Image: Centenary of Armistice tour participants (left to right): Erin Ewens, Steven Morganti, Rufus Morse, Mark Riddiford (Historian), Leah Pitt (Communities staff), Lauren Barrie, Stephen Barton (Communities staff), Karwin Murray, Natasha Meston, Stefaan Bruce-Truglio, Enfys Jerwood.
Monday 5 November 2018
Today, we had the opportunity to explore Paris. The group visited Nôtre Dame, Les Invalides, the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc De Triomphe for the lighting of the Eternal Flame.
Today was the first day that we spent the majority of the time as a large group. We travelled together and learnt more about each other’s specific interests regarding history. We learned about each other’s personalities, and gained valuable group problem solving skills.
A humbling moment from today was seeing the uniforms worn and weaponry used during World War 1. This gave us a new perspective of the significance of events that still have relevance today.
Today we stood in the location the Armistice was signed at Compiègne, in what is now called The Glade of the Armistice. The Armistice came into force on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. In the following years this carriage would see itself on display in Paris then returned to Compiègne where it would continue to be a monument of victory for the Allies. Until 1940 when Adolf Hitler and his entourage received the French surrender in WWII in the same location, in the same carriage. This carriage was then taken to Berlin and displayed across Germany, a symbol of revenge, finally being destroyed in 1945. This was an exploration of perspectives, from the French to the German and to our own, standing in this historical location, viewing the replica carriage and gaining important information at the museum. A remarkable experience.
Following this, we visited the Mont Saint-Quentin battlefield. Standing on the battlefield of Mount Saint-Quentin was an enriching and powerful moment, as many of us commented. Away from the history textbook, we were able to see and feel a real battlefield. The Australian 2nd Division fought bravely and secured an important location. The British Army described this victory as the greatest military achievement of the war. The soldiers yelled “like a lot of bushrangers” towards victory. Three soldiers were awarded a Victoria Cross, a testament of Australian spirit.
A moment of contemplation for us was looking at the remnants of a trench. Nature had retaken the land in which men fought, but deep grooves on the forest floor remain to tell a story. The ambience of the wind through trees and the songs of birds was a stark contrast to the previous sounds of shellfire. Following this, we saw the 2nd Division monument with the French and Australian flag flying in tandem.
Today we visited a museum commemorating the Battle of Passchendaele, otherwise known as the Third Battle of Ypres.
We were treated to a guided tour throughout the museum with a historian, where we were told tales of the heroism of Australian soldiers in defeating the Germans at the battle. We were also given the opportunity to walk through a recreated trench line, which was a very interesting and unique experience.
We then participated in an immersive educational experience where we re-trod the steps of the Australian soldiers on the 4th of October 1917, during the battle where they pushed through to capture the German encampment at the Tyne Cott Cemetery. This experience was complete with full army uniform, rifles, gas masks and a lunch of bully beef stew that the soldiers would have eaten on the front. We marched in formation, carried out attack drills and practiced our grenade throwing.
We completed the day by visiting the Tyne Cott Cemetery where 12,000 allied soldiers are buried and a further 35,000 of those missing are commemorated. This was a humbling and solemn moment and was the most significant experience of the day. To be able to walk as they walked and visit the place where they currently rest gave us some perspective around the immensity of the sacrifice they made to ensure the battle was won.
The Ypres Salient and Menin Gate
We began our day by walking up to the New Zealand Messines Memorial situated on a bucolic Flanders landscape.
The scene of a coordinated and meticulously planned Australian, British and New Zealand attack on the German Uhlan line was the beginning of new focused and managed tactics, regaining the strategic initiative in a gruelling war of attrition.
The difficulty of reconciling the natural beauty we would see, with what would have been western front battlefields, was a continual challenge that day as we next went to Hill 60. Commonwealth tunnelers had successfully planted and detonated a 20,000 ton mine under German positions as part of a wider push that saw more than 20 such mines obliterate fortified positions and secure a decisive allied victory. The tunneling was tough and dangerous, with both sides blowing out the others tunnels in hope of killing and disrupting efforts of enemy tunnelers. The landscape of Hill 60 was described by Australian photographer Frank Hurley as
" the most awful and appalling sight I have ever seen [...] here, the exaggerated machinations of hell are typified."
