Wall after mind-numbing wall of names, names and more names line the myriad memorials for the Battle of the Somme. Fought from 1 July to 18 November 1916, over three million men took part with over one million casualties. The opposing fronts moved back and forth across 10 kilometres of land, on a line about 32 kilometres long, defending the French from further advances by the Germans. For the Australian Army, fresh from Gallipoli, it began at Fromelles on 19-20 July 1916…
Raging senselessness makes me angry when I am not grieving. The battle of Fromelles was a joint British and Australian assault on the Sugarloaf high ground, 16 kilometres south of Lille, designed to exploit a perceived weakness in the German forces which were deploying troops further south to the Somme. And it turns out we, unskilled in trench warfare, unfamiliar with heavy artillery assaults and unused to cutting barbed wire to advance, were outnumbered 2:1 and gained, then lost, just 400 metres of ground.
This battle is regarded as the worst 24 hours in Australian history and caused the greatest number of Australian deaths in one day. Of the 5,513 casualties, there were 500 prisoners of war and over 1,800 deaths. In one night at Fromelles the Australian casualties were equivalent to those in the Boer, Korean and Vietnam Wars combined. Two divisions had so many casualties they had to be rebuilt. Our commander, Brigadier-General Harold “Pompey” Elliott had anticipated a disaster and tried to have it cancelled, without success. The deaths brought him to tears. And me…
While 400 of our fallen soldiers were buried after the battle at the VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial, the only uniquely Australian cemetery in France, the Germans buried more of our men in unmarked trenches behind the German lines, and there they lay until their discovery by a farmer in 2002. By 2007 a geophysical survey indicated a previously unknown mass grave contained the remains of 337 soldiers, of which 250 were recovered and 173 of those were determined by DNA to be Australian. These were re-buried in Fromelles in Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery in 2010. From the DNA samples, 75 were able to be formally identified.
And this is how and where I got to know Lieutenant Eric Chinner, most likely killed on 20 July 1916, who joined the AIF in 1915 at age 21 … and his grieving Mum.
Mrs Chinner always remained hopeful her Eric’s body would be found and given a proper burial. In 1920 she wrote to the authorities and asked if his body were found, could these words please be inscribed upon his grave: “Matchless Son and Brother, Ever Tenderly Cherished in Our Hearts”. 92 years later, he was found, and that request was finally able to be honoured.
I took the photographs for this story, found Eric’s gravestone in the cold, and scraped the snow aside to see the words. I sobbed fit to break – for his young life so senselessly lost, for his grieving mother who lived her life always hoping, never knowing, and for the ultimate honouring of her wishes long after both their deaths.
At VC Corner is the famous statue of “Cobbers”, cast in 1998. A replica of it adorns our Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. The story embodied in bronze tells of the soldier, Simon Fraser, who, in carrying an injured soldier from No Man’s Land in the days after this horrendous battle, heard the plaintive cry for help, “Don’t forget me, Cobber”. The compassion and courage of the Australian soldiers saw over 250 wounded men recovered from this battleground, under enemy fire, in the next three days.
Now deeply involved, over our next three days we moved into most of the battlefields of the Somme where Australians had fought and were commemorated including Péronne, Mon Quentin, Longueval, Pozieres, Albert, Amiens, Bullecourt, Villers-Bretonneux and Le Hamel. Not limited to our countrymen, we also visited the massive monuments for the British (Thiepval), South Africans (Delville Wood), Irish (Thiepval), Indians (Neuve Chapelle) and Canadians (Vimy & Arras). We found it doesn’t take only a nation to commemorate its dead; that on every road and byway small monuments were built to remember smaller units of men such as those belonging to football clubs, towns, battalions, factories, villages, States or counties They were everywhere. Even the French, who had the privilege of building on site, erected monuments in all their tiny villages plus one exclusively-French large-scale cemetery at Rancourt.
Here is my article, previously published on Facebook.
Thinking one could be immune eventually to cemetery after cemetery, another story sends me off again. Each battle has its own story, and none holds any glory. Each was always about mud, bombings, exhaustion, lice, blood, barbed wire, hunger, thirst, death, maiming, incompetence, poor communication and service. Some cowered and shivered in the mud and refused to “go over”, others gibbered in raving madness in shell holes, the majority followed orders, made sacrifices, did their job, and disbelieved the horrors around them to stay sane. Even so, 13,000 Australian servicemen by the 1930s were on PTSD pensions, only back then they weren’t called that.
These memorials are not gaudy, glittery or grand. Instead, they possess a restrained, sombre grandeur, setting the mood for reflection, impelling quiet, generating whispers and forcing one to focus on the names – always the names – the missing, the known, the remembered – all dead. The sadness is shocking. I mourn openly and honestly, letting the tears run. It is the only way to deal with it.
