BILL SNADDON

Writer and journalist

Grave battles: Australians in France and Belgium in World War I

This travel blog — or digital scrapbook — is written for my parents, family and friends. In November 2019 I travelled with mum and dad to several battlefields in northern France and Belgium, where Australian and Allied soldiers fought in World War I. We also visited cemeteries and memorials born from those gruesome battles.

Villers-Bretonneux, France

Visited on Sunday 10 November, 2019

The Germans captured the town of Villers-Bretonneux from the British on 24 April 1918.

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Mum, Dad and Ken the tour guide at the Adelaide Cemetery in Villers-Bretonneux, northern France, where Australian and British soldiers are buried.

Despite the best efforts of the British, the Germans had been able to edge the British out of Villers-Bretonneux with the use of tanks and the capture of large numbers of British prisoners, placing themselves in a position to threaten the great rail-hub of Amiens.
– Sir John Monash Centre

Australian soldiers recaptured Villers-Bretonneux in the early morning of 25 April, the third anniversary of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli.

It took the remainder of the 25th and the 26th of April to completely secure the town and then establish a new front line to the east. So, while the Germans had taken the town on the 24th of April, the Australians in an inspired and daring assault had taken it right back the very next day.
– Sir John Monash Centre

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The remains of an unknown Australian soldier lay in the Adelaide Cemetery in Villers-Bretonneux for 75 years. He now rests in the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
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Dad at the Adelaide Cemetery. The sloping ground behind the cemetery is where Australian soldiers approached and fought the Germans when retaking the town.
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French children tending graves at the Adelaide Cemetery of Australians killed in battle. Photo: Australian War Memorial.
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Ken, Mum and Dad at the Adelaide Cemetery.
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Adelaide Cemetery, Villers-Bretonneux.
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The Victoria School in Villers-Bretonneux.
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Inside the Musée Franco-Australien at the Victoria School in Villers-Bretonneux.
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Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux.

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Mum at the Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux.
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Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux.
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RAWS J.A. on the wall at the National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux. John Alexander Raws, known as Alec, died in the Battle of Pozières on 23 August 1916. He was the great-uncle of mum’s sister-in-law, Rene White (née Raws). John’s younger brother Robert ‘Goldy’ Raws also died at Pozières on 28 July 1916.

Australian War Memorial records of Alec and Goldy Raws

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Mum at the Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux.
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Me, Mum and Dad at the Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux.
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Dad at the Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux.

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Le Hamel, France

Visited on Sunday 10 November, 2019

The battle at Le Hamel on 4 July 1918 was the first major operation of the Australian Corps since Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash became commander in May that year. It was also the first time Australian soldiers fought alongside the recently-arrived American troops.

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The fields of Le Hamel around the Australian memorial, where the Australian flag flies alongside the American, British, Canadian and French flags.

The battle to wrest the French village near the Somme River from German control began at 3.10am in smoke and fog with an attacking force of 7500 infantry, 60 tanks, 628 heavy and field guns and aircraft that photographed and bombed enemy positions and parachuted ammunition to Australian gunners.
– Sir John Monash Centre

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Monash’s planning of the battle was meticulous. His final meeting before the battle was attended by 250 officers, had an agenda of 133 items and lasted four and a half hours.

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American and Australian troops at Le Hamel. Photo: Australian War Memorial.
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The town of Le Hamel, seen from the Australian memorial, in the Somme department and Hauts-de-France region of northern France.

The Allied troops won the battle in 93 minutes. They advanced 2km across a 6km front, took the town and the nearby woods — and captured the high ground just beyond the village. The German counterattack later that night failed.

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Dad at the Australian memorial at Le Hamel.

Australian soldiers had been suspicious of tanks since their failure at Bullecourt in 1917 but this changed at Hamel where new Mark V tanks advanced inexorably, with infantry alongside and behind an artillery barrage, flattening German trenches, weapon pits and shelters.
– Sir John Monash Centre

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Remains from the battle field at Le Hamel at the Australian memorial.

Australian forces suffered 1,200 casualties at the battle. The Americans 176. Monash wrote that the Germans lost 3,000, including dead, wounded and prisoners taken.

The lessons of the battle — its careful planning, clear objectives and coordination of tanks, infantry, artillery, aircraft and signals — were circulated in a report to all commanders of British forces. It was a morale-boosting victory.

