We started our tour of the Somme Battlefields with a visit to a number of National Monuments.
The first of these was the Canadian Monument at Vimy Ridge, near Arras. It is an imposing monument on a long ridge that cost many Canadian lives to gain. It features a woman (representing the `Young Canada` accepting those who died into her shelter. The dead are represented by figures on two large and imposing columns. Vimy Ridge was one of the great battles of the Somme and is very important to the Canadians as it represents to Canada what Gallipoli represents to Australia. The memorial is constantly staffed by young Canadian university students. In the grounds near the memorial is an area that has been left in the same state as the battlefield was at the end of the war. Some trenches have been restored and the area is pock marked with deep shell craters. This really gave us a feeling of what it must have looked like during the war. The area is now covered in grass rather than the mud that it would have once been in the war, and a number of sheep graze in the battlefield to keep the grass down as the area still has a number of unexploded shells and is dangerous to enter.
Some view of the Canadian Memorial Site
We also visited the South African and New Zealand monuments. These are also outstanding memorials to the soldiers of each of the countries.
South African Monument
In the afternoon, we then went on to visit a number of important Australian sites. The first of these was at the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles. Here we found the famous statue called `Cobbers`. It shoes an Australian Sergeant (from my grandfather’s battalion – the 57th) – carrying a wounded digger back from no man`’s land. The battle here was the site of the first real action that the Australians saw on the Western Front. As a result of poor British leadership, ineffective artillery and strong German defences,the Australians suffered over 5500 casualties on the first night of the battle. This represents more casualties than we had in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War combined.
A little way down the road is the VC Corner cemetery. Here there are over 400 men buried in unmarked graves. They died in no man`’s land during the battle. This cemetery is unique in two ways.It is virtually the only one of 600 war cemeteries that only contains Australian graves, and it is the only one of all the Commonwealth War Grave sites that has no headstones.
Cobbers and VC Corner Cemetery
This area is scattered with little cemeteries across the entire landscape. Some have hundreds of graves, while other have only a few dozen. One that we passed, and caught our attention was the British cemetery called the Thistle Dump Cemetery. It sat on the side of a hill, perhaps 200 metres off the road, and was surrounded by crops and yellow Canola flowers.
Thistle Dump Cemetery
We then went on to see the site of the windmill at Pozieres. A windmill was situated on a hill and was ruined early in the war. The foundations were converted into a well fortified machine gun post by the Germans. It was a vital site to capture as this was the highest ground in the Somme and whover controlled it gained a view of the other sides lines along a large section of the front. This task fell mostly to the Australians who had more blood spilt on this battlefield than any other ion our history. It’s virtually incomprehensible to look at this site and understand that 23,000 men died in the capture of this hill in 1916.
Site of the Windmill at Pozieres
In the afternoon, we stopped of at the enormous British memorial at Thiepval. This memorial is 46 metres high and carries the names of over 72000 British Men with no known grave. It was not only impressive, it was awe inspiring! Not far from this monument is another famous Australian Battle site – Mouquet Farm. I was fought over and captured as part of the battle of Pozieres.
British Memorial at Thiepval
We finished the day with a short visit to the town of Albert which was captured by the Germans in the spring offensive of 1918 and then recaptured by allied forces later.