Sally Dowling, the sister of World War II soldier Robert Wilkinson, and her children Matt and Raelene Dowling, spoke to Tumut High students on Friday in preparation for their upcoming trip to Europe.
Trip coordinator Anna Whyte organised the meeting after the family expressed a wish to share their story with the school.
“It’s all about connections within the community and keeping our local history alive,” she said.
Flight Sergeant Robert Wilkinson was one of 45,000 Australians who died on the Western Front. He was killed in action on December 20, 1943, near the town of Tortefontaine, France, which the students will visit in a few months time.
“Over the fields surrounding the tiny village of Tortefontaine in Northern France, Bob’s plane was involved in a mid-air collision,” explained Raelene Dowling.
“Some local children witnessed the crash, and ran to the village to inform their parents. The people of Northern France were very grateful to the Allied forces trying to reclaim their villages from German occupation, and Bob’s body was retrieved by the villagers and buried at Tortefontaine cemetery.
“He became known as Tortefontaine’s ‘Australian Soldier’ and the Mayor at the time, a Mr Damerment, became the caretaker of Bob’s grave. The Damerment family have continued to do this over all these years.”
Ms Dowling also asked the students for a special favour – to take over a scrapbook of information about Tumut, Robert Wilkinson’s home town, to share with the villagers of Tortefontaine and the family that has cared for his grave for over seventy years.
Bob’s sacrifice has created a special link between the two towns that sit half a world apart. Many of his descendents have visited the gravesite in France, and Nicole Damerment, the Tortefontaine Mayor’s daughter, actually visited Tumut in 2009.
The Tumut High students will strengthen those links when they visit the grave site in April.
“We hope that you too feel a sense of pride when you visit Bob’s grave at Tortefontaine,” Ms Dowling said.
“He is their Australian soldier, our brother and uncle, and just like you, a local of Tumut.”