In Pozieres, at the site of The Windmill, a German command post taken by the Aussies, they have also made an animal war memorial. Over nine million horses, mules, pigeons and dogs lost their lives in this war too. It was another story that made me cry today.
Australians are big in this part of France; in fact they are HUGE. The presence of our boy soldiers and the roles they played in WWI, are in evidence in all ways, some well-known and big, like Fromelles, Pozieres or Le Hamel, others tiny. Over 270,000 chose to go to war, (the Conscription Bills were defeated twice so that every Aussie here truly was a volunteer), seeking an adventure, a holiday, a break from the farm or a chance to see the world. It was dressed up as patriotism, but as the losses at Gallipoli came thundering home, and then the stories of Fromelles, Paschendaele and Pozieres, the volunteer numbers slowed.
Casualties amounted to 60% of this number, wounded, lost or killed. Disfigurement, dismemberment, gassing, shell-shock and mental scarring were the spoils of war for this civilian army returning home, along with 3,000 wives and many babies. There they found few jobs awaited them, most did not return to the farm, some tried Soldier Settlement but gave it up in the long drought of 1922-1929, and then the Depression compounded their depression. Others became mayors, politicians, engineers, tradesmen and doctors. For all, the war was a blot they wanted to forget, and few spoke of it.
For the grieving, of whom few could afford the expensive six weeks passage to Europe, they needed a place to mourn and pay tribute to their loved ones, and thus we have those memorials that you will find in every town of Australia. We lost 20% of our eligible male population in this mud-blood horror. Every town offered up its tears.
In France too, the people mourned for, thanked and celebrated our Australian boys. They also vowed to never forget the huge debt they felt they owed our five Australian Divisions. Thus, while we now see huge memorials, vast graveyards and row upon row of silent crosses, we also see the small things contributed by locals.
At the primary school in Villers-Bretonneux, for example, a sign is displayed in the school yard – “Do Not Forget Australia”. The school is named “Victoria”, which collected the funds and donated them to start this school, in a town synonymous with an Australian victory, and the nearby Le Hamel, so famously won by and associated with Sir John Monash, a huge and great leader.
The eponymous centre where we spent most of today is marvellous, the jewel in the crown of all war museums here, built at the base of our 1938-built Australian War Memorial, pock-marked with World War II bullets when war once again raged through this area. Bastards! Opened in 2018, we can be proud of this $100 million Sir John Monash centre, commemorating in sound, light and high technology, all the stories of the Western Front together. 10/10 Must-See. We came yesterday, saw how good it was, and returned to absorb more deeply.
At the end of a sojourn here, one is invited to use the technology to identify a soldier and pay him a tribute. On a huge screen, mounted high, his name appears, attaches to a poppy and flies away with thousands of other poppies. Caught off guard, knowing no relative of mine was lost in WWI, I entered the name of my Fromelles soldier Eric Chinner. It was a little thing, a tiny tribute in this monument of monumental stories, but caught off guard once again, as Eric’s poppy floated away I burst into tears once more.
Back to other little things…in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Amiens, there are few modern embellishments in a church built in 1222 over 70 years. However, there’s a photograph of the Aussie soldiers in front of its sandbagged walls, just after liberation. One learns that the first service here after peace was signed was conducted by the local priest for the Australians. The Bishop had fled to safety, (although he DID intercede with the Pope who asked the Germans not to bomb the Cathedral. Good Safe Bishop. Why didn’t he ask the Pope to ask the Germans to actually STOP the war?) Anyway… it’s the only photograph in the church.
On another wall is a carved tablet upon which grateful thanks are carved. You will see the Rose Window in the back. This is the biggest Gothic Cathedral in France. It’s twice the size of Notre Dame in Paris. And it’s the highest. This vast palace honours our boys still.
In the front prayer chapel, look closely and you will see the Australian flag hanging, with other Allied flags, in the most important chapel.
On the railway bridge in Dernancourt is painted a slouch hat and a kangaroo. The restaurant in Villers-Bretonneux is called ‘La Melbourne”. Road signs in Arras are shaped as kangaroos. Hailing from the war, there is a Rue de Kangaroo and a Route de Kangaroo in two different towns. In Péronne is the Rue d’Australiennes. There’s an emu in a wall carving.
These are the small things, tiny tokens of a huge debt. You miss them if you are not alert, and they pale beside the enormous losses, huge monuments and vast scale of this war. But they put a lump in your throat every time. You are reminded that families, mothers, fathers, daughters here, also lost over one million of their own. Yet, still, they find space and time to honour our Australian dead, as we do.
And all of this makes you very, VERY, proud, to call Australia “home”.
Chapter 9: Belves the Beautiful