Australians on the Western Front: A Western pilgrimage

REALISTIC: Soldiers charge in a film at the Sir John Monash Centre which recounts the terrifying battle at Villers-Bretonneux - a battle that forged strong national bonds. Picture: Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

REALISTIC: Soldiers charge in a film at the Sir John Monash Centre which recounts the terrifying battle at Villers-Bretonneux - a battle that forged strong national bonds. Picture: Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Soldiers are screaming in a blood-curdling roar as they charge the enemy’s deadly machine gun fire to recapture the French village of Villers-Bretonneux.

Others are buried alive under artillery shelling while a British Sopwith Camel engages in an aerial dogfight with a German Fokker Triplane.

Smoke blurs your vision as tanks roll towards you just as they did 100 years ago over German trenches at Le Hamel.

It’s an electrifying experience at the new Sir John Monash Centre, recently opened by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

You stand immersed within a circle of screens as critical First World War battles involving Australians in 1918 are recreated, literally ‘in your face.’

The battle scenes in the eight-minute film, shot in New Zealand’s Oamaru and using aircraft owned by Sir Peter Jackson, are a highlight of the high-tech experiences at the centre, located directly behind the Australian National Memorial outside Villers-Bretonneux.

The new interpretive centre is an Australian Government project that tells the story of the 295,000 Australians who served on the Western Front using archival, contemporary and computer-generated footage, and over-sized images of soldiers speaking from their diaries and letters.

Named after Australia’s Corps Commander in 1918, Sir John Monash, the centre’s subtle design is in perfect harmony with the Memorial opened in 1938.

About 230kg of unexploded ordnance were uncovered while building the centre, part of the ongoing “iron harvest” that farmers in the Somme valley endure.

I had a preview of the centre late in March during a private visit to the Australian Remembrance Trail which links the battlefields, memorials, cemeteries and museums most important to Australia on the Western Front.

My starting point at the trail’s northern end was Ypres in Belgium where the Last Post ceremony is played out at Menin Gate every night at 8pm, allowing you to contemplate the 6000 Australians missing in Flanders fields whose names are engraved on its walls.

Everything is a short bus trip, bike ride or healthy walk away. The Passchendaele 1917 Museum – which recalls the battle that cost half-a-million casualties for a territory gain of eight kilometres – has a network of reconstructed trenches and artillery shell cases of every imaginable size and colour.  

It’s only nine kilometres from Ypres’ restored Cloth Hall to the eerie silence around the rumpled remains of Hill 60 and cavernous Caterpillar Crater, where Australian engineers detonated mine blasts marking the opening of the Battle of Messines.

Eight minutes from Ypres by rail is Poperinge which has an execution pole at the town hall where British (not Australian) deserters were shot.

Heading south to France, I based myself near the Somme River at Corbie, in the shadow of its abbey that was shelled by German artillery 100 years ago.

From Corbie, it’s 3.8 kilometres south to the Australian National Memorial, which lists the names of 10,700 Australians with no known grave, the Villers-Bretonneux military cemetery and the new Sir John Monash Centre.

The Memorial’s tower looks over fields to the Australian Corps Memorial at Le Hamel – Monash’s “textbook victory” – only seven minutes’ drive away.

Corbie is an easy drive north to battlefields such as Pozières, Dernancourt, Thiepval and Bullecourt, and east to Peronne and Mont St Quentin. I had five days on the Somme but I’m sure much could be covered in two or three.

Australians visiting the Somme can stay in larger towns in northern France such as Arras, Amiens, whose 13th century cathedral honours Australian soldiers who fought to defend the city in 1918, or Albert, whose museum features renowned Australian Bert Jacka, VC, alongside Germany’s Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen.

There’s lots to see if you have more time: the underground caves at Naours, the Thuillier photographic exhibition at Vignacourt, and the Australian War Animal Memorial at Pozières.

For many Australians, the trip to Flanders or the Somme is a pilgrimage to see where an ancestor fought or to visit a gravesite.

At Dernancourt, seven gardeners are at work in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery near the grave of Adelaide’s 28th Battalion Lieutenant Colonel Allan Leane.

Locals that I met were proud of their relationship with South Australia – as is the Villers-Bretonneux community with their links to Victoria.

It’s a solitary, emotional journey reviewing creamy white gravestones in some of the hundreds of well-tended CWGC cemeteries.

In row after neat row are young men who did not come home, their bodies shattered on the Western Front.

Some say simply: A Soldier of the Great War.

At Villers-Bretonneux, one of the 1500 gravestones belongs to 46th Battalion Private Edwin Nicholls, awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal at only 19. It carries this message: “He lives in the hearts of those he left. A life we cannot forget. Mother.”

  • The Road to Remembrance is published by Fairfax Media in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.