There is an invisible, unbreakable thread running between Australia and the northern regions of France – between the Australian people who still hold dear the memories and mythology arisen from the Great War, and the towns and stunning countryside of Hauts-de-France that once saw the War’s greatest and most dramatic battles fought within them. Fierce and unmerciful, too – an incredible 80 per cent of our total lost in the Great War, were lost here.
The Western Front occupies such an important space in our collective history that even more than a century since its last battles, streams of us come to travel the 200-kilometre Australian Remembrance Trail to see world-class memorials, museums and protected sites. The stories of our ancestors are not only remembered but amplified through amazing exhibits, historic battlefields and inerasable traces of our soldiers woven into the fabric of this northern part of France, half a world away. We dare you to visit and leave with dry eyes – this is travel with heart-rending meaning.
Pozières & Thiepval
Our most catastrophic losses of life in France’s battlefields happened in Pozières in the Somme Valley, and this sombre history can be explored amongst the walking trails, observation deck and interpretive signage of the 1st Division Memorial, and particularly, the Australian Memorial at the Windmill, site of the fiercest battle of all to take this highly strategic German-occupied blockhouse. Among the many sights nearby are the Tank Memorial and the grand Thiepval Memorial, a 45-metre edifice seen from anywhere on the battlefield. A must-visit is the Historial Thiepval, simply for the 60-metre illuminated panorama depicting the first day of the Battle of the Somme, then visit the lasting physical evidence of that day at the incredible Lochnagar Crater, also not far away, where the explosion of some 24,500 kilograms of explosives left an enormous and permanent scar on the landscape – and signalled the start of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
One of the more spectacular sights of the Remembrance Trail is hidden beneath the city of Naours. An entire subterranean city of tunnels stretching across three kilometres, well pre-dating World War I, sheltered thousands of Allied soldiers. Many left graffiti on the walls of the 300 rooms here, with the 3,000 signatures now immersed in an archaeological project to photograph and catalogue them all – so far, a majority of them have been identified as having been left by Australians. A guided tour is a must here, to help you best discover the most famous graffiti, plus the underground church and the cleverly hidden entrances to this remarkable find.
It all started with a man and his wife – Louis and Antoinette Thuillier, local farmers and keen photographers – who photographed the seemingly endless parade of foreign soldiers passing through their town of Vignacourt around 1916-17. More than 4,000 glass-plate negatives remained, packed away in the attic until 2011 when Channel 7’s Ross Coulthart and the Sunday Night program visited to uncover them once more. This miraculous collection of images, capturing a moment in time for so many Australian and other soldiers, is commemorated in the very atmospheric little museum opened in 2018 at the Thuillier family farm. Don’t miss it.
Where the Cologne river meets the Somme, surrounded by sparkling ponds most wonderfully explored by boat, you’ll find the town of Péronne. Its idyllic prettiness belies its past as a hotly contested battleground, heavily shelled and ultimately hard won by the Australian forces in 1918. Now, you can check out more than 70,000 historical objects thoughtfully displayed to tell this story at the impressive L’Historial de la Grande Guerre, holding court within the walls of Péronne’s grand medieval fortress. An extended stop here allows you to explore nearby Mont Saint-Quentin and its Aussie digger statue overseeing the town’s Avenue des Australiens, as part of its new WWI-themed walking tour; an even longer stop allows you to ride the 160 kilometres of bicycle paths from Péronne all the way to the sea!
The first Australian to be put in charge of the Australian Corps, John Monash rightly takes his place in history as a prominent wartime hero; the story of the village of Hamel tells you why. His detailed and courageous coordination of his forces, from foot soldiers to aircraft and tanks, resulted in an astounding battle lasting a mere 90 minutes or so to take this strategic position back from the Germans. Now, you can see remains of German trenches, photographs and the very moving Australian Corps Memorial.
Villers-Bretonneux (Sir John Monash Centre)
Meanwhile, General John Monash so obviously changed the course of the war with his leadership, he was knighted in the field to become Sir John Monash. A century later, the newly minted Sir John Monash Centre aptly and gloriously reflects upon his legacy, set amongst the former battlefield of Villers-Bretonneux. A visit to the nearby Australian National Memorial, inscribed with the names of more than 10,000 Australian fallen who have no gravesite, is so emotional. Visiting the infamous Villers-Bretonneux military cemetery, stunningly real. But it is the multimedia exhibits, soundscapes and immersive 30-degree theatre of the Sir John Monash Centre that will really inscribe your soul.
Arras: Wellington Tunnels
Between 1914 and 1918, the frontlines of battle were never further than 10 kilometres from the city of Arras. In 1916, a year of terrible losses, enterprising New Zealander tunnellers made use of the old chalk mines beneath Arras to form an amazing subterranean network of chambers that held up to 24,000 Allied soldiers safe. You can now tour these tunnels, and the ancient Les Boves caves beneath the town hall itself too, then enjoy this stunning, historic city by browsing for souvenirs at one of France’s oldest market every Saturday. Further afield at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, the Ring of Remembrance is a beautiful testament to the sheer volume of humanity lost during WWI, with 579,606 names inscribed for the soldiers who died in this region, listed with neither rank nor country. Its simplicity is quite overwhelming.
The ‘Gallipoli’ of the Western Front, 1916’s Battle of Fromelles was catastrophic, with some 5,500 newly arrived Australian and British soldiers losing their lives in a single night, and waiting some two years after that simply for burial. Thanks to a 2009 project that continues to this day, 250 of those men have been moved to the Fromelles Military Cemetery; 100 are still to be identified. You can learn more about the battle at the Musée de la Bataille de Fromelles, pay your respects at the VC Corner Military Cemetery (still with no headstones, but 1,178 names engraved on the walls), and take a moment in the moving Australian Memorial Park.
You’re welcomed into town by a banner that reads ‘ANZACs – we will remember them’. You can have a beer in Le Canberra pub and pay your respects at the statue of the Bullecourt Digger, at the Australian Memorial on the Rue des Australiens. It’s clear there is such a connection with Australians even after all this time, after two horrific battles here etched the name of Bullecourt on our military history forever, and it’s tough to make it through this town without a tear or two. The Quéant Road Cemetery holds almost 1,000 Australian men, though only 299 have been named, while the Musée Jean & Denise Letaille – Bullecourt 1917 has recently been upgraded, assisted by the Australian government.
A fitting end to your sojourn along the Australian Remembrance Trail through Hauts-de-France, Compiègne is the site of the signing of the Armistice, ending World War I inside the personal railway coach of Marshal Ferdinand Foch just outside the town itself. Sadly, the coach was ultimately destroyed by the Germans, but you can certainly visit the fabulous and fairytale-like Château de Pierrefonds. This medieval fortress was occupied briefly by the Germans, then the Allies, and some of the soldiers’ graffiti can still be seen on its interior walls. The Compiègne Palace was also a military hospital for much of WWI, and is also a historical treasure trove of apartments once housing such figures as the King of Rome and Napoléon.
To plan your own journey to the Australian Remembrance Trail, visit the great website for Atout France. If you’re interested in taking a specialised tour with probably Australia’s most knowledgeable battlefield specialist, you can get in touch with Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours, headed up by the eponymous historian himself.
- A guide to the stunning stays of northern France
- Hauts-de-France: a road trip through France’s newest region
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