Back to the Western Front
Unexploded shells, soldiers’ bones, and forebears found after lying missing for a century. Clare Barry finds history is alive on the former Western Front.
It’s a bright-sky late-spring morning beside a canola field near Dernancourt in northern France, and what locals call the “iron harvest” has deposited a small relic on the roadside. A broken and darkly rusted belt buckle is confirmed by our guide as, yes indeed, another artefact of the Great War.
These fields of the former Western Front in Belgium and France are littered with the debris of war — annual tilling lifts shrapnel, bullets, shell shards, trench equipment and, lethally for hundreds of farmers since the war ended, unexploded shells and grenades.
Soldiers lie here too, their remains unearthed in fields or while excavating for new roads or buildings.
Earlier in our trip, some members of our tour group saw the bones of old soldiers at Dig Hill 80, a crowdfunded archaeological dig unearthing an entire German stronghold from a field in the hills surrounding Ypres in Belgium.
“We find the bodies. We find the bombs. It is not over,” says one of our guides, Simon Louagie. “This year again a farmer was blown up.”
But back to that belt buckle. Who wore it? Was he British, German or Australian? All fought at Dernancourt as the Germans launched their last-ditch spring offensive in March 1918. Did the wearer make it home to loved ones? Does he lie under a headstone in a ship-shape military cemetery, or among the anonymous, eternally missing?
Old bones of young men. Found, after 102 years.
Well, not so anonymous, I find. And not all eternally missing either.
Forty-six thousand Australians died on the Western Front. The bodies of almost a third were never recovered or weren’t identified. But members of the Australian Imperial Force without a known grave still have a place here, their names inscribed en masse on the Menin Gate in Ypres, on the Australian National Memorial outside Villers-Bretonneux, or on the VC Corner cemetery memorial at Fromelles.
Occasionally a soldier leaves the ranks of the missing and his name is removed from the memorial wall as remains are identified and rededicated under a personalised headstone.
On 19 July the graves of nine Australians killed in the Battle of Fromelles and buried in a mass grave in nearby Pheasant Wood will be rededicated, as DNA testing of relatives confirms their identities. Among them are four Victorians: 23-year-old Geelong-born Corporal Alfred Thompson; Private Henry Bell, 39, from Bendigo; Private Stanley O’Donnell from Malvern, 27; and 20-year-old Captain Kenneth Mortimer, from Leneva near Wodonga. Old bones of young men. Found, after 102 years.
ComingWorldRememberMe art installation near Ypres.
Our tour roughly follows the 200-kilometre-long Australian Remembrance Trail from Ypres in Belgium to Villers-Bretonneux in northern France, taking in the battlefields, cemeteries and museums most significant to Australians. ‘Medieval’ Ypres, flattened in the war but rebuilt in the 1920s and ’30s, is a neat and friendly base for exploring the Belgian sites, which lie within just 20 kilometres.
Our guide describes Hill 60, a rare elevated point on the Flanders plain, as “a cemetery without graves”, but in the spring sunshine there’s no prettier place. Famed for the miners who dug and detonated explosives under the hill, this ground changed hands several times at awful cost. Iron markers trace the to and fro of the front lines, at one point barely 25 metres apart.
Polygon Wood, too, is tranquil, picture perfect, and a world away from the cratered and tree-stumped moonscape of September 1917, when Australian and British troops overcame strongly held German defences here. The battle cost the Australians more than 5400 casualties.
Almost 2000 Australians were killed in less than 24 hours at 1916’s catastrophic Battle of Fromelles.
From Zonnebeke to Tyne Cot Cemetery we walk in the footsteps of Australian forces inching north-eastward toward Passchendaele, a key objective in the Third Battle of Ypres. In 1917 this was a sea of mud, but now there are plump cows, lilac trees and buttercupped verges on a manicured cycle path.
Once in France the distance between sites stretches out, and the grim events of Fromelles and Pozieres loom over the itinerary. Almost 2000 Australians were killed in less than 24 hours at 1916’s catastrophic Battle of Fromelles, some of the wounded left dying in no man’s land for days, many of their bodies lying where they fell until after the war. It was the heaviest concentration of losses in a 24-hour period in Australian military history.
VC Corner cemetery holds the unidentified remains of 410 of those killed at Fromelles, its walls inscribed with the names of 1178 Australians missing after the battle. Peter Corlett’s statue Cobbers, a soldier carrying a wounded mate from no man’s land, stands nearby. And our Victorians await their own headstones in Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Cemetery, which holds the occupants of the mass grave uncovered in 2009, 150 of them now named.
