Lest We Forget: 100 Years after the Armistice
As I write this, Armistice Day 2018 is just a couple of days away. A century ago, the first of two horrifying World Wars was drawing to a close. There have been many commemorations over the last four years, helping to make sure that the sacrifice of those who died or were injured, and and the brutality of war, are not forgotten.
This is an account of a 6-day visit that I made in April this year to the battlefields and memorials of Northern France and Belgium, accompanied by my Australian friend and photographer colleague, David A. Williams. It’s fairly long so you may want to grab a coffee!
The War to End All Wars
My family were lucky to be spared involvement in World War One, but David’s was not. His maternal grandfather Syd and great-uncle Victor served with the Australian Army on the Western Front – Syd survived, but Victor did not, and lies in a small, peaceful cemetery at Crouy, about 16 kilometres north-west of Amiens, in the Aisne département.
So while for me it was a trip to learn more about British history and understand what life on the Western Front must have been like, for David it was a personal pilgrimage to pay his respects to his great-uncle – one that he had wanted to make since he was a boy.
I collected David from Heathrow and we drove down through Kent to the Channel Tunnel, and across northern France to Amiens, which was to be our base for the first part of our trip.
Crouy Cemetery on the Somme
Our first visit quite naturally was to Crouy, to pay our respects to David’s great-uncle, Victor Wogan-Browne.
Crouy cemetery is relatively small – 739 Commonwealth soldiers from Britain, Australia and Canada, along with six French soldiers, 39 Germans, three Indians, and one unidentified casualty.
We found the location of Victor’s grave from the cemetery record book, and David laid a wreath and a framed photograph of Victor and Syd.
Like all the cemeteries we visited, Crouy is beautifully kept, maintained by local French people under the auspices of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Villers-Bretonneux and the Australian Memorial
Twenty kilometres east of Amiens is the village of Villers-Bretonneux, which was in the front line and where two big battles took place in 1918, during the German Spring Offensive. The first tank versus tank battle took place during the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux.
Now it is a peaceful village, and is the home of the Australian War Memorial, on a ridge just outside the village. Ever since the War a strong connection with Australia, and the city of Melbourne in particular, has remained. In the main street there is a pub called “Le Melbourne“, and around the corner is the village school, which was rebuilt after the First World War with the help of donations from schoolchildren from the Australian state of Victoria.
“Never Forget Australia”
Above every blackboard in the school, and on the wall above the playground, are inscribed the words “Never Forget Australia”.
When we visited the Australian Memorial preparations were under way for the ANZAC day commemoration the following week – a century to the day from when Australian forces recaptured Villers-Bretonneux from the Germans.
A superb new museum has recently been opened on the site, named for General Sir John Monash who led the Australian forces and who masterminded the counter-offensive that was the turning point that led to the eventual defeat of Germany later in 1918.
Beaumont-Hamel and the Newfoundland Memorial
The Canadians and Newfoundlanders too came to the aid of France and the “mother country” – and two impressive memorials stand to commemorate the service of their troops in Northern France. The smaller of the two is at Beaumont-Hamel, where a bronze statue of a caribou looks out across the battlefield where the Royal Newfoundland Regiment fought so bravely – 80% of the men of the Newfoundland Regiment were killed in the assault on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
(Note: Newfoundland was at this point a separate Dominion of the Crown – only becoming a province of Canada in 1949, after a closely-fought referendum. I am indebted to Louise Winhold for this information).
An extensive area of the battlefield has been preserved, with the trenches and shell-holes clearly visible. The landscape is fenced off for safety as many unexploded munitions still lie in the ground.
Our base for the first part of the trip was Amiens – a city that changed hands more than once during the War – the Somme river flows right through the centre of the town.
Nowadays thankfully it is a haven of peace, and a bustling commercial centre. Along the riverbank there are several restaurants – our favourite was Le Quai, which you can just make out in this iPhone snap!
Thiepval and Vimy Ridge
Thiepval is probably the best-known of the British First World War memorials in France. Standing on a ridge high above the valley of the Somme, just across the river from Beaumont Hamel, it includes an excellent museum and of course Sir Edwin Lutyens’ monumental memorial to the Fallen, commemorating over 72,000 British and South African soldiers who died in the Somme battles and who have no known grave.
The walls of the memorial are inscribed with row upon row of names, grouped by regiment and then listed alphabetically. It is the most extraordinary, moving and sombre monument, by virtue of both its imposing scale (45 metres high) and the sheer number of soldiers who are remembered here.
