Battle of the Somme Experience
2018 marks 100 years that World War 1 finished so we took it upon ourselves to visit the sights around the Battle of the Somme on Western Front Line to pay our respects and have a greater knowledge of what happened and what it was like for the soliders as the official 100 years memorials begin.
For those of you who do not know the whole history, the Battle of the Somme was 4 years of horrific fighting between the French, British, Australian, Canadians, Newfoundlanders and South Africans against the German Army. The Battle on the Western Front were some of the bloodiest in history with generations of men being wiped out. For most of the War there was a deadlock as this war was fought from trenches. Each side tried new military techniques such as poisonous gas, the use of tunnelling to plant mines, aircraft and tanks. This is why is was called The Great War as this was the worse they had ever seen and was promised to be the last war.
Many stupid mistakes where made by the Generals who where 1000s of Kilometres behind the trenches causing the pointless death of so many. It is best described in the TV Comedy Show Blackadder Goes Forth where Captain Blackadder says "Clearly, Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another garagantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin"
This blog will focus on many of the Battles that were fought on the Western Front, not just the "Battle of the Somme" which was fought from July to November 1916. I will touch on the history of each sight we visit in the blog. Another note to mention being Australian there will be many Australian Memorial Sites that we visited as World War 1 sadly was how Australia developed its own Nation Pride away from the Empire cutting many ties that bound Australia into following the Motherland blindly into War.
We started our trip driving from Paris up to the Somme American Cemetery.
Somme American Cemetery
The Somme American Cemetery is now the resting place for almost 2000 men. The American Army entered World War 1 on the 6th April 1917, arriving on the Western Front in 1918. The divisions were placed under British or French Command fighting as part as the Allies. These gentleman have been laid to rest near the village of Bony as the fiercest battle they were involved in took place nearby. This is a extremely powerful place to visit as your first War Memorial, you are able to see the unity of these men through the Headstones from Latin Crosses to Stars of David. It is a beautiful place with trees from American, Roses and Tranquilty, this made be a bizarre thing to say but once you visit you will understand the effort put to make this a place to rest and a statement that there shouldn't be a War Memorial like that again after so much lost.
Somme American Cemetery: Rue de Macquincourt, 02420, Bony.
Mont Saint Quentin Memorial
Mont Saint Quentin Memorial is near the village of Peronne. Peronne played jump rope with the German and French Armies throughout the whole war. The German Army when heard of the British troops heading towards Peronne adopted a scorded earth policy; destroying buildings, cutting trees and poisoning wells. In 1918 Australian Troops marched into the town liberating the villagers in September 1918.
When the Memorial was build in 1925 it was an Australia Soldier thrusting a bayonet through a German Eagle, it was later destroyed in 1940 by the German Army. In 1971 a new Memorial was erected of the Australian Digger, it is a lovely tribute.
Mont Saint Quentin Memorial: 123 Avenue des Australiens, 80200, Peronne.
Nearby in Peronne is the Museum of the Great War that is meant to be an excellent visit explaning the War. Sadly we run out of time but I would visit again as soon as possible as it is one of the top museums about the war.
Australian Corps Memorial Le Hamel
The Australian Corps Memorial at Le Hamel is an important place in the history of Modern Warfare where everything changed. Sir John Monash came up with a plan to change the tides of the War, it was the first time that Artillery, Infantry, Tanks and Aircraft where united to take back Le Hamel, Sir John Monash used all the previous battles that were fought to create this tactic. On 4th July 1918 Australian and American troops had a tactical battle that lasted 90 minutes. This Memorial is in a field of wheat overlooking the village of Le Hamel, with flags of the Allied Forces together above a Rising Sun which is the badge worn by the Australian Imperial Forces. There detailed boards about the lead up and the battle at Le Hamel along with trenches left over from the War, which was our first experience of trenches on this trip.
Australian Corps Memorial Le Hamel: 4 Chemin de Sailly Laurette, 80340, Le Hamel.
Australian Corps Memorial Le Hamel: 4 Chemin de Sailly Laurette, 80340, Le Hamel.
