A Day of History

Today we decided to hire a car and drive around the battlefields of the Somme. We set off in the grey, drizzly, windy morning to walk to the car pick-up and I said to Steve, “Do you think we made the right decision?” He looked at the sky and the blowing trees, “Yes, I think we made the right decision.” It was cold and windy and would have been pretty uncomfortable to be riding. We picked up our little Lancia hatch-back and as we were driving out of Saint-Quentin, Steve said, “Look at the trees,” and pointed to the poplars swaying violently in the wind, “Do you think we made the right decision,” he asked. “Yes,” I said.  We planned to see as much of the Somme in a day as we could, from the comfort of a car, out of the wind and the cold.

First stop was a return trip to Villers-Bretonneaux so we could take some time to walk around the village, which we hadn’t yet done. We went to the Victoria School and strolled around the streets, where there are signs of Australia everywhere. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

At the Victoria School
At the Victoria School
On a window of a house
On a window of a house
Lots of Australian flags were flying from the light posts
Lots of Australian flags were flying from the light posts
In the window of a cafe
In the window of a cafe
A window display at the optometrists
A window display at the optometrist
Hanging from the balcony of another house
Hanging from the balcony of another house

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Next stop was Albert where we visited the 1916 museum. The museum consists of a 10 metre deep, 250 metre long tunnel that dates from the 13th century and was used as an air raid shelter during WWII. It’s been developed into replica trenches to show life on the front during WWI. The information and dioramas were really interesting and the walk through finished with a walk through the trenches with the sound of battle overhead, which gave some sense of the relentless roaring and noise that the troops endured constantly. I pointed out to Steve, the information about what the soldiers’ daily rations were. Considering what we eat when we cycle and if we’re hungry, we know we have supplies to dip into, I compared that to what the soldiers’  provisions were. With everything the soldiers in the trenches were expected to do, their daily ration consisted of only: 750g of bread, 400g of meat, 60g of rice or vegetables, 46g of lard, 20g of sugar and salt, 16g of coffee, 50cl of wine and 35g of tobacco. It’s not much is it! Not much at all to sustain a fighting force and obviously why parcels from home were so welcome.

In the tunnels at the museum in Albert
In the tunnels at the museum in Albert

From Albert, we drove on to Pozieres. The job of capturing Pozieres was largely left to the Australians during the war, which they did on July 23, 1916. They suffered constant counter attacks and lost more than a third of their men. There is a monument to the Australians who fought there and the remains of a German observation post, named “Gibralter” by the troops.

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The Australian memorial at Pozieres
The Australian memorial at Pozieres
The remaining foundations of 'Gibralter', a German observation post
The remaining foundations of ‘Gibralter’, a German observation post

Our next stop was Thiepval, which was a significant place during the Battle of the Somme. It’s elevated, so capturing and holding the ridge became a prime objective for both sides. This was the location of the Somme Offensive, a huge scale attack from the British forces to capture Thiepval. On July 1, 1916, 100,000 inexperienced soldiers were sent over the top and were quickly subjected to a barrage of machine gun fire. At the end of the day 60,000 were casualties. This was the first day of the Battle of the Somme and has become known as the “bloodiest day of the British army.” Now there is a visitors’ centre, with images and information about the war and fighting on the Somme and a huge memorial to the fallen. The memorial is enormous and can be seen against the skyline for miles and miles.  This memorial recognises all those who fought and died, but have no grave or were unable to be identified. The inner walls are covered with their names. It’s still so hard to comprehend the sheer scale of loss to gain such small areas of ground. The memorial is in a beautiful location, so peaceful and with stunning views across the farmland, which at the time, was the battlefield with all its horrors. Thiepval was finally captured on September 27, 1916 by British troops, with some 420,000 casualties during the months of fighting. It was then recaptured by the Germans in March 1918, before finally being retaken by British forces in August 1918. The cost of this…the cost…

The Thiepval Memorial
The Thiepval Memorial

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The surroundings are beautiful
The surroundings are beautiful
What was the battlefield
What was the battlefield

We went on to Beaumont-Hamel, where there is a memorial to the soldiers from Newfoundland, Canada and the original trenches from the battles are still visible. This was another site where a terrible price was paid. In one night of fighting the Newfoundland regiments lost 70% of their men. They were sent over the top and again were cut down by incessant machine gun fire and suffered those terrible losses. We walked through the lines of trenches and I stopped to think about what it would have been like to be there, standing at the base of the wall of the trench, ready to be ordered to go over the top, while hell rained down from all sides. I found it unimaginable.

The trenches at Beaumont-Hamel
The trenches at Beaumont-Hamel

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The final stop was Bullecourt. I particularly wanted to go here because my grandfather fought in the Second Battle of Bullecourt. In fact he fought there and Villers-Bretonneaux and Peronne, amongst many other places on the Somme and in Belgium. Bullecourt was part of the German Hindenburg line and there were constant attacks and counterattacks, leaving the Australian and British troops exhausted and depleted. Over 7000 Australians were killed or wounded in the Second Battle of Bullecourt. In the town there is a small memorial to the Australian and British forces and just outside the town, there is a much larger Australian memorial.

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The small memorial in the town

 

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My grandfather fought with the 5th Division
My grandfather fought with the 5th Division
The Australian memorial at Bullecourt
The Australian memorial at Bullecourt
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The statue on the memorial is called “The Digger”

 

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As we visited sites and read information about various battles and life at the front, a couple of anecdotes appealed. This was recounted by one of the soldiers:

“…sometimes we find amusing things occur. For instance, once a message was sent orally by an officer as follows: ‘Pass the word to Captain – send reinforcements’, but when the message reached its destination it was delivered as ‘Captain so and so wants you to lend him three and four pence.” 

I did smile at that!

Another one was:

“The German is a different man from the Turk. Fritz tried to be funny sometimes. On the arrival of the Australians in the trenches, a notice board went up from the enemy trench saying: “Welcome Australians, and sons of convicts…”

Well the Germans obviously had their education and knew their history!

Everywhere we’ve been, there is evidence again, of the gratitude felt by France to her allies and what they did while fighting on French soil. There are so many monuments, memorials and cemeteries all along the roads and in the fields, some seemingly in the middle of nowhere. They were established at the sites of the battles and soldiers were buried where they lay and then cemeteries were created. Some are big and some are small but every one is so perfectly tended and all the lawns are manicured and the hedges trimmed into crisp lines. None of them, whether they be cemeteries or memorials for French, British or Australian soldiers, are unkempt, they are all obviously respected and maintained in perfect condition.

So today, like our visits to the WWII battlefields in Normandy, was a day of learning, reflection and thinking about what had gone on in the places we visited. The scenery here is absolutely stunning and beautiful and to imagine it as the wasteland it was, is very hard to picture. I felt very lucky today to have been able to visit and see for myself some of the places that I had read about and can now put a place and context to the names that have such significance in our history. These were sites of conflict, fear, horror and unbelievable acts of courage. Today we visited them in peace. For that I’m very thankful. If only conflict could be eradicated completely. If only peace could be felt by everyone, everywhere. If only…

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