Our experience of the Western Front
1.4.16 - 25.4.18 0 °C
Then came the battlefields... We are a bit long-winded with the description of these days but we can assure you those men deserve some of our time to reflect..
100 years on from the battle at Poziers and we walked in the fields of heavy clay and knew we were walking on Sacred ground.. Just in that field alone, all ploughed up ready for planting the Summer crop, 2000 + young Australian men (all full of hope for a future, all loved deeply by their mums, dads, brothers, sisters, all there because they wanted adventure).. died. Many bodies never recovered, the bones still surfacing at times through the mud. We picked up the shrapnel that tore their bodies apart, we found bits of metal from the guns they were carrying. One of the braved Aussie soldiers of World War 1, Albert Jacko VC, fought on these fields.
It was at this spot too that we met two old Frenchmen doing the same pilgrimage as we were. When our Australian guide told them we had come so far to pay our respects their eyes filled up and one said 'these men came to fight on our land for us, thank you!' We felt a deep connection that echoed over these killing fields. One of them produced a small white piece of chalk from a quarry near by and gave it to us.. A touching gift when you know the ultimate gift of lives was given by our forefathers so many years ago.
The day got bleaker and colder, a symbol of the crazy war that was waged in this small area of rolling hills called The Somme. Our guide told us the whole story as we drove from one war cemetery, one memorial to the next. We could 'see' the main points of conflict because the area in which so many died was only about 5 kms at the most!!
Some of the most deeply affecting insights not only about the battles fought in the Somme but at Gallipoli and in Flanders battlefields was the Incompetence of British Generals. They were all from the British Upper class and seemed without any common sense, humility or compassion at all. Some of the most decorated Generals were the direct cause of the loss of immense casualties, not just Australians. They had no thought for each of these men as human beings who had a family who loved them and wanted them home.
Another remarkable insight was the brilliance of one of Australia's Generals: General Sir John Monash (who was the only man knighted on the fields of battle in France during WW1). After the incompetence and bloody minded of the British Generals, Monash demonstrated real intelligence and was instrumental in winning the Battle at Le Hamel for the Allies by a change of tactics and manoeuvres. The fact that he was of German Jewish heritage made him unpopular with some but our guide, Phil, regards him as a war hero of titanic proportions!
Jen's reflection: The mud, the cold, the shitty mud. (But it was worse in Flanders Fields in The Belgium front which we were also to experience!
A piece of useless information: the great author, Tolkien (Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit) fought in the Somme but was diagnosed with trench fever in 1917 and went home to write.
Another thing: the only German tank left in existence is in the Qld Museum in Brisbane. It was dug out of the mud by Australian soldiers and it was brought home as a souvenir.. A mighty big one..
Fromelles, Ypres, Flanders Fields
If only all Australians could see what we saw in these fields.. Not to glorify war but to realise the immense loss of life for what result? Scattered over this relatively small area again are the remains of hundreds of thousands of young men, all just doing their duty for their King or Kaiser.
Our first stop today was a German cemetery where 45 000 young men lie, one of them an Alfred Daegon who could well be one of my ancestors from my grandfather's side who arrived in Australia late in the 1880s as Dagan from then Prussia.
One of the most startling things about these fields is that you can't drive far without finding another cemetery.. Then another.. Then another.. Then there are memorials everywhere as well with row upon row of names of the dead listed, then there are lists of men who were never found in each of the centres of battle Fromelles, Ypres, Passendale.. We could not take it all in.
We went to the Fromelles Pheasant Wood Cemetery (the newest Australian cemetery only established in 2009) for the 250 young men just found in one of the 8 mass graves where Germans had no where else to put all the dead Australians around them. Here we found the grave of Harry Croker born in Taree. Our dear friend, Elizabeth's father's name. Maybe a great Uncle only found after 94 years. When we get wi-fi, we'll see what Elizabeth can find out.
These blokes died in 'the worst 24 hours in Australia's history' (19/20 July 1916)... 5 533 Aussies, 1 547 Brits and 1 653 Germans died in a few hours.
In the midst of all the darkness, there were and always is, 'light'. An example of that is depicted on an iconic bronze statue. It's called 'Cobbers' and it honours just one of the courageous Aussies who looked after each other during this mad war. Sergeant Simon Fraser risked his life not once but over 40 times to go out into the no-man's land at Fromelles and carry back injured soldiers.
We were still to reach the fields of Messines where my great Uncle William Power (my birth grand mother's brother) fought with the 42nd Battalion and Passendale, where Jen's grandfather(Howard's father) distinguished himself when he stood exposed to German guns to identify where the allied gunners shells were landing and to redirect where necessary. He was presented with the Military Medal for Bravery by the Aussie General Hobbs. We looked out on those fields with great pride and great sadness.
We thought we'd seen it all but one of our last stops before the sun went down was the largest military cemetery in the world: Tyne Cot. Too many almost to count but each one recognised by a cross.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
We went onto Ypres, a walled city devastated by war, to stand with 100s of others at 8pm for the four buglers to play the Last Post at the Menen Gate.. The gate of the city through which every allied soldier marched to the rest of the battlefields.. The last Post has been played at that point every night of the year since 1917.... We will remember these days and these stories of courage, sacrifice and madness for the rest of our lives.
A couple of good movies to see about this time in particular are: Hill 60, Passendale, All Quiet on the Western Front and the series 'Lost in Flanders'.
And if you've made it this far with this blog, you deserve another serve of this reminder:
'The Life-light blazed out of darkness
And the darkness could not put it out!' John 1:5