HELL ON EARTH

THE BAT­TLE OF THE SOMME, ONE OF THE BLOOD­I­EST IN HU­MAN HIS­TORY, BE­GAN 100 YEARS AGO ON JULY 1 AND WITHIN FIVE MONTHS HAD LEFT MORE THAN A MIL­LION MEN DEAD OR WOUNDED

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - RELATIVE VALUES - KYLIE LANG

“Tell mother I’ll be there, in an­swer to her prayer.” An­other epi­taph, an­other sol­dier, an­other time. Yet it’s all so real, so sad, as we brace against the bit­ter cold on this pale grey af­ter­noon in the Somme Val­ley in north­ern France. Next month, th­ese once-blood­ied bat­tle­fields will be teem­ing with peo­ple to com­mem­o­rate the Western Front Cen­te­nary 2016-2018, but to­day we are just eight. The sweep­ing grounds of the Aus­tralian Na­tional Memo­rial in the Villers-Bre­ton­neux Mil­i­tary Ceme­tery are des­o­late. Some of us speak in whis­pers; some can’t speak at

all as we walk slowly past the head­stones of men who never made it home from the Great War. There are seem­ingly in­fi­nite rows of chalk-white mark­ers in the vel­vety lawn – the fi­nal rest­ing place of 2141 Com­mon­wealth ser­vice­men, 779 of them Aussies.

They’re men such as Pri­vate John Joseph Battagline, whose mother’s prayer, like so many moth­ers’ prayers, went un­heard. Battagline was a car­pen­ter from Al­bion, in Bris­bane’s in­ner north. At age 24, he joined the 26th Bat­tal­ion, which was raised in Enog­gera, and left Aus­tralia in July 1915.

Af­ter train­ing in Egypt, the men landed at Gal­lipoli on the Turk­ish penin­sula – five months af­ter the mass slaugh­ter of their coun­try­men, whose un­flinch­ing brav­ery came to de­fine the spirit of a fledg­ling na­tion. In March 1916, the 26th moved to France and served in al­most every Aus­tralian bat­tle on the Western Front, in­clud­ing Bel­gium, un­til the war’s end.

Most notably, they took part in the Hun­dred Days Of­fen­sive, a string of at­tacks that ef­fec­tively forced the Ger­mans out of France. The of­fen­sive be­gan spec­tac­u­larly on Au­gust 8, 1918, with the Bat­tle of Amiens, tak­ing the Ger­mans by sur­prise and net­ting a pre­cious 24km of en­emy ter­ri­tory. An es­ti­mated 30,000 Ger­mans died that day, later dubbed “the black day of the Ger­man army”, and 6500 Al­lies per­ished. One of them was Battagline.

An­other was Cor­po­ral V. C. Mathews, 22, also from the 26th, whose epi­taph reads: “Greater love hath no man than this”. And Pri­vate W. L. Rae, 24, from the 20th Bat­tal­ion, raised in Liver­pool in NSW: “An­other life lost, hearts bro­ken, for what?”

The ques­tion haunts as we make our way – past the Cross of Sac­ri­fice and the French and Aus­tralian flags – to the memo­rial’s stone tower. An im­pos­ing 31 me­tres high, it’s ad­joined by four walls that bear the names of the al­most 11,000 Dig­gers killed in France in World War I but whose bod­ies were never found. More than 60,000 Aus­tralians died in those four years on for­eign soil – 46,000 of them on the Western Front – mak­ing it our na­tion’s most costly con­flict in terms of deaths and ca­su­al­ties.

“IF YOU’RE FAS­CI­NATED BY WAR HIS­TORY, THE SOMME IS HEAVEN on Earth,” says Colin Gil­lard, a “work­ing-class bloke” from Eng­land who was drawn to WWI his­tory as a boy.

Now a fa­ther of three teenagers, Gil­lard moved to France more than 30 years ago and, de­spite be­ing told by many Aus­tralian-based tourism op­er­a­tors that “Aussies aren’t in­ter­ested in the bat­tle­fields of France, only Gal­lipoli”, he has cre­ated a solid busi­ness with his Cob­ber Bat­tle­field Tours.

With com­mem­o­ra­tions for the Western Front Cen­te­nary at the Fromelles (Pheas­ant Wood) Mil­i­tary Ceme­tery on July 19 and the 1st Aus­tralian Di­vi­sion Memo­rial at Poz­ières on July 23, Gil­lard is an­tic­i­pat­ing thou­sands. Come 2018, the cen­te­nary of the war’s end, he tips num­bers to swell to such an ex­tent that “you could rent out your cel­lar and make a for­tune”.

The first stop is Al­bert, about 30km north­east of Amiens. Flat­tened dur­ing the war – when it was used as mil­i­tary of­fices, in­clud­ing hos­pi­tals and rest camps for the Al­lies – the town was re­built in the 1920s, in­clud­ing its NeoByzan­tine cen­tre­piece, the Basil­ica Notre-Dame de Bre­bières. The steeple’s golden statue of the Madonna and child was hit early by the Ger­mans, in 1915, but re­mained lean­ing down­wards be­fore be­ing se­cured in that po­si­tion by the French. A leg­end grew of the “lean­ing vir­gin” that pre­dicted the war would end only when the statue fell.

In March 1918, when the Ger­mans ad­vanced into Al­bert, the British bom­barded the basil­ica to stop them us­ing the steeple as an ob­ser­va­tion post. Sure enough, the statue fell, and the war ended months later in Novem­ber.

At the next stop, Beau­mont-Hamel, 11km north of Al­bert, it is ev­i­dent why trench war­fare – used spo­rad­i­cally in the Amer­i­can Civil War of 1861-65 and the Rus­sianJa­panese War of 1904-05 – be­came the norm on the Western Front. From the look­out of the New­found­land Memo­rial and its bronze cari­bou statue, “al­most the en­tire male pop­u­la­tion of New­found­land was wiped out”, Gil­lard says, look­ing out at the Somme, flat, vast and open.

“You had to dig deep to cre­ate shel­ter, which was bloomin’ hard work,” Gil­lard says, lead­ing us through a labyrinth of orig­i­nal trenches, their once rough walls and jagged rims smoothed and rounded with time.

A mem­ber of the Aus­tralian 2nd Bat­tal­ion writes a letter home dur­ing a break in hos­til­i­ties at the Somme. Pic­ture: Aus­tralian War Memo­rial E00030

( From top) Aus­tralian sol­diers cool their heels in a trench on the Western Front, France, July 1916 (Pic­ture: Aus­tralian War Memo­rial); cross­ing a marsh at the Somme (Pic­ture: Aus­tralian War Memo­rial); British troops go over the top; the 1st Aus­tralian Di­vi­sion Memo­rial at Poz­ières.

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