Out in the Somme

In 2011 I embarked on an amazing and profoundly moving journey through the WW1 Somme Battlefields in France, a journey that will be forever etched in my memory and one which held many breathtaking moments.

The Battle of the Somme took place between 1 July 1916 and 18 November 1916, just four and a half months, but in that short time there were more than a million casualties.

I thought I knew what to expect when I began the tour but I was certainly not prepared for the emotional roller-coaster ride, which followed.

As we began our journey through the rolling green hills of the beautiful French countryside it was hard to believe that some of the bloodiest battles in history had taken place right there. That was until we saw cemetery after cemetery each filled to overflowing with white crosses or white headstones. It was heart wrenching seeing the thousands of graves and the fact that the epitaph on many of the headstones simply read ‘A soldier of the Great War – Known to God’ made it even more so.

In addition to the hundreds of cemeteries there are a large number of monuments and memorials to commemorate those who fought and died in the Battle of the Somme between 1914 and 1918.

We visited the Australian National War Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, which commemorates over 10,000 Australian soldiers killed in France who have no known grave. The Memorial is set in the green fields outside Villers-Bretonneux and is now a place of great beauty and tranquility. Ironically, the name Somme is derived from the Celtic samara, meaning ‘tranquil’.

We also visited the village of Villers-Bretonneux and what a heart-warming experience that was!

It was at Villers-Bretonneux that the Australians had one of their greatest WW1 victories. On 23 April 1918 the Germans captured Villers-Bretonneux but their victory was short lived as the Australian’s recaptured it two days later on 24 April 1918. However, it came at a huge cost to Australia as 1,200 soldiers died saving the village.

The people of Villers-Bretonneux have never forgotten the sacrifice made by the Australians and a special bond has existed between the two countries since that day. The Australian Flag still flies over Villers-Bretonneux, the main street is named Rue de Melbourne. In fact the village is full of Aussie Icons.

The school children of Villers-Bretonneux are especially thankful, as it was money raised by Victorian schoolchildren that paid for the rebuilding of the village school, which is now called Victoria School, and a plaque at the entrance to the school recalls the diggers’ sacrifice.

Twelve hundred Australian soldiers, the fathers and brothers of these children, gave their lives in the heroic recapture of this town from the invader on 24th April 1918 and are buried near this spot. May the memory of great sacrifices in a common cause keep France and Australia together forever in bonds of friendship and mutual esteem.

The words ‘N’oublions jamais l’Australie’ – ‘Do not forget Australia’ are displayed above every blackboard in the school and the same sentiments are included in a huge mural in the playground. The children all know how to sing Waltzing Matilda and also the Australian National Anthem. It is amazing to think that almost a hundred years onwards the children
of Villers-Bretonneux continue to learn about the soldiers from half way around the world who saved their village.

The Victoria School also houses ‘The Franco-Australian Museum’ which tells the story of the Australians on the Western Front and the part they played in the battle at Villers-Bretonneux. There were so many interesting items in the museum but the ones that brought a tear to my eye were the letters written by the soldiers to their loved ones at home, in many cases their final words.

The People of Villers-Bretonneux returned the favour in 2009 when they raised over $21,000 to help with the rebuilding of the Victorian schools, which were destroyed in the Black Saturday bush fires.

I have to say I was blown away by this story of such lasting gratitude.

We stopped for lunch at Albert where we saw the famous Basilica of Nôtre-Dame de Brébières with its golden statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus on top of the steeple.

In January 1915 German artillery shelled the Basilica to stop the French from using the tower for reconnaissance. The statue wasn’t destroyed but was dislodged and ended up hanging at right angles to the building. As a result the statue became the focus of several superstitions. The British and French believed that the war would end the day the statue fell.
On the other hand the Germans believed that whoever shot the statue down would lose the war so they were not about to shoot it down. This suited the allies, as they were able to use the tower to their advantage.

The statue remained in this position for over two years. During that time the French published many postcards illustrating The Leaning Virgin of Albert, which many of the soldiers sent home to their families around the world.

The British eventually destroyed the tower when the Germans occupied Albert in 1918.

The Basilica has been restored to its former glory but the statue has been replaced, as the original one was never found.

We also paid our respects at the Thiepval Memorial and what a magnificent structure. It the largest memorial on the Western Front and would need to be so, as it bears the names of over 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme and who have no known grave.

At the foot of the Thiepval Memorial there is a cemetery, which contains 300 British Commonwealth and 300 French graves. The cemetery represents the shared sacrifice of these two nations in WW1. The Cemetery’s Cross of Sacrifice bears the inscription which acknowledges the British and French contributions and states ‘That the world may remember the common sacrifice of two and a half million dead, here have been laid side by side soldiers of France and of the British Empire in eternal comradeship’.

We also visited the village of La Boselle and what a memorable event, thanks to our wonderful Tour Guide Peter.

In La Boselle the war was waged underground in a labyrinth of tunnels, known as ‘The Glory Hole’ where 28 British and 10 French miners still lie entombed 80 feet below.

These tunnels had remained untouched for almost 100 years until January 2011 when the Anglo-French La Boselle Study Group began to open and explore them.

Thanks to Peter we received an invitation to visit the site and to actually enter one of the tunnels. What an amazing experience and what a rare privilege. And yes I would have to say my most breathtaking travel moment. When I think about it I still get Goosebumps.

The BBC was doing a documentary on the area when we were there and we met Peter Barton who is an historian, writer and filmmaker. He explained a little about the project and then handed us over to his Research Associate Simon Jones who had so many interesting stories to tell.

Not far from La Boselle we visited the Lochnagar Crater, which is the largest man-made wartime crater. It was created on 1 July 1916 when the British Tunneling Company detonated over 25 tons of Ammonal in a mine fifty feet below a German stronghold called Schwaben Hohe. The explosion was said to have been heard and felt in London and it created a hole 300 feet wide and 70 feet deep hence the Lochnagar Crater.

Before I went to the Somme a friend of mine advised me to take a very large box of tissues with me and I would certainly pass on this piece of advice to anyone planning on visiting the Western Front. I have to admit I have had to reach for the tissues on occassion whilst recording my journey here and this being three years down the track.

Je ne pourrai jamais oublier mon voyage à travers la Somme – I will never forget my journey through the Somme.

R. Mulvenna.

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