On our way north, heading for Belgium, we stopped at Vimy Ridge, site of the Canadian Memorial.
Vimy was the scene of very fierce fighting in April 1917, as the Canadians sought to dislodge the German forces from the ridge, which offers a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. Hill 145 where the monument now stands, was captured by Canadian soldiers by means of a bayonet charge against machine-gun positions. After three more days of battle, and the loss of more than three and a half thousand Canadian lives, the ridge was captured.
The monument towers over the ridge and can be seen from miles away. Ironically, its stone came from a quarry near Sarajevo in Yugoslavia, the scene of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that triggered the outbreak of the First World War.
Fromelles is a name that has a dark edge to it in Australian history – it was the scene of an attack by newly-arrived British and Australian troops in July 1916, intended as a diversionary attack to draw troops away from elsewhere on the front during the Battle of the Somme. Sadly, the preparations for the attack were rushed, the troops lacked experience in trench warfare, and the strength of the German defences were underestimated. The battle has been described as “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history” – the 5th Australian Division suffered over 5,500 casualties.
On the site today the Fromelles Australian Memorial Park has as its centrepiece a statue entitled “Cobbers”, of Sergeant Simon Fraser rescuing a wounded compatriot from No Man’s Land. a few days after the battle, Sergeant Fraser wrote these words in a letter home:
We found a fine haul of wounded and brought them in; but it was not where I heard this fellow calling, so I had another shot for it, and came across a splendid specimen of humanity trying to wriggle into a trench with a big wound in his thigh. He was about 14 stone weight, and I could not lift him on my back; but I managed to get him into an old trench, and told him to lie quiet while I got a stretcher. Then another man about 30 yards out sang out “Don’t forget me, cobber.” I went in and got four volunteers with stretchers, and we got both men in safely.
In Flanders Fields…
After three days touring the Somme region we headed north to Ghent in Belgium, which was a convenient base for exploring Flanders.
As well as visiting battlefields and memorials we also went to several museums that help explain the various stages of the conflict and the experiences of the soldiers and civilians on both sides. One of the best was the Passchendaele Memorial Museum at Zonnebeke, housed in the former Zonnebeke chateau. It includes recreations of the trenches, giving a very good impression of how claustrophobic life must have been. Only the mud and the smell was missing (thankfully), but it was not hard to imagine how unpleasant it would have been to be a soldier on the Western Front in autumn and winter.
Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery
Just a five-minute drive from Zonnebeke is Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery. This is the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world, the resting place of more than 11,900 servicemen of the British Empire.
I don’t know it was because the weather had changed and a chill wind and clouds had replaced the bright sunshine we had had throughout the earlier part of our trip, or just the sheer scale of the place, but I found visiting Tyne Cot a very moving and chilling experience. So many lost lives in one place…
The German Cemetery at Langemark-Poelkapelle
Our final visit was to the German Cemetery at Langemark-Poelkapelle, north-west of Ypres. German soldiers of course died in huge numbers, though many of the bodies were repatriated to Germany in the 1920s and 30s, whereas British policy was to create cemeteries and memorials to the fallen as near as possible to where they served and died.
All cemeteries are melancholy places, but Langemark to me seemed especially sad. It’s set in a grove of oak trees which hide the sky, and surrounded by a wall and moat. Two mass graves near the entrance holds the remains of 35,000 German soldiers. The 3,000 “student volunteers” who were killed during the First Battle of Ypres are buried in a third part of the cemetery. Around the mass graves are simple square markers bearing the names of some of the dead. In 1940 the cemetery was visited by Adolf Hitler, who served on the Ypres Front.
Lest We Forget
Trying to adequately describe the horrors of the First World War is like trying to mould dry sand in your fingers – the right words escape you, it’s hard to shape something coherent. After six days I was emotionally exhausted by the process of trying to take in and understand the enormity of what happened here a century ago.
We learn about historic events like the First World War in school, but not until you visit the actual locatiosn does it really hit home what a traumatic and terrifying experience it must have been – and how important it is that we do not forget, even as such wars recede further from living memory…
But also, what was heartening and moving for me, was seeing how these places of remembrance are so carefully tended and respected by the French and Belgians who look after them. And how they are still visited, and fresh tributes and memorials laid, by all the generations who have come after.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Laurence Binyon – 1869-1943
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