today, you can stay in a pleasant hotel, dine well, meander around the marvellously rebuilt city and spend an easy few hours following the trail of those old battles in a pair of comfortable walking shoes.
Indeed, for those seeking to understand the enormity of what was the Western Front in World War I, it will soon be possible to don walking shoes, or mount a pushbike, and cover all the old Australian battlefields from Ypres in the north, all the way south to the Amiens and Villers-Bretonneux and Mont St Quentin areas of France.
IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS
The Australian Remembrance Trail, linking existing paths and roads and developing new routes, covers almost 200 kilometres along what was the front line between German and Allied forces.
If you are of a mind to glorify war, this is no trail for you.
Though it is a gentle, frequently beautiful landscape now, its history makes it a desperately sombre route.
Thick with cemeteries, it is best approached by those of a reflective nature.
Indeed, the juxtaposition of today's bucolic loveliness with a hideous history makes the Western Front a journey of the imagination.
It is also for those wishing to walk in the footsteps of ancestors.
Which is what I am doing.
Close to the start of the path to Passchendaele, near the village of Zonnebeke, my grandfather, J.W. Malseed, aged 22, was brought down by a vicious spray of shrapnel from an artillery shell.
It was September 26, 1917, during the Battle of Polygon Wood. He was shipped away to a hospital in England, patched up, got walking again, and brought back to the front within six months.
I try to imagine what it might have been like that night, with artillery exploding and men falling all around and the trees that gave Polygon Wood its name blown away, a ghostly mist billowing from water-logged shell holes.
It is impossible.
The wood has returned and is silent and enchanting, filtering sunshine.
A cemetery spreads across clipped lawn beside a high memorial to the Australian 5th Division (my grandfather was in the 4th, which battled alongside the 5th).
It is, indeed, possible to plot the entire line of the Western Front by following the cemeteries. There are many hundreds: some vast, some not more than a churchyard.
The largest Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in the world sits by the Road to Passchendaele.
Tyne Cot Cemetery.
We veer off the path to visit it, and fall silent. Beneath row upon row of blinding white headstones, each with its own little bed of flowers, lie the remains of 11,954 Commonwealth soldiers.
There are 1369 Australian graves here, and 791 of them are unidentified.
From Tyne Cot's walls you can gaze across the hill to the church spire of Passchendaele, a pathetic little destination for so many lives.
The battles of the Western Front were so numerous and so stupefying that many visitors find bewildering the task of working out what happened, and where.
The much better-known Gallipoli battlefields of Turkey, by comparison, cover little more than a decent-sized paddock, where about 8700 Australians lost their lives in eight months.
ON A TRAIL, OF SORTS
The Western Front battles in which Australians took part stretched almost three years (1916-1918), cost 46,000 lives and encompassed a fair slice of northern France and the Flanders region of Belgium.
The Australian Remembrance Trail, being carefully stitched together by the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs, aims to relieve travellers' confusion as the centenary of the end of World War I – November 11 this year – approaches.
But how best to undertake such a pilgrimage?
There are, essentially, three separate areas: north, central and south.
The word "trail", thus, is something of a misnomer. Large towns and sometimes busy roads make the idea of starting at one end and trekking to the other problematic.
Best to travel between the three areas by car or coach, establish yourself in a town or village, hire a bike or stretch your legs and concentrate on the trails linking the battlefields within each area before shifting to the next.
To the north is Belgium, where the old battles surrounded what is now the beautiful Flemish city of Ypres, ruined during the war but rebuilt so perfectly you'd imagine it was the original, 700-year-old market town. A visit to the war museum in the huge and stunning Cloth Hall, next to the equally stunning Ypres Cathedral, is essential.
In Flanders you may wander a few kilometres east of Ypres towards Polygon Wood and Passchendaele; or a bit south to Hill 60, where a great crater still exists after tunnellers used thousands of kilograms of explosives to blow away Germans camped upon a hilltop, or further south to Ploegsteert (known to the soldiers as Plug Street) where the Battle of Messines occurred. You could do it all in a day, but you'd be better to set aside two or three.
The second, central area, covers two infamous battlefields in far northern France, Fromelles and Bullecourt.
