An Emotional Trip to the Western Front


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Many Australians share an ancestral link to the Western Front attracting them to the region to learn first-hand the narrative behind battles fought, lives lost, returned loved ones and families that changed forever.

 

One hundred years after the end of World War 1, Angela had the privilege of journeying along the Australian Remembrance Trail with a small group of like-minded travellers in November last year, marking the Centenary of the Armistice.

 

The Australian Remembrance Trail has been created covering 12 sites along the Western Front of some of the most significant locations where Australians fought between 1916 and 1918. Whilst enjoying a coffee and croissant in a quaint Belgian or French village cafe, it is almost impossible to believe that 46,000 young Australians died in this region and about 156,000 wounded, gassed or taken prisoner; a staggering cost to a nation with a population of fewer than 5 million.

 

The pilgrimage commenced in the beautiful medieval town of Bruges and from there they made their way down to Paris, winding though the fields of Flanders and the peaceful Somme River Valley. Every turn revealed yet another stunning vista cradling thousands upon thousands of pale headstones marking the lost and fallen.

 

Not all 12 sites were visited along the trail, but these are Angela’s personal reflections of an unforgettable experience when she followed in the footsteps of the ANZACS.

 

Chocolates, canals and cobblestones in Bruges

 

We arrived in west Flanders in the picture postcard city of Bruges with its network of canals, chocolatiers, masses of medieval charm and where every corner reveals another gorgeous vista.

 

Walking along cobbled streets to the Grote Markt, flanked by gabled Flemish houses and guild halls, the cosy cafes beckoned us inside to enjoy the fireside ambience with mugs of hot chocolate and waffles, as it poured with rain outside. Afterwards we chose to wash down the chocolate with beer at De Halve Maan Brewery (The Half Moon) – another thing Belgium is famous for – and after a tour of the beer museum we settled into a delicious meal at the onsite tavern overlooking the canals.

 

 Bruges to Ypres

 

Day one of our pilgrimage began at Hill 60 and Caterpillar Crater where we were met by our battlefield guide.  Hill 60 is now a quiet pockmarked area with a large grassed-over crater and monument that commemorates the Australians who died during mining operations during 1916-17.

 

By mid-morning, we had arrived at the charming town of Ypres (Ieper in Flemish). The city was reduced to a pile of rubble during WW1 and has been successfully and faithfully restored brick by brick to its former glory, so even though most of the buildings are only 80-90 years old it still feels medieval.

 

We started our visit at the highly regarded In Flanders Fields Museum located in the renovated Cloth Halls of Ypres.  Ordinary people caught up in the war give personal testimonials making it an emotional and often confronting experience. We then followed a pathway along a wide moat through Lille Gate to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Rampart Cemetery, a peaceful place for reflection.

 

That evening, we attended the Last Post Ceremony. Every day of the year since 1928 silent crowds gather at 8pm to listen to the haunting sounds of a volunteer bugler under the imposing arches of Menin Gate that display the names of the 54,896 soldiers of the then British Empire who went missing in action. Definitely a spine-tingling moment and one I will never forget.

 

Flanders Fields

 

First on the itinerary today was a visit to the memorial sight at Polygon Wood, where battles were fought in the shattered countryside that was once a forest plantation. A Wood of Peace is now being created and descendants of the fallen soldiers have been invited to plant a tree as a sign of remembrance and hope. It was then on to Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest British and Commonwealth war cemetery in the world, where the cost of human life is evident by the rows of headstones.

 

If you want an insight into what life was like on the front line, visiting the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 does not disappoint. This is where the Australian story is told in Zonnebeke, a gallery focusing on the physical aspects of WW1, including a unique recreated Dugout and Trench Experience. 

 

We then made our way to the scene of the Battle of Messines where if you stand on the pillar at the southern end there is one of the best panoramic views on the whole Western Front where Australians and New Zealanders fought for the first time together since Gallipoli. It is also the locale for the Toronto Avenue Cemetery, the only all-Australian cemetery in Belgium.

