What better way to kick off my blog than to talk about my recent visit to the Somme. Last time I went there I had the luxury of five days spent on the battlefields, walking the ground the troops attacked over and getting a real sense of the area and the landscape.
Unfortunately on this occasion I could not justify spending so much time away from work, and had been looking for a shorter trip. This I found in a day trip offered by Battlefront Explorations, led by Steve Garnett, a former history teacher with a lifelong interest in the First World War.
The trip is titled ‘Australia on the Western Front, 1916-1918’. My knowledge of the Australians during WW1 is very limited, so I thought it would be a good trip to expand my knowledge as well as an opportunity to return to some of the more well-known sites in the area.
After an early start and a quick trip on the Eurotunnel, we arrived in France to clear blue skies. Our first stop was actually north of the Somme, at Fromelles. Here the Australians and British attacked on 19th July 1916, in what was supposed to be a diversion to prevent the Germans sending reinforcements south. The attack took place in broad daylight, and Steve showed us the position of the ‘Sugar Loaf’, a German salient which commanded excellent views across the open ground. The attack failed, and cost the Diggers dear with over 5,500 casualties. The day has been described as “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history”.
Also in the area we visited Le Trou Aid Post cemetery, a picturesque cemetery surrounded by a moat and maintained to the CWGC’s normal high standards, V.C. Corner Australian cemetery and memorial, and The Cobbers memorial. A short drive into the village of Fromelles itself saw us at the newest CWGC cemetery, Fromelles (Pheasant Wood), where the remains of Australian and British soldiers recovered in 2009 are now buried.
We then headed down to the Somme itself, arriving in time for a hearty lunch at the ‘Ocean Villas’ tearooms, included in the cost of the trip. Fuelled for the afternoon, our first stop was Serre Road cemetery No.2, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the area. From there we proceeded to Newfoundland Park; Canadian in focus rather than Australian but a worthwhile stop due to its preserved trench system.
Thiepval memorial to the missing is a must-see on any trip to the Somme, and our visit there gave me the chance to pay my respects to the 39 men from Carshalton who are commemorated on its panels. The sheer size of the memorial never ceases to amaze me, the 72,000 names it displays testament to the devastating effect of the war.
From Thiepval we drove to Pozieres, another site of significance for the Australians. They attacked the village on 23rd July 1916 and although successful, suffered heavily from a German artillery bombardment on the 24th. Further assaults by the Australians throughout the rest of July, August, and into early September saw them reach the German position at Mouquet Farm. During this period they incurred 23,000 casualties. Standing today on the site of the German ‘windmill’ strongpoint, looking towards Mouquet Farm, it is hard to believe that it took the troops six weeks of bitter fighting to capture the ground that we had driven in just five minutes. The Australians in our party seemed genuinely shocked to learn about the casualty rates and slow progress, having little knowledge previously of their country’s key role in this campaign.
We saw the graves of some of these men at Pozieres British Military Cemetery, including that of Major D. Chapman of the 45th Battalion, Australian Infantry; the first man ashore at Gallipoli, he survived that campaign only to lose his life during the fighting in August 1916.
Our final visit in the area was to Lochnagar crater, created when the British blew a mine filled with 24 tons of ammonal on 1st July. Evident in the area is the work of the La Boiselle Project, a team of military historians currently excavating the tunnel systems in the area.
A 25 minute drive saw us reach our final stop of the day – the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Brettoneux. This impressive monument shows the names of over 10,000 Australian missing. We were lucky that we were able to get up to the top of the tower, which commands excellent views towards Amiens, which the Australians helped to defend during the German Spring offensive in 1918.
We arrived back in London at 11pm; a long day but very worthwhile. Although we encountered hardly any other visitors at the sites we visited, evidence of the recent ANZAC Day commemorations was apparent. I learned a great deal from Steve and can highly recommend his trips. His knowledge and passion for the subject shone through, and he expertly dealt with the many diverse questions thrown at him. Future trips are scheduled for the first Saturday of every month and at £80 per person, including lunch and an informative booklet covering the sites visited, offer excellent value. Further information can be found at www.battlefrontexploration.co.uk