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Published: August 2nd 2011
To continue our history tour of Europe, we took a tour of the WW1 battle fields of France, just outside of Paris. This was a fairly personal tour for Stephanie, with her great grandfather having fought in the battle of the Somme, and her grandfather (mum's dad) having been named after the battle of Mount St Quentin - one of the infamous battles the Australian's won against all odds.
It started with an early morning train from Paris, and unlike the American Normandy tour, we were surrounded by Australians both on the train and the tour. But it definitely made the tour that much closer for us, having everything tailored to the Australian stories of the first world war.
We started in the memorial for Villers-Bretonneux, one of the forefronts of the battle, where the Germans were pushed back and the Allies were able to maintain control of the surrounding towns and hence the control of supply routes through western Europe and France. One of the more confronting parts of the memorial ironically are the gun fire marks in the main tower caused by fighting in WW2 that we would find through all of the memorials and stories we
came across during the tour. While some restorations were made after WW2, some superficial damage was left to allow some perspective on the monument.
It was from this point on that we got a very good idea of exactly how important the Australian troops were in the battle for the Somme, and the ultimate turning point for WW1. From General Monash (we really felt ashamed not knowing where the Canberra suburb name came from... one of the important Generals in the war that helped lead the allies to victory) to the town of Villers Bretonneux re-naming its streets to Rue de Melbourne and Rue de Victoria, with Victorian school children raising money after the war to rebuild the school in Villers Bretonneux and it being renamed Victoria School. In their play ground is a huge sign saying simply "Do not forget Australia" - it was one of the many times during the tour that we were moved to tears.
From here we moved on to the sight of the battle for Mont St Quentin. All it is is a slightly raised piece of land that offered a slight visual vantage point. As described by wikipedia "The Allies were
pursuing the Germans and the greatest obstacle to crossing the Somme River in pursuit was Mont Saint-Quentin which, situated in a bend of the river, dominated the whole position. The Mont was only 100 metres high but was a key to the German defence of the Somme line, and the last German stronghold. It overlooked the Somme River approximately 1.5 kilometres north of Perrone. Its location made it an ideal observation point, and strategically, the hill's defences guarded the north and western approaches to the town."
The Australian spirit definitely shone through in these times. The offensive by the Australians at Mont St Quentin has been decsribed as one of (if not the) greatest military achievement of the war and was preceeded by the command to "yell like a bunch of bushrangers" so as to scare the Germans into thinking that there were a lot more of them than there actually were. The tactic worked, and Mont St Quentin and the nearby town of Perrone were taken back into Allied hands.
It is a photo of the town of Perrone just after the battle that will stay with us for many years... the Australians, not letting their sense
of humour escape them swiflty errected a sign in Perrone, renaming the main street "Roo du Kanga".
As mentioned before, there were many WW1 monuments that came under threat in WW2. However, the German soldiers of WW2 did have respect for the Allied soldiers of WW1, and carefully chose which parts of the monuments were to be destroyed, and which could remain. Just off the peak of Mont St Quentin, there is a very noble statue of an Australian soldier, looking down, pensive but strong. This however is not the original statue dedicated to the Australian soldiers just after WW1. The first one had an Australian soldier bayonetting the black eagle, the symbol of Germany... for some reason the Germans took offense and it was destroyed in the war. There were similar stories of other monuments where it was only the references to Germany that were removed, with the dedication to the soldiers remaining.
The final part of the tour took us to see two things, a huge bomb/explosion crater and the trenches. Both of which have been preserved only due to private purchases of the land. After the war, the French farmers, understandably wanted to move on
with their lives and remove any memory of the war from the landscape. One relatively important hole in the ground as purchased though... a huge crater that marked the point of a machine gun post that was tunnelled under and blown up to mark the beginning of the battle - the craters we saw in Normandy were nothing compared to the scale of this crater!
The next piece of land was purchased by the Canadians, and they have preserved one of the sights of the trenches. This was important to us as it gave some perspective on the conditions the troops were fighting in. Although we could not really imagine, we were told that the troops that survived Gallipoli were then brought over to the Western Front and re-trained in how to fight in these trenches and sent out to battle again.
All in all it was an extremely moving day, but one that brought a strange comfort. All of the fields and memorials and even the trenches had an amazingly calm feeling to them, as though all of those that lay there have made their peace and are sharing it with everyone who comes to visit to
learn and hear their stories.
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