The countryside here is a soft patchwork of crops spreading between numerous villages, each of them with their church spire reaching for heaven.
Golden canola, wheat and barley wave in the breeze. But farmers also speak of the "iron harvest" – tonnes of artillery shells and war detritus brought up every season by the plough. Occasionally, a skeleton, too.
Fromelles lies less than 20 kilometres south of the border between Belgium and France. A fine new museum in the village explains how Australian troops were subjected to their first great horror on the Western Front.
In a single night in 1916, more than 5500 Australian men fell to German machine guns. Almost 2000 of them died, for no good purpose.
For more than 90 years, several hundred of the missing lay in a lost grave dug for them by the Germans at Fromelles. After astonishing forensic work, 220 of those missing Australian soldiers have been found and reburied in a new cemetery called Pheasants Wood, next to the museum.
Many of those identified by DNA finally have on their headstones the words their devastated families wrote for them 100 years ago. "A light was burning in the window for your return. It was not to be. Your loving family" reads the headstone for Sgt-Major W.H.C. Rose, of the 55th Battalion. He was aged 20.
A large bronze sculpture of a soldier carrying a wounded mate on his shoulder stands where the Fromelles battle was fought, near the lonely VC Corner cemetery; the only one on the Front without a single headstone. "Cobbers," the sculpture is called. It commemorates the heroic efforts of soldiers who couldn't bear the cries of their mates lying wounded in no-man's land. They risked their own lives to save their cobbers, despite their contemptible superiors having refused a ceasefire.
The sculptured soldier is modelled on Sgt Simon Fraser, of Byaduk, a village in south-west Victoria, one of the men who crept out to fetch wounded men over three fearful nights.
Aged 40, Fraser was blown to pieces less than a year later at the 2nd Battle of Bullecourt in May 1917. Like so many others, he has no known grave.
Bullecourt, about 50 kilometres from Fromelles, is the next stop south, past great cemeteries and memorials of the British, Indians and Canadians. Australians fought in two battles at Bullecourt: the first, across snow-covered ground on April 11, 1917, was a poorly planned disaster. The second, on May 3, saw the Australians take part of the German Hindenburg line for no lasting advantage. The cost: 10,000 dead and wounded. A large statue of an Australian Digger by Peter Corlet memorialises the Bullecourt battles, and a bronze plaque by Dr Ross Bastiaan tries to explain them.
About 10 kilometres south of Bullecourt is the largest cluster of Western Front battlefields involving Australians.
East and north-east of Amiens – a glorious city of canals and one of the world's loveliest and largest Gothic cathedrals – can be found places that will resonate with anyone who has read about the war: Pozieres, Thiepval, Vignacourt, Dernancourt, Le Hamel and at the southern extremity, Villers-Bretonneux.
The new $100 million Sir John Monash Centre (sjmc.gov.au/) at Villers-Bretonneux, a marvel of high-tech with video screens that cover entire walls, will be the main destination for many travellers.
Here, visitors gain an immersive experience of the war through extraordinary visual displays and the words of soldiers beamed direct to mobile phones via an app.
It is an experience unlike any other "museum". Right in the centre of the building is a circular theatre where a shock of sound, light, smoke and film surrounds the visitor and places them into the boots of a soldier in the battles of Villers-Bretonneux and Hamel. Hamel, of course, was the battle that cemented Sir John Monash's name into Australian history.
As the commander of the entire Australia Corps in 1918, Monash designed what was then the most successful and celebrated battle of the Western Front: the capture of Le Hamel. He predicted it would take 90 minutes. It famously took 93 minutes, and involved tanks, artillery, ground troops, and aeroplanes dropping ammunition to the soldiers.
Monash was an innovator, and so is the centre that bears his name. Its technology is energy hungry ... and part of that energy comes from 41 geothermal bores sunk 185 metres into the ground in the area.
The centre is built beneath the ground behind the Australian National Memorial.
The memorial – with its own cemetery and great tower – bears on its walls the names of 10,772 Australians who died in the Great War in France and who have no known grave.