Today the hill still bears the scars of those years, and although its bunkers and shell holes have been gradually covered by grass and trees, it is an easy task to envisage what would have been a lunar and pockmarked vista.
After this we walked through Polygon Wood, scene of another Australian battle, that although determined a victory, resulted in 5000 casualties in a matter of hours. These casualties manifesting in the ordered row on row of white gravestones, standing to attention, at the cemeteries of Butte (home to the 5th Australian Division Memorial) and Essex Field Farm cemetery, where John Mcrae wrote in Flanders fields in 1915. We also went to the German Langemark cemetery, the final respite for 44,000 Germans, reposing amongst oak trees and fields.
The final part of a moving day was the last post ceremony at the Menin Gate, a ceremony to honour the 50,000 soldiers missing in the Ypres Salient. A member of our group laid a wreath with Minister Tinley, as we all reflected on the sacrifices of that generation and our own fortune as the last post echoed through the night into Ypres.
Experiencing the Menin Gate ceremony is something that I have wanted to do for a long time, not because I thought that it would be fun, or because I wanted to be able to say that I’ve done it, but because I believe it is important to commemorate the sacrifice of those brave men whose names are written on this memorial.
I have attended other commemorative events, but none so entrenched in emotive history. There is something different, and somehow more powerful, about commemorating in the very place where thousands marched to fight for what they believed in, surrounded by the names of those who were lost in the struggle. The gate itself is far more magnificent than I had imagined from photographs, and walking under it and seeing the thousands upon thousands of names that have no known grave was a humbling experience. The ceremony was moving, and being able to look up at those names of missing soldiers to pay respects while the Last Post was playing was an incredible experience that I doubt I will have the opportunity to repeat. I would like to thank Minister Tinley for allowing me the opportunity to pay respects to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in such a poignant way.
Bruges and Ypres
On 9 November 2018 we started by visiting the city of Bruges, a town that was untouched by World War One due to its location well behind the front lines. Bruges is a stunning and picturesque city - full of grand old buildings with towering steeples, cobble streets, canals, white swans and, at this time of year, trees full of golden leaves making a carpet of gold along the paths. Bruges also has many quaint little shops with chocolate, fries, alcohol and Christmas decorations, the main items for sale. First we went on a boat ride through the canals, where we were able to see many of the sights of the city from a unique vantage point. Afterwards we had a lunch of Belgian Fries before climbing the 366 steps up the Belfry of Bruges. The view from the top of the Belfry was breathtaking, with the landscape stretching as far as the eye can see into the distance in all directions. We visited a number of Christmas and food shops, before trying delicious rich hot chocolate, in a country famous for it.
After Bruges we went to Ypres, a town that as a juxtaposition to Bruges was near the front line for the entirety of World War One. As a consequence of that, it was pulverized into dust for four years by German guns. Despite this complete obliteration the city looks as if it has been standing for centuries, despite it having been completely rebuilt since the end of World War One. It was fascinating to see how the city has bounced back and recreated itself after complete devastation. Some scars of the destruction are still visible, with the gardens of the local cathedral containing some remnants of the original structure that stood before the War.
To me, the most interesting part of Ypres is the Menin Gate, a grand imposing building that lists all of those Commonwealth soldiers whom have no known grave up to 15 August 1917. The list of names covers the walls of the Menin Gate on all sides by their battalion, and there is not much space left for any more names. This makes the Gate really confronting, as this enormous building covered in the names of the missing is still not large enough to list the name of every soldier with an unknown grave. Even then, if all names of the missing were on the memorial it still would not even mention any of the hundreds of thousands who perished and are buried in a known grave. The sheer size of the sacrifice which the Menin Gate represents is horrifying in its scale and humbling in reminding me that all of these men died for a cause, and that we must ensure that we never forget that cause.