Australian National Memorial Villers-Bretonneuz
The Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneuz is one of the most important sights for Australian Diggers (Soldiers). During the war 46,000 of the 313,000 Soldiers who volunteered meet their deaths on the Western Front. Many of the Soldiers are buried on this site amongst many red roses, the 10,982 men that have never been found have there names engraved at the base of the War Memorial Tower that over looks the surrounding landscape. My Grandmother's Uncles name is engraved on the wall, I hope that Corporal Gilbert Goldie Anschau is found one day.
Walk through the memorial paying homage to the Diggers who lay here to rest, climb the Tower to witness the landscape around you to understand what happened. On the site is the Sir John Monash Centre that tells the story of Australia on the Western Front, it is a new multimedia centre that opened in April 2018 that is a must see to learn what life was like during those difficult years.
Australian National Memorial Villers- Bretonneuz: Route de Villers Bretonneux, 80800, Fouilloy.
The city of Amiens was taken over by every single force from Germans to French to British during the War. It was a place for soldiers to have leisure when on leave, factories making equipment for the war effort, a place for refugees and multiple bombings. Lucky enough for the Cathedral reminded undamaged as the town's people saw what had happened at Reims Cathedral, they took steps to protected the Cathedral ensuring it to last another millennium.
It is a wonderful experience to walk around Amiens to have a feel of a old city that has changed much in 100s of years. A highlight to see is the Notre Dame Cathedral, it is huge making Notre Dame in Paris look like a baby. It is wonderful to see how lucky this Cathedral was and how much remains.
Notre Dame Cathedral Amiens: 30 Place Notre Dame, 80000, Ameins.
Lochnager Crater - Ovillers-la-Boisselle
At Ovillers la Boiselle is a sad reminder of the stupidity of the Generals who where far behind enemy lines. It was suggested to have an Infantry of Tunnellers that would be able to dig tunnels where they would lay down explosive towards the German Trenches and break into their lines which would win the war. On 1st July 1916 this crater was made at 7.30am, then the infantry left the trench to make an advance toward German Lines. The blowing up of this land was meant to be a diversion and to blow up the German Trenches but it was in the wrong place and caused a huge lost of life for the British Army.
Nowadays it is a memorial site that was purchased in 1978 to save it from being filled in. It is a place where you can only imagine the chaos and sorrow and it is important site to see what it was like during this horrific period. It is shocking to see how deep it is and you can not imagine that this land was once covered in trenches.
Lochnager Crater: Route de la Grande Mine, 80300, Ovillers-la-Boisselle.
Pozieres is important place for the Australian Diggers, it was the first place that the Australian Army arrived at on the Western Front after the horror of Gallipoli. Pozieres was key in order to capture Moquet Farm then Thiepval Ridge. The Australians captured Pozieres on the 23rd July 1918, finally being relieved by the Candians on the 5th September. The 3 Australian divisions that were based in Pozieres lost more than a third of their men. The name Pozieres is a name all Australians know after learning about history during World War 1.
To see in Poizeres are two things, on the outskirts of the town is the Poizeres British Cemetery and Memorial that have 2700 men laid to rest. As you approach the town you are greeted by a Australia Digger then just to your left is the 1st Australian Division Memorial commemorating all the battles the Australians faced on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918.
Pozieres: 1st Australian Division Memorial: 268 Route d'Albert, 80300 Pozières. Pozieres British Cemetery and Memorial: D929, 80300 Ovillers-la-Boisselle.
Thiepval is an important place for all the Soldiers that were Missing in Action during the War. Each name is engraved on the Memorial, over time if a soldier was found they would remove the name but over time that was ruining the memorial so they stopped. Over time when they find soldiers and a panel needs to be replaced they change the names. It is estimated that on average 60 soldiers are discovered a year on the Western Front.
You are able to see the Memorial from around the area due to it being on a high ridge which was an important position during the war. The worse day in Thiepval's history was on the 1st July 1916 at 7.20am 100,000 soldiers carring 30kg of supplies went over then were quickly cut down by machine fire. The British Army suffered 60,000 casualties with 40,000 that were injured or taken prisoner. The Germans only lost 1/10 of this number. It was known as "the worst day in British military history". Thiepval was captured on the 27th September 1916, then recaptured by the German Army in March 1918 then recaptured yet again by the British Army in August 1918.