We knew you would fight a real fight, but we did not know that from the very beginning you would astonish the Continent with your valour. I have come here for the simple purpose of seeing the Australians and telling them this. I shall go back tomorrow and say to my countrymen: I have seen the Australians; I have looked into their eyes. I know that they, men who have fought great battles in the cause of freedom, will fight alongside us, till the freedom for which we are all fighting is guaranteed for us and our children.
– French prime minister Georges Clemenceau addressing Australian troops after the Battle of Le Hamel

Pozières, France

Visited on Monday 11 November, 2019

From 23-25 July in 1916 the Australians took the town of  Pozières. The British had attacked the town on four previous occasions, unable to overrun the Germans. On July 27, after taking the town, Australian troops tried and failed to capture the Pozières high ground, still in German hands. On orders from their commander they went back into battle and succeeded on their second attempt. Fighting continued over the coming weeks as Australian soldiers pushed further into German-held territory, eventually taking nearby Mouquet Farm on 26 September 1916.

Down the road from the Australian memorial, on the main road of Pozières, is Tommy’s cafe — run by a French chef, Dominque. Over time, his cafe has become a museum and memorial to Australians who fought at Pozières.

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Mum and Dad looking at the names of Australians who fought at Pozières.
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Mum and Dominique find the names of Robert Goldthorpe Raws, known as Goldy, and John Alexander Raws, known as Alec. The link: Mum’s sister-in-law is the great niece of the Alec and Goldy.

My tunic is rotten with other men’s blood, and partly splattered with a comrade’s brain.
– Alec Raws, in a letter home. He was killed in action at Pozières on August 23, 1916. His brother Goldy was killed about a month earlier.

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John Alexander Raws, known as Alec, wrote several letters back home while in France. An extract from one of his letters hangs on the wall at Tommy’s cafe, under the TV.

Alec and Goldy’s letters are on the Australian War Memorial’s website

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Mum, me, Dominique and Dad out the back of his cafe, at the entrance to his outdoor museum.
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The museum includes a life-size model giving insight into trench life.

The intense fighting to capture Pozières and Mouquet Farm took a terrible toll on the three Australian Divisions during the near seven weeks they were in battle. The Australians had made up to 19 attacks against the German positions at a terrible cost of 23,000 casualties that included 6,900 killed in action or dying of their wounds.
– Sir John Monash Centre

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Australian troops walk past a devastated part of Pozières. Photo: Australian War Memorial.
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Empty shells and helmets found in the Pozières fields and brought to Tommy’s cafe, displayed in the backyard exhibition and memorial behind the restaurant.
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We were there, coincidently, on Armistice Day, November 11, 2019. French president Emmanuel Macron was on the TV at a memorial service. Australian flags hang above the windows in Tommy’s cafe.

Bullecourt, France

Visited on Monday 11 November, 2019

Two battles at Bullecourt in early 1917 saw significant Australian losses and sowed distrust between Australian soldiers and British commanders. “Our men are being put into the hottest fighting and are being sacrificed in hair-brained ventures, like Bullecourt and Passchendaele,” wrote General John Monash in the aftermath.

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Mum, Dad and me at the Australian memorial at Bullecourt

In 1917 the village of Bullecourt in northern France was well-protected by the Germans. The town was absorbed into the Hindenburg Line — a German defensive position established during the winter of 1916-17 on the Western Front.

The attack now known as the first battle of Bullecourt was planned for 10 April 1917 but Australian soldiers didn’t proceed because the British tanks hadn’t arrived on time. Communication within the Allied ranks had broken down and a British division began the attack as planned. The Brits weren’t told until later that the Australians had been stood down. Still, the British troops got through the first set of German defences and were close to the Hindenburg line. The next day, 11 April, Australian troops went into the battle but were hit with relentless machine gun fire. Nearly a third of the men were killed or wounded. They managed to fight through the German line but were eventually hemmed and had to retreat.

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A shell beside the road in Bullcourt on 11 November 2019. A farmer would have found it in his field and placed it here for collection. “Don’t touch it,” said Ken the guide.

On 3 May 1917 — 22 days after the first Bullecourt battle — Australian and British forces fought together and captured the German trenches.

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Australians on the Hindenburg Line with a Stokes mortar near Bullecourt. Photo: Australia War Memorial.
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Australian memorial at Bullecourt.
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A field in Bullecourt where fighting occurred.

The two battles had a significant impact on the Australian Imperial Force. The first left a toll of 3,000 killed and wounded, and 1,170 taken prisoner; while the second battle resulted in 7,000 casualties.
– Sir John Monash Centre

The result of the battle? A strategically meaningless patch of land was gained, a town was destroyed and thousands of lives were lost.

