Tuesday, June 16, 2009

France and Belgium

The Cloth Hall Ieper/Ypres

View from the tower at Villers-Brettoneux

Australian National Memorial Villers-Bretonneux

Le Hamel memorial with old trenches

Field of poppies Flanders

Amiens Cathedral

Our final week of the trip was spent in the area of the Western Front of France and Belgium. This is where so many futile massacres took place during WW1, and where the breaking of the German offensive of 1918 allowed the advances by the allies that led to the armistice 90 years ago on November 11 that same year.

Driving through this area there are so very many beautifully maintained cemeteries mostly established where the men fought and died. It is so emotionally charged, wandering through the headstones seeing the average age of these men in their early 20's and so many with just a headstone stating "An Unknown Soldier" or " An Australian Soldier of the Great War"

On Tuesday we went into Amiens and saw the huge cathederal in the centre of town containing many dedications to the soldiers who fought in the area. We then visited the town of Villers Bretonneux where not only is there a reference to Australia on every street corner but it also has a dedicated Australian National Memorial where there are names of 11,000 Australians who have no grave. On the outskirts of the town is the Adelaide cemetery where the Unknown Soldier's remains were exhumed in 1993 and taken to the War Memorial in Canberra, as a lasting memorial to all unknown soldiers in all wars. We also visited the French Australian museum in the town.

We camped overnight at the village of Le Hamel on the Somme River and saw the new Australian memorial that has recently been established that depicts Monash's very clever assault and recapture of the ridge line. The memorial is on a hill behind the village in amongst the local farm fields and obviously a very stategic position during such a battle. This was also the first battle in which a small number (1,000) of newly arrived American troops were put in with the battle-hardened Australians to gain experience. Several small items such as buttons and bullets were found in the remains of the trenches still scarring the wheat field beside the memorial.

An interesting feature of this memorial is it is from near this spot that Sgt Popkin and another Australian gunner shot down Manfred von Richtoffen (the Red Baron) with their machine guns (despite the unfounded but propaganda driven official story that Canadian pilot Capt Brown was responsible).

On the following and our final day with the group Lang and I visited Arras. Just north of the town is the stunning Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, very stark but unbelievably impressive. The Canadians lost 10,000 men on one day taking this point and the names of 60,000 Canadians lost are recorded (about the same number of wartime losses as the Australians). From there we went across the Belgium border and attended the playing of The Last Post which is performed every night at 8pm at the Menin Gate at the entrance of Ieper/Ypres through which marched thousands of men to the slaughter of the salient. The spectacular stone city gate has the names of 54,000 men, mainly from the British Empire, who died in the immediate area but have no known grave.

Those of us who still had the energy left, attended a last get together with a strange but tasty menu, the pooled remains of our food – and wine - supplies. Even though it had been raining heavily and quite cold during the day, the camp site had a large weatherproof tent. We even managed to have a funny hat competition.

For us this is the wrap-up of a very successful trip. The majority of the group headed to Antwerp to pack their vehicles into containers for the trip back home. The coordination of the containers is not as critical for the trip back, so it was not essential that they all got away together. The Studebaker was sold in Europe and others in the the group are continuing to travel for a longer period. At the last minute we have some interest expressed in the Chev have chosen to wait a few days to see if anything develops.

We have had the dynamics of approx 30 people (numbers have varied between 28 and 33) travelling in 15 vehicles (1 motorbike, 5 jeeps, 3 large trucks and 6 medium size vehicles). Each day I posted the next night's campsite and it was free travel for the day. Some of the team formed themselves into smaller groups of two or three and stayed together during the day, while others were happy to be independent and use the day to do and see what was of particular interest to themselves.

Having been over much of the route before made things easier for us in planning, if not in execution. A mob of fifteen 70-year-old vehicles made it unwise to rigidly plan every nightly stop and we also wanted to retain the flexibility to stop at places of interest or by popular request. Things went very smoothly most of the time but we spent at least an hour each day and several hours on a number of days, trying to secure a suitable stop for the night, reorganise ferry bookings etc. Every camp site we went to was well above the average Australian caravan park standard.

The participants, as planned, knew little of the day to day administration required for the trip and many continue to assume that it all "just happened". Our $1,000 telephone bill is a reminder to us of the constant work required on trips like these.

Because of the the common interest in military vehicles the tour was designed around quite a few of the significant battle fields in Europe of both WW1 and WW2. In between though, there was plenty of opportunity to go sightseeing, and we stayed over in quite a few large, diverse and very colourful cities, such as Istanbul, Athens, Turin, and Paris.

Even though the battlefields have been maintained as memorials to many incredibly bloody and futile experiences I believe they serve as important reminders to future generations, so that these brave men, regardless of nationality, and what they endured will never be forgotten.