Thursday, August 28, 2014

A day on the Somme

Today, our guide Oliver, picked us up for our personal tour of the Battlefields of the Somme region.
Our first stop was Villers-Bretonneux, which became significant for Australian troops as they halted the German offensive on March 1918.  The town was never taken by the Germans, it came very close on numerous occasions, especially before the Australians were instrumental in holding off the enemy.  The town became forever grateful and were very welcoming of Australian troops.  The halt of German troops saved Amiens from being captured (where we are staying)
After the war ended, the Victorian Government and the children of the schools of Victoria, helped in the rebuilding of the destroyed town by contributing to the building of the Victoria School in 1927.
The materials, including wooden flooring, carvings, etc were shipped from Australia.  
The first floor of the school has been the Franco-Australian museum since 1957 and displays a great collection of memorabilia and photos of Australian AIF involvement in the area.
Our next stop was the Australian National Memorial.
Typical of the memorial sites, remains are buried with an inscripted headstone with name, regiment, etc. This soldier, a Canadian VC and MC recipient.
 Others maybe remains, but are unknown, only identifiable of origin by uniform. 
Others are unknown at all.  Some will have their religion signified, as this Jewish symbol shows.
Others will have no religion (no cross) if that was the families request.

We climbed to the top of this memorial to take in the view of the Somme.  Whilst overcast, it was still a nice view from this high point.
Oliver had incredible knowledge of each battle that was fought, how successful each campaign was, all the significant dates, where each trench line was etc.  He had a tablet on display in his car showing trench lines, photos of before and after of many significant areas, places where we stopped, he had a photo to show what it was like from that exact spot to show the incredible destruction. An amazing presentation of facts.
Many of the towns around the Somme were completely destroyed in the First WW. Towns like Amiens, were largely untouched, but took severe hits in WW2.  The Australian National memorial was one of those.
A visit to The Lochnager Crater was next.
60,000 tonnes on explosives were used to blow up this trench line with devastating effects.
Soldiers 250m away who were leaning against their trench wall, suffered broken arms as the force of the explosion was so great.
A lunch stop at Pozieres, which marks the first offensive action of Australian troops on the Western Front (July 1916).  Remains of a German bunker.
Our lunch stop also had a museum dedicated to Australian soldiers.  The owner had collected all his collection from the surrounding area.  
An amazing amount of "stuff" is found every year.  A  collection is made routinely to relieve farmers of weapons, shells, etc.  At our stop at Windmill Farm, which is the highest point in the Somme, (and also the first area where tanks were used), Oliver wandered out into the paddock and picked up lead from a shell.  As the farmers plough, more is brought up.
And here is his find.
If we clean it up and disinfect it, we might get it through customs.
On to the Franco-British Memorial at , Thiepval. This memorial commemorates 72,205 British and South African troops who died at the Somme between July 1915 - March 1918.  As part of the War Graves Commission, a deceased soldier can only be be commemorated once.  If his name is on the commerative wall somewhere, it indicates the whereabouts of his body is unknown.  He may well be buried somewhere as an unknown soldier.  If his remains are identified through DNA (or similar) his name is removed from the wall.  As shown below.
Some soldiers enlisted as someone else or mothers maiden name for reasons of age, criminal record, or name sounded German etc.  This is recognised on their tombstone or name plaque.  Eg. Keezer sounded too much like Kaiser.

Our last stop was to the NewFoundland Memorial where an Trench network has been preserved in its original state.  Unlike the trenches in Ypres/Flanders, these did not need sandbagging as the soil was of a very different nature.  Whilst erosion and time has shallowed the trenches, you still get a great idea of how they operated and how far it was to the German line.  In some places, no mans land was not very wide.  The photo don't do it justice, but you can see the mounds of the trenches.
It looks so peaceful now.

It was a fabulous day with Oliver.  His commentary and guidance gaves us a wonderful insight into what life was like during that terrible 4 years and the terrible toll it took, on the living as well as those who died.
Oliver's companion on tour.
I am finishing this as we are about to arrive in London, having crossed the Channel via train.  Bye.

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