Our current residence near Le Mans is only about 350km from Villers-Bretonneaux in the Somme. Villers-Bretonneaux was obliterated by the Germans in WW1 and captured by Australian troops a few days later with a loss of over 1200 Australian lives. It was a significant battle in that it was the first battle between tanks. Coincidentally the battle of Villers-Bretonneaux also occurred on April 25th – ANZAC Day.
The Australian government holds an official ANZAC Day commemoration at the Australian National Memorial just out of Villers-Bretonneaux each year. So seeing I was so close I decided I should do what all Australians should do in their lifetime and that is, to pay our respects at an ANZAC service on the soil where so many Australians gave their life for their country.
So at 4:00am on a bleak and cold ANZAC morning, I was heading out on a coach towards the Australian National Memorial. There were about another 5000 aussies doing the same. We have gone months without meeting any Australians, but here, they were in their thousands. It was cold and windy, but the rain was being kept at bay. The Australian National Memorial, sits on top of a small hill overlooking a vast open space. We could see it for miles, all lit up and looking absolutely radiant and omnipresent over the landscape.
I decided that after the service at Villers-Bretonneaux, I would drive around the battlefields of the Somme and discover Australia’s contribution to the region. The area has many monuments dedicated to French and Commonwealth forces, but the majority seem to be dedicated to the Australian Imperial Force. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough for other nationalities, but you cannot escape the Australian presence, even when your not looking for it.
After spending the last 4 months further south, one thing I noticed, and it was quite stark, was the almost complete absence of old (really old) buildings. Almost every building in every village was constructed of brick and had a 20th century style. There were no 400-1000 year old quaint stone cottages, like other parts of France. Entire villages were wiped off the face of the Earth in WW1 (and WW2). They were not the French villages we had become accustomed to. The Somme was about as far south as the Germans advanced in WW1.
The Battle of Le Hamel Was another significant battle involving Australian services. Over 1000 Australians were killed in this battle. Other nationalities were involved, mainly American forces, but they were under the command of Australian forces, the first time ever and it was also America’s first offensive action in WW1. The memorial at Le Hamel is dedicated to the Australian troops and other nationalities.
The Battle of Pozieres accounted for over 5000 Australian lives, more than were lost at Gallipoli. The Australian First Division Memorial commemorates their sacrifice.
The Battle of Bullecourt is entrenched in ANZAC history. Despite initially forcing the Germans to retreat, the Australian services suffered heavy losses and eventually had to retreat themselves. Later, allied and Australian forces recaptured Bullecourt.
Fromelles is much further north then the Somme, but battles were fought here to prevent supplies getting to the Germans on the front line further south in the Somme. The Battle of Fromelles was a disastrous battle, with little to gain. The Australian line and the German lines were only a a couple of hundred of metres apart, but in that area, over 5500 Australians were killed in one night. More than the total number of Australians killed in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War.
As thousands lay dying in that 200 metres, the Australian diggers would race into the area, picking up the wounded and carry them back on their shoulders amid horrendous machine gun fire.
The local French people seem to embrace ANZAC Day in this region. Many of them turned out to the ceremonies I went to. Indeed, the ceremony at Bullecourt probably had a 50/50 mix based on the number of French accents around. All towns were flying Australian flags, as all towns in the Somme share a connection with the Australian Imperial Force.
It was bitterly cold this morning, it was windy and the rain was continuous. I walked past a recently ploughed paddock which was just thick, heavy, sticky mud. I started to think what it would have been like here in 1916-18, in the middle of winter when the temperature was another 20OC colder, mud churned by thousands of feet, horses, carts and tanks. Relentless rain. Darkness. No mod cons, just you and your soggy wet clothes and biscuits. It would have been hell. Then I thought, on top of all this, someone was trying to kill them and many they did. It would have been worse than hell.
Lest we forget.