Today was both jam-packed and humbling. A theme connecting all the sites covered was tactically questionable manoeuvres with huge human impact.
We began in the fields of Fromelles, a site which defies you to leave with any impression but that of the futility of war. Over 19-20 July 1916, over 2000 Australian men lost their lives as they "went over" trench lines with absolutely no clear objectives and no artillery support - I can't imagine the feeling of being commanded (let alone obeying the order) to run headlong at the German line with no further information. The situation was in fact so dire that the German forces were embarrassed by how easy it was proving to kill Australians, more like murder than warfare. However, their offer of ceasefire was rejected by an Australian general, and this resulted in devastating casualties.
We next went to Pheasant Wood cemetery, where a mass grave was discovered in 2009 and hundreds of Australians identified. This year, the identity of a further nine men were uncovered, including Chinese Australian Charles Yeo.
Meanwhile at Bullecourt, the landscape is completely unchanged. This site is where, in April and May 1917, Australian soldiers lost whatever faith they had in their British commanders and learned to hate tanks, which failed miserably to protect them. We paid our respects at the Slouch Hat Memorial and Australian Memorial Park.
In the afternoon we saw the Thiepval Memorial, which lists the names of 72 000 missing soldiers from Britain and South Africa, lost as a result of the Battle of the Somme. Most of these men were lost in the first hours of an offensive beginning 1 July 1916 with 19 240 British soldiers were killed on "the bloodiest day of the British army".
Finally, we visited the maze of trenches at the Newfoundland Memorial Park. It was very special to visit a site almost totally untouched, Newfoundland purchased the property in 1921 and so all trenches (including the infamous Y Ravine) are intact.
What I'll take away from today, and from this trip more broadly, is that respect for Australia's fallen does not always necessitate travelling to the Western front. Rather, respect comes from making the effort to understand. To understand an experience so far from anything we have or will hopefully ever know firsthand. Striving for that understanding and inevitably gaining that respect is what commemorating is all about, now, and after the centenary.
Centenary of Armistice
It was a privilege to come together in France this morning to recognise the service and sacrifice of Australian servicemen and women over more than one hundred years of our military. On this day in 1918, the guns of the Western Front fell silent and marked the end of Australia’s most costly conflict in history.
From the summer of 1918, the five divisions of the Australian Corps had been at the forefront of the '100 days' which marked a turning point in the war. Beginning with their stunning success at the battle of Hamel in July, Australians helped to turn the tide of the war at Amiens in August, followed by the capture of Mont St Quentin and Péronne, and the breaching of German defences at the Hindenburg Line in September. By early October the exhausted Australians were withdrawn.
Australians had suffered almost 60 000 casualties over four years. The social effects of these losses cast a long shadow over the postwar decades.
Our one minute’s silence at 11am was observed at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, in memory of those who have died or suffered in all wars and armed conflicts, and the families at home who have supported these Australians.
Lest we forget.
The Villers-Bretonneux Centenary of Armistice Service on 11 November was an emotional and beautiful experience. The weather was dark, grey and raining which to me made the memory of the soldiers stronger as all the guests didn’t move, they stayed there and paid their respects despite their discomfort. In comparison, the soldiers endured years of discomfort in memory of the ideals of freedom and democracy. At the end of the service, I was given the opportunity to lay a wreath on behalf of the Australian Air Force Cadets. To walk up to Australia’s National War Memorial in France on the Centenary of the Armistice was a once in a lifetime experience which was very touching and something I will never forget. The service is something that will always remain in my mind and heart, everything about it was perfect.
Our WWI soldiers were honoured today at the Australian Remembrance Day ceremony at Villers-Bretonneux, France. It was an honour to be among the thousands who attended. My fingers were frosted as the cold winds blew against the rain droplets on my face. I was overcome with emotion as the names of fallen soldiers were called out. What struck me was just how young they were, some younger than I. It was a moving experience attending the ceremony. Seeing their proud faces in their uniforms took me back to certain aspects of the tour particularly parts where we walked on battlefields, Bullecourt, Mont Saint Quentin and Fromelles. Many men are still buried there, underneath my footsteps. But along the walls of the Australian Memorial I am witness to their names and I understand their sacrifice more in this moment than I had before.