There is an echo at the other end of the trail. The names of 6000 Australians who remain missing in Belgium are engraved on Ypres' Menin Gate, where crowds gather to hear the Last Post played every evening.
Villers-Bretonneux has its own Franco-Australian museum in the village schoolhouse, which was built with money raised by Victoria's schoolchildren. "Never Forget the Australians" is still emblazoned above the school's quadrangle. It was here that Australian troops stopped the advance of the Germans in April 1918, leading to the end of the war.
All around this region are battlefields where Australians helped push back the Germans from their attempt to get at Amiens and beyond.
It was to one of them that my grandfather was trucked in March 1918, having finally been released from hospital.
His battalion was rushed south from Belgium and ordered to plug a gap in the front line at a place called Hebuterne to stop the Germans breaking through to Amiens.
For the last three days of March, he and his mates withstood attack by artillery, machine guns and snipers.
But my grandfather was brought down again: he was shipped off to hospital on March 30, his right leg shredded by shrapnel. He had been back in the field for just 22 days.
On the family farm in far-west Victoria, his parents received a blunt telegram: "Beg to advise that Private J.W. Malseed wounded 2nd occasion ... it being understood that if no further advice is forwarded this department has no more information to supply."
The remembrance trail bypasses Hebuterne, but not far away it winds through and beyond little Dernancourt, a pretty village that has painted on its railway bridge a kangaroo and a slouch hat.
An Adelaide charity helped rebuild the village after the war, and when its school opened, the children were outfitted in clothes donated by Adelaideans.
The Dernancourt trail continues alongside fields and a railway line towards Albert, the famed "Golden Virgin" – destroyed in the war – shining in the sun atop the village's splendid basilica.
Every now and again, there are explanatory markers by the path.
You need only scan your mobile phone (equipped with the right app) against the QR barcode on each marker and a voice explains the historical events that happened right there as Australians fought to hold back the Germans: an Australian hears Germans tramping through the mist and becomes a hero, a machine-gun post fails to set up in time, a cemetery is established.
The Veterans Affairs Department is establishing such markers at critical sites across the entire trail. Weary walkers, you'd imagine, would be happy to stop for a story every kilometre or so.
The most confronting, and oldest, of the battlefields in the area is Pozieres.
It's just a village on a Roman road, but in 1916 Pozieres, its ridge and its windmill were the sites of furious combat, because they sat a bit higher than the land around. The Germans held the area. The Allies wanted it.
It took two weeks of desperate fighting, but by August 4, 1916, the Australians won their objective. The cost confounds the mind: the 1st Australian Division lost 7700 men, the 2nd Division suffered 8100 casualties and the 4th Division lost 7100.
A MISSIVE FROM HELL
Today's peaceful surrounds require a sharp prompt to imagine it.
John Alexander Raws, formerly a journalist with The Argus in Melbourne, described the Pozieres horror in a letter home: "We are lousy, stinking, ragged, unshaven and sleepless ... I have one puttee, a dead man's helmet, another dead man's gas protector, a dead man's bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men's blood, and partly splattered with a comrade's brains ... Several of my friends are raving mad."
Raws, having suffered through Pozieres and the nearby Mouquet ("Moo Cow") Farm, was killed on August 23, aged 33.
Two years on, after his second round of wounds, my grandfather – who had arrived in France too late to have to endure the Pozieres savagery – was treated in the 1st Birmingham War Hospital by a nurse named Cecilia Wilks. Within five months, she'd got him fit enough to be sent back to France, where his battalion had been battling hard near Amiens.
He arrived in mid August. Within a month, with Australia's fighting divisions down to about one-sixth of their original strength, he was part of an attack on the German Hindenburg Outpost Line that won the village of Le Verguier, almost the farthest east of Amiens that any Australians had gone, at the cost of "only" 1200 men. Soon after, others of the 4th Division won the village of Bellenglise, even further east, and chose it for their division's memorial.
Bellenglise is on the remembrance trail, but it is lonely, its flatlands rarely visited.
My grandfather survived. But on November 10, 1918, one day before the war ended, he was admitted to hospital with the dreaded Spanish 'flu, which would kill about 30 million – far more than the war itself.
