On the 8th September 1916, my great-uncle died from wounds sustained during the Battle of the Somme. Second Lieutenant Henry Byron, 1st/5th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment, was twenty-two. His brother – my grandfather – enlisted at the age of fourteen, had a kidney shot out in Ypres, contracted TB while convalescing, and was shipped home with six months to live. Deciding escape was the only way to survive the miasmas of war-time Liverpool, he worked his way to Australia, jumped shipped in Perth, and died at the age of ninety two. He could never bring himself to return to France and visit his beloved brother’s grave – my daughter and I were the first in the family to do so.
I had booked a battlefield tour through a small Australian company largely because they took only small groups (there were only 4 of us) and Peter kindly offered to make a detour to Uncle Harry’s grave. I doubt I would have found the cemetery otherwise, for the countryside is a maze of small lanes with no road signs, and many places barely rate a mention on the map. Most directions, it seems, are given by the name of a local farm (or where a local farm used to be!)
It’s impossible to drive through this part of France without seeing the devastation – and futility – still caused by a war which took place over 100 years ago. I came across front-line trenches, with barbed wire marking the entrance to no-man’s land. I found it haunting simply walking through them, although with the passage of time the trenches are much shallower than when first dug. They were also incredibly close to one another, close enough to see each other’s faces. Poles for supporting barbed wire still stood drunkenly across the field. Initially they were hit into the ground with a hammer – later models were screwed in, for the sound of a hammer was enough to encourage a sniper shot in the dark. Live ammunition continues to be unearthed in the fields, and we passed a farm where the wall is entirely built of mines.
I visited many sites and memorials; driving past cemetery after cemetery, and visiting the memorials, the sheer number of men who died during WWI becomes mind-numbing. Viewed from the luxury of future knowledge, and by one who lives in a country which has never seen war, I fail to understand how the generals of both side kept going, sending their men to meaningless slaughter.
Visiting the town of Villers-Bretonneux was a highlight, and a positive experience of all that happened so long ago. After being captured by the Germans in WWI’s first tank battle, Villers-Bretonneuxwas liberated by Australian forces on 24th April 1918. The village still celebrates ANZAC Day, and has streets such as Rue de Melbourne. The school was rebuilt from donations from children in Victoria, and above every blackboard are the words N’oublions jamais l’Australie – Never forget Australia. Just outside the town is the Australian War Memorial in France.
On unveiling a memorial in 1919, the mayor of Villers-Bretonneux expressed: a desire to thank the valorous Australian Armies, who with the spontaneous enthusiasm and characteristic dash of their race, in a few hours drove out an enemy ten times their number…Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive, and that the burial places of your dead will always be respected and cared for.
In contrast to the American Army, who built large cemeteries for their war dead, the Commonwealth Forces tried to bury their soldiers near where they fell. Consequently, this area of France is dotted with cemeteries – a glance at a map is littered with the blue dots of the cemeteries. Uncle Harry rests in Dartmoor Cemetery, Becordel-Becourt, which has only 768 (762 identified) graves, every one immaculately tended.
Surrounded by fields, overlooked by most tourists, Dartmoor Cemetery is now a peaceful spot for these soldiers to sleep, for there are so many cemeteries, and so many memorials to the War To End All Wars.
The Literary Traveller
Diary of a Nursing Sister is a fascinating recount by a nurse (who remains anonymous) as she tends the wounded from the Front Line. The wounds and damage she encounters are horrific, often being treated in sub-optimal conditions. Through her writing, however, comes a sense of life, of stoicism and of endurance which seem to have been forgotten in this modern age. it is impossible to read her entries without being moved by the plight of those around her.