The Somme, a must for visiting Australians
’I realise, dear Australian friends, the special resonance contained for you in the words The Somme. The sacrifice of your fathers and grandfathers who came to do combat here has forged indestructible links between our two communities.
We are delighted to welcome, year after year, the many Australian students, historians and tourists who choose to visit the Somme during their trip to Europe’.
Senator of the Somme
You’re coming to France, and you’ll be visiting Paris. When you’ve "done" Paris, don’t make the mistake many of France’s Australian visitors make each year. They plan on visiting all sorts of places in France and beyond, and fail to realise next door to Paris is an area drenched in Australian history which they regret hearing about after they get home. I’m talking about the Somme.
The ANZACs : their name liveth forevermore
The logical place to begin your tour of the battlefields and monuments of World War I in the Somme is the city of Péronne and its remarkable museum, the Historical. On the other hand, you may be impatient to see Villers-Bretonneux first. Close to Amiens and on the way to Péronne, Villers-Bretonneux recalls in spectacular fashion the specifically Australian role in the Battles of the Somme.
The Circuit of Remembrance, marked with signs bearing the famous poppy, will allow you to visit, beginning with the Historical, all the principal battlefields.
Before we discover "Villers-Bret", or "V-B", as the ANZACs called it (undoubtedly the only town outside Australia to adopt a kangaroo for its logo !), it might be well to set the stage for this tour of remembrance.
The Somme saw its last Australian World War I veterans in August, 1993. Many of us have family connections with those who fought and those who "dared mightily" in Flanders and the Somme, and we come to honour our relatives. Other Australians feel drawn to the poppy-fields where so many died in the most savage war in human history because they share a sense of admiration for, and gratitude to, the ANZACs who make us all proud to be Australian.
It would, however, be absurd to forget all the other nations who took part in Europe’s "most murderous civil war" (Jean-Pierre Thierry). For this reason you will want to visit the sites sacred to the British, the French, the Indians, the Canadians - and the more than thirty other nations involved, including the Germans, but also... the Chinese. We will be forgiven, nonetheless, if our primary interest is in our mates from Down Under.
If you have the good fortune to be able to come to Villers-Bretonneux on the Saturday in April closest to ANZAC Day, you’ll have an experience you’ll never forget : Australian soldiers wearing their uniforms and slouch-hats, veterans in civvies, loaded with medals, the Australian Ambassador, representatives of the French government, army bands, national anthems, the Last Post, a crowd of visitors from Australia and elsewhere, as well as the local population of this small French village which has never, will never, forget Australia.
You will go to the Australian Memorial outside the town, and immediately you’ll understand why. This is the Australian monument of World War I in France, inaugurated in 1938, twenty years after the Australian victory at Villers-Bretonneux on April 25, 1918 (by coincidence exactly three years after the landing at Gallipoli).
It was chosen because it was here that Australian courage and determination provided a stunning victory which was nothing less than a major turning-point of the First World War, "for some time regarded", according to the Australian Encyclopedia, "as the finest Australian feat of arms on the Western Front"
On March 21, 1918, the Germans launched an offensive intended to separate the French and British forces, and got as far as Villers-Bretonneux.
The Australians, were pulled out of Ypres, and given the objective of defending the village. They failed on April 24, but succeeded on the 25th, ANZAC Day !
The immense memorial with its 11,000 names of Australian MIAs and those "known to God", with "no known grave", the impeccably manicured lawns, the headstones over the 1089 graves, leave you with a mixture of emotions that will accompany you throughout your visit of the battlefields.
After the Memorial you will visit the centre of the village and discover not only a street called "Rue de Melbourne" but a school called "Victoria". This primary school, inaugurated on ANZAC Day, 1927, was built with the pennies and shillings donated by school-children in Victoria. Ever since then, every classroom and the village’s Community Hall have all displayed a sign which reads, "N’Oublions Jamais l’Australie" - "Let Us Never Forget Australia".
A plaque outside the Town Hall tells the story : "In 1916, the Australian Army entered the Western Front with a force of 180,000 men, three times the number that had served in Gallipoli in 1915. 46,000 of the 60,000 killed in the War died on the Western Front. From a population of just 4.5 million people, 313,000 volunteered to serve during the War. 65% of these became casualities"
You will visit the unique Australian War Museum above the village school, and discover its specifically Australian collection of World War I memorabilia : photos, uniforms, posters, weaponry, historical texts, as well as films and other items, many of them donated by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. One can’t help but be grateful to the French for their dedication to welcoming Australian visitors here, for helping us appreciate the history we share, and for keeping alive the memory of our heroic compatriots... "lest we forget".
