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
“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.