The day started with the introduction of Rod Bedford, our battlefields guide for all of the 4 Connecting Spirits tours so far. As an ex-Grenadier Guard and local resident of the Somme region, Rod has a wealth of experience and knowledge that helps bring the history to life as we travel through the fields where the soldiers that we commemorate fought and died.
Our first visit was to the cemetery at Vignacourt. This small village was in an area that Australian soldiers were billeted a number of times during the war. Recently a cache of original glass negatives of Australian soldiers taken during these times out of the line was unearthed in an attic in the town. Many of these prints are now housed in the Australian War Memorial, but many large prints are also on display around the town itself.
The next cemetery was at Crouy, to the north west of Amiens. Like Vignacourt it was behind the lines and the cemetery is full of soldiers who died of their wounds as they made their way back through the system toward hospitals. As a result most of the graves are identified, with the name of the soldier buried there on the headstone. As we made our way toward the frontline, the number of unknown graves increased.
Even though I had locked away my emotions during my commemorations, I still felt a deep sadness that really surprised me.
The next cemetery was at Puchevillers, again the site of a casualty clearing station and therefore mostly identified graves, and within a fairly defined timeline.
It was really important to me to share Clarence’s story with the group at Puchevillers. Clarence was my first soldier I researched, so I guess I can say he inspired me to continue with this project as I found his story so captivating. He is not related to me directly, as he was born from a second marriage, the first marriage being relevant to me. However, my Nanna proudly regards him and his brother as family. This was predominantly the source of the weight that lay upon my shoulders prior and in the beginning of my commemoration. It seemed like Clarence had been trapped within me for the past year and to finally reveal his entire story to other people was like setting him free; and suddenly, he was real.
Oh how unbelievably proud I felt to put a blue dot next to the name ‘HUNT C.C’ in the café at Pozieres. And it’s those little things that make a difference. Like in Sutton Veny, it really makes a difference when a foreign town acknowledges the Australian losses, not like in the big cities where they feel obligated to, but because they are grateful.
After the two commemorations here we travelled to Franvillers where Demi commemorated Joseph Arnold Blacket on behalf of her aunty. Judy Georgiou was unable to attend this trip due to a sudden health issue, but Demi insisted that we commemorate this soldier on her behalf. She had spent time on the internet after breakfast and was able to produce an excellent commemoration in a very short time.
The weather had started to turn rather wet at this stage, so we looked for a dry place to eat our lunch. Fortunately the proprietor of Tommys’ Café in Pozieres allowed us to eat in a room at the back of his café next to the museum that he has there. The students took the opportunity while there to have a look at the substantial collection of war memorabilia collected in the surrounding area.
At the southern end of the town lies the site of the Gibraltar Blockhouse that needed to be overcome by the 1st Australian Division as it attacked the town on the 23rd July 1916. Immediately next to it is the 1st Australian Division Memorial, erected by the Diggers themselves before they returned to Australia after the war in memory of their mates who would not return with them.
From the memorial we moved a short distance further through the town to the site of the Windmill. This is the highest piece of ground for many miles around and was highly sort after by both sides during the conflict. Possession of this ground gave the occupier the advantage of a much greater field of view of the enemy’s dispositions, and it was the original objective for the Australians in the attack on Pozieres. In the small space around this town over 23000 Australian casualties, including over 8000 dead were suffered by the 1st 2nd and 4th Divisions in 7 weeks. Charles Bean, the official Australian War Historian, described the Pozieres Ridge as the land mostly richly sown with Australian blood. These figures compare in number with the whole of the Gallipoli campaign which lasted 8 months.
The next stop was at the Lochnagar Crater. This crater was formed when one of 19 mines was exploded on the morning of the 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Over 200 German soldiers were either vaporized or buried deep beneath the ground as a result of the explosion while hundreds more were killed by concussion in the surrounding trenches. This is my fourth visit to this crater, and as I walked up to it I thought that it would not have the same impact upon me as it has in the past. But instead, as I looked down into its depths, I was even more amazed by its size than before. The sheer force that must have been expended to create this hole is beyond belief. A pilot flying at 4000 feet at the time of the mine’s detonation, describing how he saw earth and debris climb into the sky above him, is some testament to the explosion that it caused.
Three more commemorations followed at the London Cemetery and Extension, the A.I.F. Burial Ground at Flers and the Guards Cemetery, Lesboeufs.
Frederick Burnett presented perhaps the biggest challenge as far as research went for me. He was the most distantly related soldier I researched which I guess also made it harder for me to connect with him. I had to look beyond my own family, and try to picture his mother sending her three boys off to war. It also took me a while to get my head around the tragic role he played in the war; I actually don’t think this fully happened until I wrote my commemoration. Each role witnessed unimaginable savagery of war, but could you ever imagine being in the medical corps, where the things you would see would haunt every living moment?
‘The fact that he came from the horrors of Gallipoli to witness and repair even worse on the Somme, shows resilience so few could show today.’
I don’t believe I said enough to reinforce my point, but I could not have been more sincere.
The last memorial visit for the day was the Thiepval Memorial. This is a massive brick and limestone arched memorial that contains the names of over 73000 soldiers from the UK and South Africa who have no known grave. As part of a Connecting Spirits tradition, Julie read a passage from the book, “Birdsong” where Elizabeth comes across this memorial as she travelled through France. We then had a meal in the “Poppy Restaurant” before returning to Amiens and our hotel.
Thiepval was so huge, it was hard to imagine that each name on the columns was a boy and for every man there was a family mourning.
Today I think I finally realised the enormity of the Great War. Seeing Thiepval with over 73000 names that have no known graves was such an eye opener and I soon realised that means that there are 73000 families that never got to see their loved ones again. This saddens me because not only did they not get to say Goodbye, they don't even have a grave to go to and remember them.
Today was a big day. We visited many of the sites of WWI. The thing that had the most affect on me was the Thiepval Memorial. The number of names of missing men was devastating; knowing that the families of these heroes had no closure was heart breaking.
Zac van den Brink
At La oiselle, Rod told a story about an old lady who remembered her grandmothers kitchen before the war. The area around her home was excavated and the archeologists found the old kitchen floor. They put out chairs and tables and set them up and brought the lady to the kitchen blinfolded, sat her down and then took the blindfold off. She was taken back to her grandmother's house over 90 years before. The tears poured down her face as the memories flooded back. Some days later when I was at Johan Vandewalle's cafe I saw a scan of the tunnels below that kitchen, which gave me a strange feeling that I can describe.