One of the main reasons Stu and I went to Northern France was to visit Western Front battlefields. We’re both history tragics and Stu works at the War Memorial here in Canberra so it seemed like an obvious choice of thing to do while in Europe.
(By the way, this is part 5 of my series of Europe Photo Diaries. You can catch up on the previous posts here)
I was surprised by how impacted I was at visiting these sites and seeing the sheer loss of life that happened during the First World War (and we mainly concentrated on locations where Australians are buried). I honestly didn’t think it would be as powerful as it was. I would highly recommend any Australian (or anyone really) visit some of these places and feel a connection to this part of the worlds history that just isn’t able to be replicated in any other way.
We visited about 25 First World War cemeteries, battlefields, memorials, monuments and/or museums. It was a very full few days! We spent majority of our three days in Amiens and two days in Ieper (Ypres) driving to various battlefields. This included visiting my great uncle Percy’s grave just outside Ieper, which you can read about here.
The battlefield cemeteries and memorials we visited included: Pozieres, Mouquet Farm, Thiepval, Villers-Bretonneux, Dernancourt, Ulster Tower, Connaught Cemetery, Beaumont-Hamel, Bullecourt, Fromelles, Vimy Ridge, Hooge Crater, Voormezeele, Hill 60, Polygon Wood, Buttes New British Cemetery, Poelcappelle, Tyne Cot and Langemarck. We also visited Menin Gate and some Normandy battlefields (including Omaha Beach) but I’ll write about those in the Ieper and Normandy posts respectively.
I’ll share photos of most of these places but I’ll only have a written description for some of these places, focussing on the ones that impacted me the most, otherwise this post would just be way too long. If you are interested in visiting battlefields and want to know something about one of those places that I haven’t covered below, please let me know!
I was really fortunate that I had Stu to take me around all the battlefields and tell me a bit about them as we were there. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have known about half these places and their significance. If you don’t have your own War Memorial employee/military history buff to travel with you and explain things, I’d strongly suggest getting a guidebook! Anzacs on the Western Front is a good one.
When we first got to the Amiens area Stu took me to Pozieres. It was seeing the battle at Pozieres that inspired war correspondent and historian Charles Bean to establish the War Memorial. The windmill site is technically Australian land, it was purchased on the recommendation of Charles Bean who said this place was more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.
Thiepval is a British and French cemetery and memorial. It’s really unusual to have a Commonwealth cemetery and a French cemetery in the same location. The Commonwealth graves (all managed by Commonwealth War Graves) have the classic headstone as a grave marker. The French graves all have crosses.
Pozieres British Cemetery was the first Commonwealth War Graves cemetery we went to with Australian graves. I was actually really devastated walking around this cemetery, I was so sad about this loss of life and the amount of graves I saw where the person buried there was never identified. There are so many ‘unknown soldiers’ or ‘unknown Australian soldiers’, it’s actually really impacting to see the sheer volume of graves.
I was really upset by seeing these graves where more than one unknown soldier was located. I also wandered these rows of graves reading epitaphs of those soldiers who had been identified. Some of them were the more standard epitaphs, but some were beautiful and personal messages from the families of the soldier and I really loved reading them. Although some were quite upsetting, especially those from mothers who had lost their only child. (The one on the far right was a Victoria Cross recipient – the only one we saw).
And then I saw this grave. Thirteen unknown soldiers buried in this space. This is the most we saw with one grave marker. We did see a lot of grave markers for multiple unknown soldiers but thirteen on one grave marker was definitely the largest number. I was so upset that these men were never identified but also that there were thirteen of them in this one grave. I can’t explain the feelings as well as I would like but it impacted me in a way I never thought was possible from visiting the graves of strangers, removed from me by a distance of almost 100 years.
I think the knowledge that these people died in service of protecting Australia and the Commonwealth and by extension contributed to the place that Australia has become just became more crystallised for me at these graves.
Villers-Bretonneux is the ‘Australian’ town on the Western Front, as you can see! Australian soldiers recaptured Villers-Bretonneux from German forces on 24-25 April 1918 and were seen as the ‘liberators’ of the town. This school was built with funds from school children in Victoria, Australia. There is a Franco-Australian museum in the school with artefacts donated from people, and the words ‘Do not forget Australia’ loom large over the playground as well the blackboards in the classrooms.
