Today was a hard day for a few reasons. To start, our alarm was set for 6:30 am as we had to be on the tour by 8 am. The weather called for rain. Lots of rain. And our tour would take us to the battlefields and trenches of The Somme. When we set out and walked from the boat to the bus it was not raining but the paths were wet; it had rained quite a bit. Luckily we hit a dry patch and in the semi darkness made our way to the coach. It was not a full bus so we could spread out and relax.
It was a 90 minute drive to the first museum housed in a small village within a school donated and built by Australia. Victoria Hall is on the second floor and contains a neatly curated collection of artifacts from WW1 including letters, photographs, uniforms, artillery and kit items. Some of the items are so well preserved; it’s a miracle they survived at all. The display cases are neatly marked and labelled with care. Among the items are a few German pieces as we learned throughout this day that the losses and suffering were great on both sides. The European Allies in the war (also called the Great War or the war to end all wars) were grateful to receive military aid from other commonwealth countries and this particular museum pays tribute to the Australians who fought in the area and liberated (then defended) the village. It was clear that the weather today fit the somber mood. The images and feelings around the battle fields and trenches was emotional. But as you glanced out of museum windows into the courtyard below you could watch the children playing and laughing. Such a dichotomy yet fitting. One of the guides read a letter from a soldier who questioned if the sacrifice was worth it. Watching the children answers that question.
From here we continued on to the Sir John Monash Centre a short drive away. The skies are clearing and there’s no rain at all but the ground is wet. This is an amazing place built and maintained by Australia. It is an immersive experience into the trench warfare based on the Australia brigade under commanding officer John Monash. His personal story is also very interesting. The bus pulled up to the centre and parked. It was a hilltop and you could see the French and Australian flags flying by the cemetery prior to the entryway to the museum. It’s stark and austere with imposing stone edifices However, the museum entrance itself was designed to have visitors experience entering the trenches. It is a downward sloping maze with street name signs (they named the trenches) such as Wallaby Rd and the rattle of artillery fire is piped in on speakers cleverly hidden in the walls. At the doorway to the museum you are greeted by a foyer displaying large art installations such as a tapestry and a large wooden wall using different native Australian woods to signify each region of the country. Museum staff explain how to use the app as it tracks your location while in the museum and you can play the audio for each display by accessing it on the app. In the centre of the museum is a larger presentation room where you can become fully immersed in the trench battles. After spending an hour or so inside you are transported back to the years of war and your heart becomes heavy with emotion. Once you leave you can walk through the cemetery on site and the devastation and tragic loss is profound. I personally found it hard to breathe and certainly wiped many tears away. Canadian graves were marked with a Maple Leaf but many had no names as remains were not identified. Horrific. These young men were sons, brothers, husbands.
As you can see, we emerged from the museum into a perfectly sunny day. How ironic.
The bus takes us through rolling countryside farms and pastures. We stop for lunch but my appetite is nonexistent; today was day I should have had breakfast. I ate without tasting the food.
After lunch we continue through the picturesque farmland until we reach our next destination. It’s the Newfoundland memorial sponsored by Canada. It’s a piece of land owned and managed Veteran Affairs and is a series of trenches, monuments and graves. At the time of the war Newfoundland was not a Canadian province so the 2000 approx soldiers fought under the British army. Another stark display of the grim conditions during the war. There were trees planted after the war as the ravages of battles levelled the fields and left them barren and broken. There is one weird tree, known as the danger tree, that soldiers used as their landmark to know where they were in no man’s land (the area between the two opposing trenches). On July 1 of 1917 the allied troops suffered devastating losses as they tried to advance and push the Germans back. They were slaughtered. Aside from the trenches (now grassy moguls) there are huge grassy divots/craters from the bombs. The grass makes things soft and park like when in reality these were the killing fields where armies of young men brutalized each other following orders. There are no words. Standing on the grounds you can see the distance from trench to trench and it catapults you to the image of wasteland and death. The danger tree is a stark image.
The memorial is staffed by Canadian students who apply to take on the position. There are two criteria: you are a full time student who is bilingual. The two we met today were lovely. Bright pleasant shining examples of Canadian niceness. One from Cape Breton and the other from Victoria BC. To this day farmers and locals unearth remains of the battles and when they do forensic anthropologists are engaged to determine origins. A large caribou statue stands tall pointing to the Canadian held front line of battle. Among the grassy trenches is a herd of sheep happily grazing blissfully unaware of the history under their food supply.
The final stop on our tour is Lochnagar Crater it’s a very short ride from the Newfoundland memorial. It’s a privately owned site (bought by the owner to ensure it wasn’t plowed into farmland. The crater was made by a 60,000 ton bomb. It’s huge. The site itself is in disrepair due to lack of funding. But the impact is astounding. The crater site is surrounded on all sides by farm fields. Some of which are apparently potatoes.
It was a day for reflection and introspection. Having grown up listening to my dads war stories it impacted me in a personal and sad way. There are no winners of wars. Only innocent young men following orders bravely. Many paid the ultimate price. Lest we forget.