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Chris Sayer’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 13 Sep 2007

Location: The Somme, France

MapA solemn day today as we explored the Somme, or the valley of the Somme River east of Amiens, where the major battles were fought for control of the Western Front in the First World War. We headed for the little village of Villers Britennoux – to call it “sleepy” would be an understatement, but you are greeted by a sign leading into the town that says “Un Australie de Picardie”. This town still honours the Australian soldiers who fought to liberate town from the Germans in 1918. Just two kilometers out of town is the Australian War Memorial for the fallen of 1914-18, which contains hundreds of white headstones inscribed with the names of Aussies killed in this very area during that campaign. Inscribed on a wall is also the names of nearly 11,000 Aussies who were killed in the various theatres in northern France and Belgium in WW1. The memorial was built in 1925, and had to be restored after being damaged during Hitler’s invasion in WW2. Some pot marks are still visible from the gunfire. To see the Aussie flag flying was a touching moment, so far from home, and this feeling was compounded when seeing the age of the men (mostly early 20s) and the number of headstones that said “Here lies a soldier of the Great War, known only to God”. So young, and so far from home.
Back in the village, we went thought the “Franco-Australien Musee” – a room containing photographs of Aussies from WW! and simple artifacts like letters and uniforms. As you walk around the room, the flag of each Australian state and territory is draped. Seeing the Tasmanian flag makes you realise how far away from home you are. Incidentally, after three weeks away from home, it was amazing how distinctive the Australian accent was – we had a good conversation with several Aussies who were unmistakable as soon as they opened their mouth.
We then visited the Canadian Memorial to WW! – in particular, a commemoration to the Newfoundland contribution to the war effort. The interesting thing about this was that the very large area of ground had been left as it was in 1918 – only the grass had been allowed to grow. You could see the trenches, actually walk through some of them, and see hundreds of craters where bombs had landed. The one thing that was easily realized when driving through the Somme was the need for trench warfare – the entire area is totally flat and devoid of trees and hills. You had to dig trenches to avoid getting shot at. To see these trenches first-hand, and try to imagine the hellish time that it must have been, was very moving to say the least.
A delightful meal back at Ros and Chris’s, and topped off by Ros’s own calvados, which is a traditional Normandie fortified wine made by concentrating apple cider. Delicious, but at 52% alcohol, advisable in small quantities.