During our recent travels in Europe, Maggie and I went on a four-day guided tour of the First World War battlefields in the west of Belgium and the north-west of France. In Flanders and the Somme, some of the bloodiest and most pointless battles in human history took place, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives – British, French, German, Australian, Canadian and New Zealander, in the main. (One in every eighteen Australian men aged between 18 and 44 was killed during the war; many others were severely injured, mentally or physically.)
The tour, operated by Insight Vacations, took us to the sites of some of these battles and, more importantly, to several solemn cemeteries and memorials. For both of us, the tour presented us with the opportunity to honour those who died in the name of our country, as well as to learn a great deal about what took place. The four days amounted to a relentless but invaluable education in the horrors of war and, at times, the fact that many of our forebears displayed courage, skill and solidarity in the face of such horrors.
It is difficult to know the best way to share our experiences with you. There is a vast amount of accessible, published information about what took place on the ‘Western Front’, as the battleground in France and Belgium was known (the ‘Eastern Front’ was in Russia and Poland). So, I will try to avoid burdening you with too many statistics and other facts. However, I will try to describe, briefly, the significance of each site, share some images and tell you what we thought and felt. There will be four posts, one for each day of the tour.
One last introductory item: from 1914 to 1917, Great Britain had command of all active troops who came from countries that had been or still were part of the British Empire. (In 1918, the five Australian army divisions were placed under their own command as the ‘Australian Corps’.) All the cemeteries and memorials associated with these countries are maintained by a body known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). Other sites, including museums, are managed by individual nations. All of these sites occupy land that has been freely given by Belgium or France for the purpose.