Side note – I had the best eclair I have had in my entire life in a little patisserie in Villers-Bretonneux! It was seriously amazing, Stu and I dream about that eclair!!
If you ever go to Villers-Bretonneux go to the patisserie down the road from the Town Hall and try one.
Adelaide Cemetery is located just outside Villers-Bretonneux and is the cemetery where the ‘Unknown Australian Soldier’ at the War Memorial is from. The grave marker was replaced with what you can see above.
The first three grave markers in the above have eight, six, and ten unknown soldiers indicated on them. Three grave markers and about four metres for 24 soldiers.
Vimy Ridge is a Canadian site where the original trench lines were maintained (and then reinforced with concrete as you can see above) and a tunnel under the trenches was built and is still accessible. It is also the site of this monolithic memorial that was so blindingly white it was hard to look at! Vimy Ridge has been described as Canada’s Gallipoli if that helps put it into context.
‘Cobbers’ and VC Corner in Fromelles
We visited Voormezeele Enclosure No. 3 while we were in Ieper specifically to visit my great great uncle Percy’s grave, you can read more about my experience here.
Hill 60 was really interesting to see because it was fought over in the First World War and then again in the Second World War so the monument that was erected after the First World War to mark the spot of this battle has bullet holes in it from the Second World War.
Hooge Crater was a really interesting cemetery. Stu and I had both never heard of it but we had bought a small guide to battlefields in Ieper to see what else was around and it was mentioned in there. The stone of remembrance is located in a large circle of grass which symbolises the crater. The cemetery itself was one of the larger ones we saw, which made it all the more surprising that we had never heard of it.
The grave markers above in the first photo above are for four, five, four, five and four unknown soldiers respectively. That was truly heartbreaking in itself but the fact that we then saw the next one down which says ‘To the memory of several soldiers of the Great War buried in this grave’ was really sad. This one I think made me even more sad than the ones that had ten soldiers buried in one area as they couldn’t even identify how many soldiers were in this grave. Truly upsetting.
These five grave markers are for the Zonnebeke Five, if you want to find out more about them (or you’ve never heard of them) click here to find out more.
Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth Cemetery on the Western Front. It is overwhelmingly big. So big that was impossible for me to get a photo of the whole thing. This was also where we saw more people than any other cemetery we had been to. Generally the cemeteries were empty or had a handful of visitors, but Tyne Cot was full of people.
We visited Poelcapelle after Tyne Cot as the youngest Commonwealth soldier who died during the war is buried here. He was 14 years and 8 months old when he was killed fighting. This cemetery was one of the more weathered and least obviously maintained of the cemeteries we visited. Some of the headstones were so weathered that they were barely able to be read. It must take a lot of time and money to maintain all these cemeteries, not just the headstones themselves but the lawns and gardens all need to be maintained.
The last cemetery we visited was Langemarck, a German cemetery. It was such a different feel to the Commonwealth Cemeteries, very earthy and nature based. It was hard to figure out what everything said here as we don’t read German but it is a very different setup to the Commonwealth sites as there is one large mass grave in the middle with large stones marking the border of the mass grave with all the names engraved on there. There were also plaques scattered throughout the cemetery but we weren’t sure what they were marking.
That is my (very long) wrap up of our time visiting the battlefields. I hope I haven’t exhausted you too much in reading all this!
If you want to know anything that I haven’t covered here or you’re interested in visiting the battlefields let me know (I’ll be covering Menin Gate in my post coming up on Ieper and Omaha Beach in my Normandy post).
I’ve broken my Europe trip up into easy to manage pieces, otherwise I’ll be drowning you in hundreds of images at once! So you know what’s coming, I’ve prepared a list of the 24 parts of this series:
Part 1: London
Part 2: Cambridge
Part 3: Paris
Part 4: Amiens
Part 5: Battlefields
Part 6: Ieper (Ypres)
Part 7: Amsterdam
Part 8: Berlin
Part 9: Prague
Part 10: Cesky Krumlov
Part 11: Vienna
Part 12: Salzburg
Part 13: Venice
Part 14: Pesaro
Part 15: Amalfi Coast
Part 16: Pompeii
Part 17: Rome
Part 18: Florence
Part 19: Tuscany
Part 20: La Spezia
Part 21: Lyon
Part 22: Loire Valley
Part 23: Normandy
Part 24: Mont St Michel
Let me know if there is anything in particular you want to know about any of these places and I’ll try to include it in my post!