Today marks one hundred years since the signing of the Armistice ending World War One. On the 11th of November 1918 at 11am the brutal fighting finally came to a close. It was an absolute privilege for us as young Western Australians to attend the Centenary of Armistice Commemoration at the Villers-Bretonneux, Australian National Memorial. It was a moving tribute to the fallen and one we will never forget. The service made me reflect that not only must we remember the fallen, but we must also honour their sacrifice by continuing to work together to maintain a peaceful world. The knowledge that over 60,000 Australians and millions more across all nations were killed is a stark reminder that the mistakes of the past should not be repeated
Today we walked the Poziéres battlefields, where it is said the most Australian blood was shed in the war. As we walked the muddy roads, through vast open fields, it was eye-opening to imagine 100 years ago that soldiers were running over the crest to what could be their deaths. It was a moving experience, and having walked paths that had been rained on recently, also taught us a lot about the real dangers of mud.
Lochnagar Crater of La Beiselle
The Lochnagar Crater was formed in 1916 created by detonation of a mine under the German Front Line. It was the largest of 17 mines that exploded on the first day of the battle of the Somme. The impact of the devastation was far beyond anything we had seen before. It highlighted the significance of mines in warfare throughout World War I.
We walked over the battlefields that Australians had fought hard for in 1917 at a high human cost. Poorly planned and ill managed, it was one of the most costly actions of the war by Australians and other participating troops. The landscape itself devoid of any features that would confer a tactical advantage, instead lending an advantage to the defenders who securely beat off successive attacks. I felt quite lucky to have walked through an area that, to this day, remains the final resting place of so many Australian, British and Canadian soldiers.
There’s something to be said about the emotion of walking across a battlefield. Today, on Remembrance Day, we walked over the killing fields of Pozières, and drove through the site of the Somme Offensive. Our feet passed over hallowed ground, walking upon the graves of who knows how many men, and not just those of Australians or other allied soldiers, but of course Germans as well. All of those brave people, some so very young, fighting to survive and for what they believed in. So much death occurred on that very ground, where the only evidence of their struggle is the iron harvest and the memorials scattered across the landscape. There are some scars remaining, such as the Lochnagar Crater, but the majority of those have been clinically preserved.
In most places, the land has been affected by the ever marching progress of time. One hundred years have passed since the guns fell silent, but even though those missing men lie under the ground, below paths and roads and fields of turnips, they have not been forgotten, and they will never be. As humbling and haunting as it was to think about the blood that had coursed through those fields, the emotion was tinged with hope, because we were there, and we were thinking of them; and that, I think, is more important than any headstone.
The Somme to Paris
On our final day of the tour, we began at Adelaide Cemetery where we visited the site of the grave of the unknown soldier, now resting at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. We visited Victoria School, and viewed the museum and “Do Not Forget Australia” signage. From there, we went to the Australian War Memorial at Villers-Brettoneux. We toured the Sir John Monash Centre and climbed the memorial tower and admired the expansive views of what was once the site of such bloodshed and battle. We then explored the Le Hamel battleground and memorial, before visiting cemeteries where loved ones of tour members lie.
It was a pleasant way to end an interesting and valuable tour. We were able to visit final cemeteries and memorials, and see one last battleground. The SJMC was highly immersive and engaging, including an interactive movie experience. The Australian War Memorial yielded both an outstanding view of the surroundings and a sobering reminder of the loss of war. To see the thousands of names of the missing, commemorated with wreaths and personal tributes shows the gratitude and dedication of Australians to our fallen troops.
To conclude the day and the tour, we attended a river cruise dinner with the other Mat McLachlan tour participants. It was good to reflect on the tour with others who had participated in similar tours.
The final full day of our tour was educational, enjoyable, and a nice way to end what has been an amazing opportunity. We entered this trip as eight nervous young people wanting to learn more about the First World War, and leave a group with countless inside jokes, friendships, and with memories of an experience incomparable to any other.