The Memorial was built by the end of 1932, with 72205 men's names engraved into the Memorial from the Commonwealth who were missing in action. It is a huge memorial and shocking with the long list of names that roll down the stone work. There are memorial services held there on the 1st July and the 11th November every year. It is a powerful experience to witness from its grandness over looking the landscape. There is a really interesting Visitor Centre and Museum at the site, it talks about the History of the War, the Battle of the Somme and the importance of the site, making it a really interesting visit.
Thiepval Memorial: Rue de l'Ancre, 80300, Authuille.
Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial
Newfoundland was a small Commonwealth country that raised a small army for the war, but this small army was half of their population (in 1949 Newfoundland joined Canada). Beaumont-Hamel was located behind German Lines, at 9.16am on the 1st July 1916 the 1st Newfoundland Regiment barely left their trenches before being trapped by German machine gun fire, after 30mins only 68 men where left able to fight.
The Newfoundland Memorial is run by the Canadian Government and it is a really interesting site to visit. It has Allied and German Trenches located on the site, as you walk around the site you are able to see these trenches and walk down into them, witness No Man's Land with multiple dips where bombs landed, multiple Cemetery of fallen Soldiers and being shocked that you are blocked from some places due to unexploded bombs. On the site there is a Mount with a Bronze Moose commemorating the 820 men from Newfoundland who gave their lives during the war. You are able to get tours from volunteer students from Canada who spend 6 months living in the area as part of their degree, they are really knowledgeable and will guide you on your experience.
Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial: Rue de l'Eglise, 80300, Beaumont-Hamel.
The Somme “Circuit of Remembrance” is from Albert to Peronne, including the Musee Somme 1916 at Albert, Ovillers-la-Boisselle, Poizeres, Thiepval, Beaumont-Hamel, Longueval, Rancourt and Peronne. It is all clearly sign posted with a Poppy Icon leading you along the sights on the Western Front, it is hard to get lost in the villages with everything clearly marked.
Vimy Ridge was a battle that the Canadians undertook on the 9th-12th April 1917. It was the first battle that all 4 Canadian Divisions fought together and is known as a national achievement and sacrifice.
Today it is a large site to visit, at the bottom of the site is the Visitor Centre that goes into detail about the importance of Vimy Ridge to the War effort and to Canadian Troops. Once leaving the centre you are able to visit Tunnels and restored Trenches, the trenches are really interesting to walk around; you are able to get a real sense of what happened here, what life would have been like and not being able to walk tall out of fear of being shot. Between the 2 sets of trenches there is No Man's Land that is pocketed with multiple bomb craters from large to small. Even thought trees have grown in the last 100 years you are able to see how destroyed the landscape was during this war.
At the top of the site is the Vimy Monument, it is for a better word breath-taking. It is a large glowing memorial that looks around the plains in the area. The walls of the Memorial are carved with the 11,285 Canadians who died in France and remain missing still. It is a powerful monument with many details included to demonstrate the sacrifices that Canada and France made such as the engraving of the Marple Leaf and the Fleur-de-lys, figures for Peace and Justice and Mourners at the Bottoms of the Monument. It is a must see on the Western Front.
Across the road from the Vimy Monument is a Memorial for the Moroccans who fought showing how hard so many nations united to bring peace on the Western Front.
Vimy Ridge: Parc Memorial Canadien, Chemin des Canadiens, 62580, Vimy.
Visiting the Somme and the Western Front is an important experience to have, I believe we need to be aware of History to ensure nothing is repeated Like that again and to pay respects to the Men from both sides that lost their lives so horrifically.
It is actually quite sadly to drive around the area of Picardie which is where the Western Front is, it feels like this area has suffered dearly and you can see the villages were build when poor and hard times were happening. But as you drive around the country side you are able to see the landscape and why this was such a difficult war. There are many Memorials in Villages and along the road side. We tried to stop at everyone to bow our heads for the Soldiers that fought this war, especially for the French Soldiers that saw their lands and lives destroyed.
2 days is not enough to visit the Western Front, I suggest 3-4 days to explore and experience the Western Front being able to take your time to witness what happened 100 years ago. It is good to travel any time of the year but Mid-June is best as the Summer Holidays have not began in France and it is before the large crowds come for the Memorial Services and to see the Poppies that bloom everywhere along the Somme and understand why these flowers are the sign for peace and remembrance as a single flower struggled to bloom amongst all the mud and turmoil.
May they Rest in Peace.
For tips about road trips in France please have a long at my blog.