Fromelles, France

Visited on Monday 11 November, 2019

The battle at Fromelles on 19 and 20 July 1916 was a disaster for Australia. It was the first major operation fought by Australian troops on the Western Front; soldiered by a mix of Gallipoli veterans and new recruits. The attack in Fromelles was meant to keep the Germans busy so they couldn’t send reserves to the Somme, where the main Allied offensive had begun on 1 July.

Prior to the start of the Fromelles attack 2nd Lieutenant Waldo Zander, a 30th Battalion officer from Sydney, recalled how confused he was by mixed messages given to him and his men. He also noted that despite appeals for secrecy he had heard French citizens in the local estaminets asking when the big day would be.
– Sir John Monash Centre

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Australian memorial at Fromelles.

The attack began at 6pm on 19 July, giving the Germans clear view to pick off the advancing Australians. They continued to push on but it was a slaughter. The Germans were shooting from an elevated concrete position known as the Sugar Loaf.

“If you had gathered the stock of a thousand butcher-shops, cut it into small pieces and strewn it about, it would give you a faint conception of the shambles those trenches were,” wrote Corporal Hugh Knyvett of the 59th Battalion.

On the morning of 20 July, the depleted Australian units limped back behind friendly lines.

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Men of the 53rd Battalion waiting for the attack at Fromelles. Only three of the men shown here came out alive, and those three were wounded. Photo: Australian War Memorial.
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The mud of a modern day Fromelles field in early November 2019.

Fromelles is generally considered the worst 24 hours of Australia’s military history, and viscerally described by Harold “Pompey” Elliott the commander of the 5th Divisions’ 15th Brigade as a ‘tactical abortion’. With more than 5,500 Australians becoming casualties over the course of one night and morning and 470 being captured, this is perhaps an apt description from an officer who greeted his returning men with tears rolling down his face, and whose untimely death [suicide] in 1931 has been attributed by some to the debacle at Fromelles.
– Sir John Monash Centre

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The remains of a German bunker which would have formed part of the trench line of the German front at Fromelles.
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‘German front line, 19-20 July 1916’. A sign stands between the Australian memorial in Fromelles and the Commonwealth cemetery at VC Corner, seen in the distance in front of the big row of trees.
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VC Corner Cemetery in Fromelles, where about 400 Australians are buried en masse, is the only all-Australian war cemetery in France. None of the 400 men could be named or identified at death. On the wall behind the cross are the names of  1,299 men who were lost in Fromelles or couldn’t be identified at death. In 1916 this land was “no man’s land” between the German and British front lines.

Pheasant Wood Cemetery, France

Visited on Monday 11 November, 2019

Almost 100 years after the battle of Fromelles, a mass grave was discovered on the outskirts of the town. The presence of the grave, now known to have been the resting place of Australian and British soldiers killed in action in July 1916, was confirmed in 2008. The discovery might not have happened without a retired Australian schoolteacher, Lambis Englezos, who had become curious about the missing Australian casualties from Fromelles.

With others in Australia and Britain, Englezos gathered evidence from published and manuscript sources, along with a tell-tale aerial photograph of a possible grave site at Pheasant Wood, to suggest that here were the missing men. A number of attempts to persuade an Australian Army panel of experts finally led to the panel recommending two surveys of the site to determine if bodies were buried there.
– Anzacportal

Another convincing bit of evidence was found in German military archives: a written order by the commanding German officer at Fromelles telling his men to dig a grave behind Pheasant Wood for the fallen opposition troops.

By mid-2008, archaeologists had found enough objects at the site to confirm the mass grave. In 2009, a full-scale exhumation was undertaken at Pheasant Wood. And on 19 July 2010 — 94 years to the day after the battle of Fromelles — the Pheasant Wood Cemetery was dedicated to the 250 men found in that mass grave, many of whom remain unknown.

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A grave at the Pheasant Wood Cemetery.
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Pheasant Wood Cemetery.
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Pheasant Wood Cemetery.
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Pheasant Wood Cemetery.

Ieper, Belgium

Visited on Monday 11 November, 2019

Ieper is a town in northwestern Belgium, just across the border from France. Also known as Ypres in the French spelling, the town of 100,000 is home to the Menin Gate, a memorial on the edge of the city where the names of 54,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen are recorded. Every night since 1928, a member of the Ieper fire brigade has played the Last Post under the Menin Gate. The only interruption came for four years during World War II when the Nazis occupied the city. The bugle ceremony resumed on the 6 September 1944, the night of the liberation of Ieper — even though fighting was still raging nearby.