Some stories from the remembrance trail, however, have a happy ending.
J.W. fought through his illness and made it back to England, where he married his nurse, Cecilia, and took her back to Australia.
She was my vastly loved grandmother. Together, they gave life to six children and lived long lives themselves.
When old J.W. died in 1982, however, his body still carried the shrapnel he copped on the road to Passchendaele.
FIVE THINGS TO DO ON THE AUSTRALIAN REMEMBRANCE TRAIL
1. Visit the Coming World Remember Me art installation. Here, 600,000 clay sculptures are spread across an old front line in Zillebeke, a couple of kilometres south-east of central Ypres. Representing each of the 600,000 people who died in Belgium as a result of the Great War, the sculptures will remain until November 11.
2. Be stunned by one of the huge craters caused by underground explosions: there's the famous Hill 60 at Ypres, but in the Somme region, the Lochnagar Crater seems volcanic.
3. Go underground at Naours, a village 20 kilometres north of Amiens, where vast caves have been tunnelled since medieval times, granting sanctuary to locals beset by invaders and war. There are 300 rooms, for years home to hundreds during the the 30-Year War of the 17th century. Australian soldiers on leave were drawn to the strange place during World War I, and hundreds of them scrawled their names on the walls of the Naours caves.
4. Stay at Arras, halfway between Ypres and Amiens, and dine in 10th century caves, now restaurants, beneath the city centre. Visit the Wellington Tunnels – old chalk mines to the east of Arras linked up by New Zealand soldiers to house several thousand men in safety, 20 metres down.
5. Visit Peronne, an ancient city 55 kilometres east of Amiens, which overlooks the River Somme and its lakes. Within its partly ruined chateau is an excellent World War I museum , the "Historial de la Grande Guerre". Australians get a big welcome. Australian troops liberated the place in 1918 after winning the nearby Battle of Mont St Quentin. The main street was re-named Roo de Kanga, and the signage remains.
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Self-guiding is easy, and you can travel light because Wi-Fi is available everywhere on the trail (every hotel provides access free, and just ask for a password in most cafes). The Sir John Monash Centre's portal allows you to download the excellent Australian Remembrance Trail: A Travellers Guide (or request a paper copy). It provides everything from maps to suggested itineraries from one to five days, takes you step by step through researching a relative who served on the Western Front and finding a grave, gives the history of each major battlefield and suggests side trips. See sjmc.gov.au/travellersguide
The Department of Veterans Affairs provides an easy reference to each of the main memorials along the trail. See anzacportal.dva.gov.au/australian-remembrance-trail
The Australian War Memorial has almost endless information about anything war-related. See awm.gov.au
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is an essential resource for anyone searching for a cemetery or a grave on the trail. See cwgc.org
You can find your relatives' war records at the National Archives of Australia. See naa.gov.au
Ypres, Belgium: Ariane Hotel is modern, comfortable and a short walk to the medieval centre with its Cloth Hall and Cathedral, and 10 minutes to the Menin Gate. See ariane.be/en
Lille, northern France, puts you within easy reach of Fromelles and Bullecourt, and, to the north, the battlefields of Belgium. It also has a large railway station with excellent high-speed train links to Paris, Brussels and Eurostar to London. Stay at Crowne Plaza Lille-Euralille, 335 Boulevarde de Leeds, right across from the railway station. See crowneplaza.com
Amiens, France: Amiens is a city of canals with great nightlife. Within 40 kilometres are Pozieres, Le Hamel and the Australian National Memorial and Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux. Peronne, Mont St Quentin and Bellenglise are a little further east. See accorhotels.com
Cathay Pacific flies daily from Melbourne and Sydney to Brussels and from Paris Charles de Gaulle to Melbourne and Sydney, via Hong Kong. See cathaypacific.com
The train from Lille to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport takes 50 minutes. See loco2.com
Tony Wright is an associate editor and special writer for Fairfax Media, and is the author of Walking the Gallipoli Peninsula (originally published as Turn Right at Istanbul). His journey to the Australian Remembrance Trail was assisted by the Department of Veterans Affairs. See dva.gov.au