Twinning of Villers-Bretonneux and Robinvale, Victoria
Lieutenant George Robin Cuttle, of the Royal Flying Corps, was one of the many Australian heroes in the Somme. In 1984, Robinvale was twinned with Villers-Bretonneux. Cuttle’s uniform was recently donated by his family to the Villers-Bretonneux museum.
From Villers-Bretonneux to Pozières and Péronne
You could drive from Villers-Bretonneux directly to Péronne, but, depending on the time available, you may prefer to take an indirect route to discover Corbie, Albert, Beaumont-Hamel, Thiepval and Pozières. That sounds like quite a program, and it is, but you’ll choose the timing that suits you. Before or after Péronne, you must see these places.
At Corbie, there is a glorious view of the Somme valley to be seen from a spot near the statue of Saint Colette. But Aussies will want to stop here for a few moments for another reason.
You may not remember the name of Captain Mannfred von Richthofen, but you do recognise the nick-name of Germany’s most famous air-ace : the Red Baron. It was here, on April 21, 1918, that he was wounded in a dog-fight with a Canadian pilot named Brown. Having decided to fly, at low altitude, back to his base at Cappy, he was mortally wounded by Australian machine-gun fire from the ground, and crashed in a nearby field. (This formerly "disputed point" has been placed "beyond all reasonable doubt", according to C.E.W. Bean, author of ANZAC to Amiens.) He was buried with full military honours by the Australians. His body was transferred in 1925 to the German cemetery in Fricourt, and later that same year to Berlin.
You’ll notice Albert before you get there. Its basilica, rebuilt between 1927-1929, can be seen from afar. When you get closer you’ll admire its crowning glory, the famous Golden Virgin, which became known as the "Hanging Virgin" after it was hit by a German shell in January 1915 ; it remained horizontal until it finally fell to the ground in March 1918.
The "Somme 1916" museum next to the basilica will give you an idea of what life was like in the trenches. You will understand trench-warfare even better when you visit Beaumont-Hamel and the magnificent commemorative park of Newfoundland, the scene of a particularly tragic massacre of virtually a whole allied battalion in forty minutes.
The Adelaide Cemetery
This cemetery in Villers-Bretonneux, built by troops from South Australia, contains an empty grave with the following inscription : "The remains of an unknown Australian soldier lay in this grave for 75 years. On November 2, 1993, they were exhumed and now rest in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra".
Thiepval, forty-five metres high and visible for miles around, is the world’s largest war-memorial, with the names of 72,085 British and South African troops missing in action or with "no known grave". Nearby, the Ulster Tower is a tribute to all the Ulstermen who died here and elsewhere during the Great War.
And then there is Pozières (with a namesake now in Queensland), scene of the famous Australian battle from July to September, 1916, the legendary bravery of the diggers who survived Gallipoli to fight here, and the two memorials facing each other (the Tank Memorial and the Windmill) which recall the loss of 23,000 men in six weeks.
In Péronne make sure you see the ramparts, but above all the Historical. War historian Jean-Pierre Thierry who helped acquire and document the museum’s extraordinary collections (and who is also President of the France-Australia Association in Villers-Bretonneux) insists that this is not a war museum, but a showcase of life before, during and after the War, as lived by the French, the British and the Germans. Sixty video consoles explain the displays with the help of archive films. You will discover artefacts like the German banjo made from a French helmet and a French mandolin made with a German gas-container, street-signs like "Dingbat Alley", and touching items like the German soldier’s pouch embroidered not with "Gott mit uns" but a mother’s "Gott mit dir" - "God be with you". You will take away an indelible impression of what life and war were like for the ANZACs and our allies through the films narrated by British veteran Harry Fellows, one of the lucky survivors.
After the Historical, you will visit a final monument, just outside Péronne on the "Avenue des Australiens". Dedicated to the memory of the 2nd Australian Division, it is remarkable for its plaques, one representing Australians attacking in the trenches, the other portraying diggers in shorts trying to drag a cannon through the mud. It is surmounted by a statue of an Australian soldier patiently and pacifically standing guard. But you should know that the first monument, erected in 1925, portrayed a soldier bayoneting a (German) eagle splayed out on the ground ! The present politically correct, monument dates from 1971.
The Great War will not be forgotten Although another would explode across the world, and once again here in the Somme, a short twenty years later, peace is now a reality a precious, fragile heritage for us to treasure and preserve.
For further tourist information click here : La Somme Tourist Board website.
Text reproduced from "The Somme - a must for visiting Australians" brochure with kind permission from the Conseil Général de la Somme.