Saturday, November 8, 2014

A PILGRIMAGE TO THE WW1 BATTLEFIELDS - MARGARET TANNER


REMEMBRANCE DAY - A TRIBUTE TO THE FALLEN OF WW1

At 11a.m. on the 11th November, 1918, an Armistice was signed and the guns fell silent. The Great War had ended but the repercussions would be felt for years.

If you get the chance, please buy a red poppy and wear it proudly, in memory of the fallen.

Australia was a small country in 1914, with a population of less than 4 million, yet we sent over 300,000 men to the front, Gallipoli in Turkey, Egypt, France and Belgium.  More than 60,000 of our soldiers lie on Gallipoli or in the beautiful cemeteries of France and Belgium, 12,000 miles from home.

Our pilgrimage commenced in Amiens where we were met by our guide who runs tours of the French and Belgium battlefields. He has a wealth of knowledge regarding the battlefields. Using war time maps, he was able to point to within a hundred yards, where my grandfather’s cousin was seriously wounded near the village of Hermes in 1917. Chills ran down my spine, I felt as if a hand was gripping me from the grave. Unfortunately, this relative died of his wounds, leaving a wife and two small children behind.  He is buried in the war cemetery at Rouen, and we were elated but sad when we found his grave.

We visited large cemeteries where hundreds of white headstones stood amongst green lawns with pretty flowers nodding their heads between the graves.

At Thiepval we saw a monument with thousands of names engraved on it, for English soldiers who fell in the area but have no known grave. One of the most memorable monument wasn’t very big.  It was at Fromelles, a bronze statue of an Aussie soldier carrying his wounded mate. 

The battle for Fromelles was fought on the 19th and 20th July 1916, Australia had 5,500 casualties the British 1,500.  For over 90 years no-one knew the fate of nearly 300 of these soldiers, but there had been rumours for many years of mass graves in the area, and it was only after a tenacious campaign waged for years by an Australian school teacher that the authorities finally acted, and four mass graves were discovered about three years after our visit. 250 soldiers have now been laid to rest in separate graves in a new Commonwealth war cemetery.  Of the 250 bodies, nearly half have so far been identified by name using DNA volunteered by relatives, but the authorities are still hoping that more soldiers will eventually be identified.

At Beaumont-Hamel is the Newfoundland Memorial, a giant bronze caribou monument, the caribou being the 1st Newfoundland Regiment’s emblem. The losses here were horrific. During one of the most costly days of the 1916 campaign, the 1st Newfoundland regiment lost three-quarters of its soldiers in less than half an hour.

On the 28th May, 1918, the 1st American Division attacked Cantigny and took the village against overwhelming odds.

The men of the various American regiments who fell in the battles of 1917-18, are buried in a large American Cemetery at Bony (Aisne) on the Somme.

There is a lovely chapel there and staff at the visitor centre were very nice and showed us around. They were surprised at our interest, because they said that sadly not many Americans visited there. Those who came to France always went to the Normandy beaches. Hopefully, with the Centenary of the 1st World War, this will be rectified and Americans in greater numbers will now come to pay homage to their heroes who fell on the Western Front.

In the Belgium city of Ypres is a soaring stone archway at an entrance to the town. The Menin Gate memorial to the Missing has etched into its walls the names of 50,000 thousand British and other Commonwealth soldiers who served in the region but have no known graves. Even after all these years, they still play the last post every evening as a mark of respect for the fallen.

The largest Commonwealth War cemetery is Tyne Cot with over 12,000 graves in it. More than half the headstones have no name. They bear the inscription “Known Only To God.

We visited large war cemeteries here and beautiful and sad as they were, the most touching was a small cemetery near Passchendale with only a handful of white headstones. Night was falling as we passed through this cemetery, and as we stopped to read the inscription on an eighteen year old soldier’s grave, we whispered that someone from home had come to visit him. When we turned and walked away through the misty rain, all we could leave behind for him was our tears and a red poppy.

Find Margaret Tanner's WWI Centenary Edition and her other titles here: http://www.bookswelove.net/tanner.php






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