 

From Belgium to Péronne, France

 

This morning it was an early start to Fromelles, site of the first major attack by Australian troops on the evening of 19-20 July 1916.  It is difficult to imagine that this is when a staggering 5,500 Australian casualties occurred in just 24 hours.

 

In 2009, DNA was used to identify some of the men killed who had previously been buried in a mass grave. This led to the opening of Pheasant Wood Cemetery where 250 Australian and British soldiers have been exhumed, identified and are now at rest. Located adjacent to the cemetery is one of my favourite museums, La Musée de la Bataille de Fromelles which opened in 2014 and not only tells the story of Australia’s worst day in military history, but also the recovery of the 250 soldiers and how the identification process was achieved.

 

An hour’s drive brought us to Thiepval, the Anglo-French Cemetery where a huge memorial is inscribed with the words “The Missing of the Somme”; then a little further up the road to Pozières with its obelisk memorial to the Australian First Division.

 

After finding the perfect place to stop for lunch at the tiny village of Authuille, it was only 23kms to our overnight stay in Péronne.  Before checking into our hotel we had time to visit the Historical Museum of the Great War that is housed in a large medieval fortress and regarded as one of the finest museums on the Western Front.

 

From Péronne to Amiens

 

This morning we started the day with a visit in Albert at The Somme 1916 Museum – it’s a bit old style but interesting and quirky, located inside a tunnel that dates back to the 13th century which was then turned into an air-raid shelter in 1938!

 

We then continued to the Sir John Monash Centre in Villers-Bretonneux – the focal point to our trip. The Centre has been designed to build awareness of Australia’s role on the Western Front where more than 295,000 Australians served and helped stop the German advance to Amiens in 1918.  It is an emotional and immersive experience as Australia’s Western Front experience is depicted through interactive media installations using the words of personal stories from those who fought here.

 

The Victoria School at Villers-Bretonneux’s history began after Australian soldiers (mainly from Victoria) returned home and, with assistance from the government, set up a fund to help rebuild the school on the exact spot of its destruction in 1918. Work began in 1923 and finished in 1927.  It is a living symbol of the links uniting France and Australia, more evident at the Franco-Australian Museum which gives a better understanding of the memories of war and moving testimonies of friendships between the two countries.

 

Our schedule was put to the test when the Franco-Australian Museum proprietor insisted we stay for champagne and nibbles – who could refuse? Therefore, it was a very quick visit to the Le Hamel War Memorial commemorating the Battle of Hamel before arriving in Amiens in the late afternoon to visit the UNESCO World Heritage listed Amiens Cathedral, one of the largest Gothic churches of the 13th Century.

 

 Forgotten Photographs and Graffiti

 

Today’s highlight was the The House of the Australian in Vignacourt. This is a new photographic museum that opened in 2018 located in the old Thuillier family farmhouse where a truly unique set of photographic plates of Australian soldiers were found stored in the attic of the barn, forgotten for over a century.

 

Our last visit along the trail was to the Underground City of Naours – an old chalk mine, the Tunnels of Naours were visited by soldiers during the war with many Australians leaving their mark with graffiti that have become a self-made memorial.

 

As we made our way into Paris in the fading light of a late-Autumn day, I had time to reflect on the past six days; the insightful knowledge provided by our guide was invaluable and I will leave France with a better understanding of battles fought by Australians and the legacy left.

 

Somewhere in the Somme Valley we detoured down a country lane to a small Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. One of our group members wanted to pay her respects to her Great Uncle who was buried there. After finding his headstone, we stood silently while she read aloud a letter that he had written to his mother a few weeks before he died. He was only 19 years old. It could have been my own son.

 

Lest We Forget.

 

 

The Australian Remembrance Trail can be done in a comfortable 4 days (or less if you don’t have much time) from either Paris or Brussels. We recommend enlisting the services of a local guide which will greatly enrich your visit and bring the history of the area to life. For more information and assistance in planning your itinerary to the Western Front, please call us.