On Wednesday, we had a pre-arranged tour of the Flanders & Somme WW1 battle fields. Annette Linthout who I had found on the Internet picked us up at our hotel with the intention of following the general route of the Australian soldiers and then dropping us off at our next hotel in Paris in the evening. Its going to be impossible to detail everything that we saw so here are some of the highlights.
Our first stop was at Polygon Wood, not far from Iepers (Ypres in French) where my Grandfather was wounded by shrapnel in1917. The action here was part of the 3rd battle of Ypres. His battalion (57th) was shelled as they were forming up in nearby Glencourse Wood to advance to the front. A freeway now separates these areas. There is an Australian cemetery here and on the butte of the old rifle range (the objective in the battle ) is a memorial to the 5th Australian Division.
Later we visited Fromelles (further to the west). This was not an important battle strategically but was the first major action seen by the Australians in Flanders. All of the Australian units, including the 15th Brigade (56, 57, 58, 59 &60th Battalions) suffered heavy losses. Over 5600 Australians died on the first day of this battle. The 60th Battalion were almost wiped out and the 57th Batallion spent the next four days bringing back the wounded from no-man’s land between the trenches. Their is a beatiful statue of a 57th Battalion digger carrying a wounded man on his shoulders at the memorial on this battle field. I stood at this site with tears running down my cheeks (just as I have now as I am writing). The statue is named ‘Cobbers’. This action at Fromelles was also the last under British command. After this time the Australians fought under their own leadership). There are no individual headstones in the cemetery here – just a mass grave with the names of the dead carved on the wall of the memorial.
Annette had done a considerable amount of research for our tour. She had prepared a book for me with a lot of information about the war and a copy of my grandfather’s war history that I had sent to her. She had planned our day so that we would visit many of the places to which he had been – even if it had only been for a short time on leave or in transit.
There were two sites that we visited that he had not been. One was to a site in southern Belgium where a German bunker system had been uncovered and the trench system recreated. Beside the road was a live shell that a farmer had uncovered while plowing his field. This is still a common occurrence and shells are left by the roadside for the army to collect and dispose of. It’s extraordinary to think that the trench system in WW1 ran for over 600 kms from near the Belgian coast to the French / Swiss border. Neither side really didn’t move to any great degree over the duration of the war. While the civilian population immediately in the vicinity moved away as refugees just behind the line of trenches life went on somewhat normally. Along, and in between the two trench lines, (1 km – 90 metres in places ) it would have been pure hell. Some 4 tonnes of explosive was dropped on every square metre of land in this narrow strip in the western front over the duration of the war.
The second place, was to a little museum on the farm of the ex mayor of the village of Dernancourt in France. My Grandfather missed the action here as at the time he was temporarily posted as an instructor to a training camp at Etaples. The mayor & his wife (who are both honorary members of the Order of Australia) keep a museum of WW1 artifacts on their farm and have a profuse welcome for any Australian visitors. We had a look around and a coffee with them. Near their farm, and the result of the work of the mayor, is the cemetery (one of 2100 on the battlefields) with a statue of an Australian soldier. We noticed a number of informative plaques in many places that were made by Ross Bastion, the Australian dentist, whose similar plaques I saw along the Kokoda Track.
Our day ended with a visit to the Village of Villers Bretteneux. My Grandfather fought there. The village had been occupied by the Germans in a forward push and was liberated by the Australians on Anzac Day, 1918. The people have never forgotten that and there are signs of an obvious affinity with Australia everywhere. We visited the Victoria School which had been rebuilt with funds raised by Victorian school children. There are many carvings of our flora & fauna in the wood paneling in the school hall.
Near here , at Le Hamel is a new memorial to the Australian Corps. This was the site of a part of the battle of Amiens . It is famous for the fact that it was the first time that tanks, air force, artillery, infantry & signals combined in a successful operation. This action pushed the Germans back over 15 km in one day. My Grandfather was wounded on the first day of this battle and spent the remainder of his time in hospital in England until the war ended 7 months later.
We arrived back in Paris just before 9pm. We were a bit slow to gct going on the next morning. We have two more days here and have planned to use them to see some of the museums & churches.