Tyne Cot Military Cemetery at Zonnebeke, Belgium.
More than a million men were killed or wounded on the Somme in 1916, and the Battle of Pozieres was Australia’s costliest contribution, claiming some 23,000 casualties in six weeks and described as a “giant, ghastly mincing machine” by official war correspondent Charles Bean.
A German machine-gun post commanding the highest point on the battlefield was eventually captured by Australians. Today this ‘Windmill’ site is little more than a mound in the swell of the land. Fourteen thousand men, from both sides, died to capture and occupy this position.
Photos take themselves in these serene and haunting landscapes and the often-grotesque facts don’t need exaggeration. Courage and heroism are sown into the earth, but the over-riding feelings are of horror and loss. These numbers will never add up.
Guide Simon remembers Marianne from Brisbane, 90-something, who visited Flanders this year and walked every day to the cemetery “to visit Grandad”. “I’m not crying for myself. I’m remembering my mother’s tears,” she said.
She never got to see her own father, and nobody in 100 years had the means or the time to go and say hello, we haven’t forgotten you.
And the 12-year-old Kiwi girl who, upon finding her great-great-grandfather’s name on a memorial to the missing, rang her great-grandmother in New Zealand where it was two in the morning: “Don’t be angry, I found him, I’m looking at your Daddy.” The grandmother cried on the phone for minutes, says Simon.
“She never got to see her own father, she didn’t have a memory of him and nobody in 100 years had the means or the time to go and say hello, we haven’t forgotten you.
“Australians and New Zealanders save up and come halfway round the world to see that relative. Every year I’m confronted with how much that means to people still,” says Simon.
“But for me this is not about getting family members to see that relative, it’s about getting someone for that soldier.”
Clare Barry travelled as a guest of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Sir John Monash Centre
If you want to know about the Australian soldier’s Western Front experience, the new Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery is the place to do it. An English historian harrumphed to us that it depicts a “Mel Gibson version” of the war. Too right: the immersive gallery’s gripping short film puts you in the thick of the battle. Screens throughout the centre play dozens of short documentaries examining aspects of the war, and interactive exhibits make the experience hands-on. You could spend an hour in here, or five, and leave with your understanding mightily enhanced.
Take the time to…
- Read the epitaphs on soldiers’ graves. They range from simple (“Loved only son”), to extravagant (“He hath fought the good fight and now lives a higher and nobler life”). The epitaph of Royal Irish Fusilier Arthur Conway Young at Tyne Cot registers a rare protest: “Sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war”.
- Drop into Talbot House in Poperinge east of Ypres, an “every man’s club” that welcomed more than half a million men during the war to its garden and chapel for endless cups of tea. Pop in for a cuppa or stay the night in a guest room. talbothouse.be
- Attend the Last Post ceremony at Ypres’ Menin Gate, inscribed with the names of more than 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave. Hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers marched through this spot to reach the front lines. A moving ceremony is held nightly at 8pm.
- Get the background. Museums and visitor centres help reconcile today’s landscapes with those of the war, and how it was fought. Among them are Ypres’ comprehensive In Flanders Fields Museum (inflandersfields.be/en), the small and sharply curated Musee de la Bataille de Fromelles (musee-bataille-fromelles.fr), and the new Sir John Monash Centre.
- Sit a while at a battle site, get the lie of the land, and mull the whole thing over.
With almost 300,000 Australians serving on the Western Front, there’s a good chance that one of your forebears fought there. Copious online records, available for free, can give a fascinating insight into a relative’s experience.
- Talk to family: Your first resource is your family. Start by asking your older relatives if they know who served. A family tree or other genealogical records can also pinpoint names and dates to kick-start an inquiry.
- First search: When you have a name, search it on the Australian War Memorial website (awm.gov.au) for basic information about a soldier’s military service. These records will show his service number, which will help with further searches. Officers did not have a service number so you will need a full name.
- Service records: For the most detailed records of a relative’s service, go to the National Archives of Australia website (naa.gov.au). Service records run to dozens of pages and can include everything from the name of the ship that took them to Europe to eyewitness statements of last movements.
- Final resting place: Find a grave by searching the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (cwgc.org), which lists cemeteries and the positions of graves. Where there is no known grave, you can find out where a name is commemorated.
- How to search: The website discoveringanzacs.naa.gov.au is a useful resource with how-to-search tutorials.
Photos: Clare Barry, Thierry Caignie