On our final day in France, we set some time aside to visit some of the historical places where Australians served in WW1. I have a familial connection with this area as my grandfather, Walter, was wounded for the second time and his war ended near here on 8 August 1918. He was in the 57th battalion of the Australian Infantry.
It was a cold foggy day. toiday The temperature didn’t rise above .5C all day and in some places the visibility was only about 100 metres. We had reserved a car from the Avis office at the station and collected it promptly at 9.00 am. Sunrise was at 8.35 and we wanted to maximise the available daylight time. Rental cars here are not cheap – a one day rental cost 200 Euros but it was a good way to show some of our family history to the girls.
Our first stop was at Le Hamel, a tiny village below a hill in the area of the Somme. This is a very important place in Australian history as it is the site where the brilliant Australian General, Sir John Monash, was the first commander to combine troops, artillery, tanks and aircraft into a coordinated battle. He planned to attack the enemy trenches above Le Hamel with a battle that he planned to take 90 minutes. In fact, it took 93 minutes with an advance of over 7 kilometres. The site is now occupied by a monument to the Australian Corps. Some remains of German trenches still exist. Once captured, these were occupied by the Australians for about five weeks before their further advancement and liberation of the town of Villers Brettoneux.
We could tell it was cold as the frost was thick and many of the plants were covered in a layer of ice.
From there, we drove a short distance to the Adelaide Cemetery. This is primarily an Australian cemetery but there are also a few British, Kiwi and Canadian graves. It was from this cemetery that the remains of an unknown soldier were disinterred in the 1980’s and relocated to Canberra where they now lie in the War Memorial at the ’Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’.
Just before lunch, we were at the Australian Memorial near Villers Brettoneux. A new visitors centre, the Sir John Monash Centre, is now located here but it is closed at this time of year. However, we walked up to the memorial tower, through the fog and paid our respects to the thousands of Australians who have no known gravest are named on the memorial wall, The Commonwealth War Graves Commission have done some work in the cemetery grounds since I was last here. The big old trees in the cemetery have been replaced by new ones that are fittingly ordered to be all the same type and height.
Looking back from the memorial tower, it is easy to see the form of all of the military cemeteries in this region. They are laid out as if the headstones were on parade and with the memorial stone (or altar) forming the centre piece where the commanding officer would have stood to review the troops.
In Villers Brettoneux we bought some baguettes at a little bakery on the main road and visited the school. It houses an Anglo-French museum but unfortunately, it was not open. This was the school where Victorian children donated pennies to finance its rebuilding after the war. A sign inside the school says “Never forget Australia”.
I had done some research on my Grandfather’s Battalion before we left home. It, and every other Australian unit, were involved in a second advance planned by John Monash that changed history. In March 1918, the Germans had mounted an offensive west towards Amiens. The British and the French lost more ground than they had gained in the last three years. By now, the British were fed up with the war. Their soldiers were being forced into the trenches by military police with drawn revolvers.
After the Australians liberated Villers Brettoneux in April 1918, Monash planned another surprise attack with the objective of at least capturing the town of Harbonnieres, 15 kilometres away. Never before, or since, has Australia had over 30,000 troops involved in the same action. This battle pushed the enemy back over 15 kilometres. It was so successful that some 70,000 enemy were taken prisoner, wounded or killed. Some enemy officers were even captured while eating breakfast in their mess, so much was this surprise attack successful.
The Australians advanced to the East along a line to the north of the railway line. The Canadians advanced to the south of the railway. I have read the war diaries of the 57th Battalion and it seems that they didn’t come under heavy fire until they reached the village of Bayonvillers, almost to their objective at Harbonnieres. I have no idea of the exact location, but I assume that my grandfather received a gunshot wound somewhere near there. We drove to a spot on a local road near there and stopped to eat our baguettes for lunch. I was hoping for a long view across the flat landscape but the fog was so thick that we could only see a hundred yards or so. I took a photo along the road thinking that perhaps it was somewhere near here that Walter was injured. He was sent back to a hospital in England, recovered but later caught influenza which was rampant at the time. He returned to Australia in mid 1919.
The fields by the road had been recently ploughed and the spoil looked like a sticky mess. It’s nth hard to understand how life in the trenches dug in this area were so wet and muddy.
I found this description of the Australians in. WW1, written by John Buchan – British war historian who later became Governor General of Canada. He wrote it as the Australian planned to enter their final battle of the war in October 1918 when they successfully captured Mont Saint Quentin
“No man who once saw the Australians in action could ever forget them. In the famous landing at Gallipoli, in a dozen desperate fights in that peninsula, in the fight for Pozières during the First Battle of the Somme, at the Third Battle of Ypres, and in the action at Villers-Bretonneux just before the final advance, they had shown themselves incomparable in their fury of assault and in reckless personal valour. They had more than gallantry; they had a perfect discipline and a perfect coolness. As types of physical perfection they have probably not been matched since the time of the ancient Greeks—these long, lean men, with their slow, quiet voices, and often the shadows of great fatigue around the deep-set, far-sighted eyes”.
We finished the planned part of our day with a drive north to the village of Bullecourt. This was the scene of two Australian engagements in 1917 when this attacked the German Hindenburg Line. There is the famous ‘Digger’ statue in the town as another memorial to the Australians.
This route took us through the central area of the Western Front, through towns like Poziers and Bapaume. We made a quick stop to see the British memorial at Thiepval but couldn’t find it in the fog. We were almost underneath it before we saw the vague shape of its enormous arch looming up ahead of us.
When we finally arrived back in Amiens around sunset (4.50 pm), driving past the local prison. I actually have another family connection with this location as my second cousin, Robert Wilson Iredale was second in charge of a WW2 bombing raid on this prison in February 1942. It was a mission named Operation Jericho in which joint British and Australian squadrons of Mosquito bombers flew to breach the walls of the prison in an attempt to release some prisoners of war and French patriots who were about to be executed. The leader of the mission and his navigator were killed and are now buried in a military prison near the jail. My second cousin returned successfully to his base in England.
There is a Youtube video of this bombing raid art this link: https://youtu.be/_GI2AxVJbLg
We finished the day with dinner in a little Bistro along the Somme River and returned to the hotel to pack up for our departure tomorrow by train to London.