In 2014 I was pleased to be among the group of people who were contracted to organise Albany’s Commemoration of the Centenary of the departure of the WWI troop convoy.
As part of my research for the job I took the opportunity to visit the WW1 battlefields around Amiens, in the Somme Valley during a recent trip to France. It’s a trip that many people have made – not the least of which the several hundred thousand Australian troops who fought on the Western Front.
Péronne has a sister city agreement with Albany, and it is also the location of the Historial de la Grande Guerre, or Museum of the First World War. This houses a collection of more than 70 000 civil and military everyday objects from the time of the Great War as well as temporary exhibitions, documents and an encyclopaedia of illustrations.
In terms of its WWI history, Péronne was a centre of military activity and logistical support, particularly during the Battle of the Somme. It was held by the Germans until their withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917. It was occupied once again in the final German advance, in March 1918 and was finally recaptured by the 2nd Australian Division on 2 September 1918.
It was definitely a place that I wanted to visit. After catching an early train to Amiens, I looked at the connections and got the next train to Chaulnes and a bus from there to Péronne. … Only to find that Historial de la Grande Guerre was shut on Wednesdays!! I thought I had checked and that it was open 7 days, but these things happen despite the best laid plans.
The next day I had already booked myself on a ‘Cobbers Battlefield Tour’. There are more than forty WWI cemeteries scattered across the region and a number of memorials dedicated to particular countries, battalions & battles. Naturally I was most interested to see where the Australian troops had fought and given their lives.
First up was the small village of Villers-Bretonneux. The 4th and 5th Division of the First Australian Imperial Force liberated it from the Germans on Anzac Day 1918. The Australian State of Victoria paid for and built ‘the Victoria School’, a Primary School for the town which was completed in 1927 and that is still in use. Many of those involved in the fund raising and construction were family members of the 1,200 Australian soldiers lost in two day battle in Villers-Bretonneux.
We stood inside the school hall and looked through the windows at the kids in the playground and they looked back at us. Overlooking the playground is a sign that says, in English, DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA, and in each classroom over the black board the sign is repeated in French – “N’oublions jamais l’Australie“.
Above the school is the very interesting Franco-Australian Museum. On the tour with me were an Australian couple, and the man half of this couple was ex-army and knew everything about medals, army structure, uniforms and the life of soldiers. I learnt that non-commissioned officers and officers received different medals for bravery, and about the process of being ‘mentioned in despatches’. That it was the job of the officer to record what happened in battle. I learnt that soldiers up until relatively recently were paid in cash, and that this happened on a particular day of the month when all the soldiers lined up with their pay books, and that they would be paid on the battlefields in local currency. This sort of detail is very interesting to someone who organises things for a living.
Also that the soldiers in the trenches often used their portion of rum to dry out their feet, to keep foot rot at bay. Or even worse, that they had to pee into their gas masks to start a chemical reaction that would act against the gas. These gas masks were some kind of prototype and pretty quickly re-issued in a design that didn’t require ammonia (!).
After the school and museum was a sobering visit to the Australian War Memorial outside of Villers Bretonneux. This is the site for one of the most significant Anzac Day ceremonies outside Australia, after Gallipoli.
It was the first time that I’d seen a war cemetery. Rows and rows of crosses on a perfectly manicured lawn. We exchanged stories from books we’d read, about the lives of soldiers that were lost. I wondered if there was any significance to the more recent placement of poppies against names along the marble wall of remembrance.
At Pozières I was surprised to see how intact it looked, because I’d read that the whole town had been reduced to rubble during the war. We visited the First Australian Division memorial there on a brief stop. Australians had fought a bitter battle to hold Pozières against the odds, and with very heavy casualties.
Close to Pozières is the Thiepval Visitor Centre, and the Franco-British Memorial. The visuals at the Visitor Centre brought home the realities of the ebb and flow of the Hindenburg Line during the course of the war on the Western Front. In a way, it shows the senselessness of war – gaining a few km one day just to lose more the next but it also gives a birds eye view on military strategies. The Centre also provides statistics on the enormous amount of troops engaged on the battlefields and the casualties. There were more than 5 million troops over the course of the war in France and Flanders alone. On one particular day, 20,000 were injured included 5,000 killed.
Moving on to Bullencourt, we looked out across fields to a row of trees that during the war more or less marked what the Germans called the the Siegfried and the British called the Hindenburg line. We stopped to have a look at the statue of the Australian Digger amid much discussion about the heavy equipment he was required to carry. There is a sign there that states that the battle was a disaster for Australians, with thousands of casualties. The Australian’s did break through the line as they were ordered to, but were not supported by artillery so were forced back and it was ultimately pointless.
Our soliders would have been running across a fairly open field to try to break through the line. I looked at the distance, which was a few hundred metres and for (unfit) me it would be hard to run across it even if it was a soccer pitch, let alone running into gunfire & mortar!!
As memories are linked – when I heard that the invisible line called ‘The Siegfried Line’ it reminded me of a record (LP) that my Dad bought when we were kids called ‘Greatest Hits of the War Years’. It included the song ‘Hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line’, which now after looking back at the lyrics I have completely mixed up with ‘It’s a Long Long Road to Tipperary’, and apparently mixed up the Wars as well – my internet research tells me the Tipperary song was from WWII. My father was in the Nasho’s and another memory is lining up with my brother and sister and marching around the lounge room to the sound track from Barry Lyndon, and the Hohenfriedberger March.
One of the last stops was the Adelaide Cemetery to see where the unknown soldier was buried before he was moved back to the War Memorial in Canberra. At this small cemetery we saw how the deaths affected the families at home. There was a boy – perhaps only 14 when he was killed. I don’t remember his exact age. There was a mixture of religions – I saw the Christian cross on a headstone alongside it a grave with Jewish symbols. There were also the graves of brothers, and I thought of how devastated a family would be to lose not just one, but two or even more of their brothers and sons.
Now a year on, the Anzac Albany four day series of events has come and gone. Big crowds came to witness the re-enactment of the departure of the original convoy. The 25th April 2015 will mark the true centenary of World War I for Australia. I read Archie Barwick’s diary from WWI ‘In Great Spirits’ and how jaunty they were and impatient when they were harboured in Albany, waiting to head to Europe. For me, the reality of the battlefields in Gallipoli and in Europe is now much more vivid and the experiences and sacrifices of the men & women who left from Albany more moving.
Note to blog readers – I’ve linked this to my friend Phoebe’s Lou Messugo blog link up ‘All About France’. Phoebe and I have known eachother and been friends for more than twenty years, and she’s kindly teaching me how to blog, and keeping me up to date on social media. Oh, and she’s runs a fabulous gite just outside Antibe / Nice.
Barwick, Archie, ‘In Great Spirits’, Harper Collins 2013
Photos thanks to Paul & Dianne Blythman (because I forgot my camera)