Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Somme – by Gary

We spent 3 days in the WWI battlefields of the Somme – figured it would be good for the kids to learn a little of the horrors of war.  I had certainly not considered that I would learn so much, nor be so moved – but I was.

The Western Front
At the outbreak of war in 1914 the German/Austrian army advanced quickly through Luxembourg, Belgium and northern France before being bogged down on its approach to Paris.  Attempting to outflank each other, the warring parties opened up a meandering front extending from the North Sea in Belgium to Switzerland. Digging-in in a complex systems of trenches, bunkers and hill-top fortifications the line remained little changed for most of the rest of the war despite a series of enormously costly offensives mounted by both sides.

The shear size of the tragedy of the Western Front is bewildering – almost four million young men dead, and for what?  The Somme region saw some of the fiercest action, and included the participation of Australian troops fresh from Gallipoli.

Our Visit
The region is littered with graveyards and memorials large and small.  We visited French, Canadian, British and Australian sites.

The French Memorial near Ablain-Saint-Nazaire on the hill of Notre-Dame de Lorette.  Here 100,000 Frenchmen lost their lives in May 1915 recapturing the hill-top.

War artifacts are so common Nina even found one.  Walking around the ruined church of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire (the ruins were left as a memorial) she found a little lead ball in a crack in the footpath.  We later identified it as a pellet from a shrapnel bomb, likely lodged in the walls of the church and only recently fallen out.

The Australian photographer Frank Hurley’s iconic image of the mud, death, desolation and despair around Passchendaele where 38,000 Australian men lost their lives in a single battle.

At Vimy Ridge, the Canadian monument site, some of these bombed out landscapes have been carefully preserved... 

... as are these stabilised trenches where the front-line is vividly presented.   Zeke is on one side while the enemy’s trenches are immediately behind the arrowed crater ridge.

3,500 Canadians lost their lives at the Battle of Vimy Ridge – the site has developed some of the same patriotic significance for Canadians as Gallipoli has for Australians.

The Australian memorial at Villers-Bretonneux commemorates the 11,000 men who died in battlefields across France but have no known grave.

We found this moving private tribute placed at the base of the memorial wall.

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