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Menin Gate, Ieper, Belgium

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Siegfried Sassoon, on passing the Menin Gate

We were at the Menin Gate on the evening of 11 November, Armistice Day — which marks the day in 1918 when the Allies and Germans agreed to stop fighting. The Menin Gate ceremony happens every night at 8pm. Naturally, it takes on extra meaning on November 11.

Soldiers would leave their barracks in Ieper and walk through the town’s exit where the gate now stands, on their way to likely slaughter.

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Underneath the Menin Gate on 12 November 2019.
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The wreaths under the Menin Gate on 12 November 2019.

Hill 60, near Ieper, Belgium

Visited on 12 November 2019

Hill 60, a strategic point of high ground, was captured by the Germans in 1914. By 1917, all across northern France and Belgium, both the Germans and Allies were entrenched in their positions. Millions of lives had been lost for minimal gain. In this type of war, mining underneath enemy strongholds and setting off explosives became a crucial (and risky) tactic in trying to dislodge the enemy from their position.

The Australian Mining Corps was established in 1915 and was soon assisting Allied efforts in blowing up Germans from below.

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A soldier standing in a crater near Hill 60. Photo: Australian War Memorial.
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A huge crater known as The Caterpillar near Hill 60, blown into this shape by explosives set off way below the ground. The area today is used by walkers, runners and nature-seekers.

The miners studied soundwaves through the earth and worked in quicksand, chalk and clay. Conditions were cold, cramped and often waterlogged, with a high rate of trench foot. A team of three rotated in shifts and typically included a ‘kicker’ lying on a 45 degree angle at the face, a ‘bagger’ who filled sandbags, and a ‘trammer’ who removed overburden on a trolley and returned with timber. The miners had to sit still and quietly, listening for the slightest sound from enemy tunnellers. Voices or scraping of a shovel could mean a hostile team was nearby.
– Sir John Monash Centre

During the war, British tunnelling units, including the Australians, detonated 750 mines along 160km of frontline. The Germans detonated 700.

Miners would dig down as deep as 17 metres below enemy holdouts.

In June 1917, during the Battle of Messines, Australian miners exploded 19 mines at Hill 60, helping to secure this patch of land which offered a vantage point of the surrounding area.

The Battle of Messines was considered a British success that greatly boosted morale among the Allies. The cost was high: 25,000 German soldiers and 17,000 Allied troops.
– Sir John Monash Centre

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Tour guide Ken, Mum and Dad overlooking The Caterpillar crater near Hill 60.

The story of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company was made into a film in 2010.

“Beneath Hill 60” is on YouTube

Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke, Belgium

Visited on 12 November 2019

Two Australian divisions and seven British divisions went into battle at Polygon Wood on 26 September 1917. The fighting took place between the Menin Road and Polygon Wood. The woods, though, had been flattened by shelling. The battle lasted until 3 October when the Allies took victory.

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Australian troops occupy trenches and shell holes won from the Germans at Polygon Wood in 1917. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

Australian causalities were 5,770 at Polygon Wood. The British dead and wounded numbered 15,375 and the Germans 13,500.

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British Cemetery at Polygon Wood.
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The Australian Fifth Division memorial on the right, overlooking the British Cemetery.
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The Polygon Wood Cemetery where 60 New Zealand troops are buried, 32 UK troops, 1 German and 11 unidentified.
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Dad feeding Tommy the Donkey at the Polygon Wood’s New Zealand cemetery.

A German war cemetery in Langemark, Belgium

Visited on 12 November 2019

How do the defeated honour their dead? One answer to this difficult question lies in Langemark, on the outskirts of the town of Ieper in northern Belgium.

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44,000 soldiers are buried at Langemark Cemetery. Over two million German soldiers died during World War I from 1914-18.
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Up to eight names are often on a gravestone.
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Hitler visited the Langebrook Cemetery in June 1940. The Germans occupied the north and west of France and all of Belgium at this stage of World War II. Hitler had fought in areas south of Ypres/Ieper in Belgium in World War I. Look at the black gates in the photo on the phone and the black gates on the left.
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Wreaths from Armistice Day, the day before we were there.
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Dad at the Langemark cemetery in northern Belgium.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Zonnebrooke, Belgium

Sitting where the Passchendaele battlefields used to be filled with blood and mud, Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth cemetery anywhere in the world.

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11,965 Commonwealth servicemen, including 1353 Australians, are buried at Tyne Cot.

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All photos unless otherwise stated taken by Bill Snaddon
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