Following Australian Footsteps on the WW1 Western Front

Peronne to Polygon Wood

After a quick visit to the famous Rheims cathedral I made for the ‘Historial de la Grande Guerre’, in Peronne. This tri-lingual museum is excellent and well worth a visit. It succeeds in giving an insight into the history and events before, during and after the First World War from a British, French and German perspective. Guide books and maps are available from the well-stocked bookshop.

Fortunately my visit coincided with an Australian photographic exhibition. At the entrance to the ‘Historial’ I came across the first of many bronze plaques highlighting Australian endeavours during the Great War. These plaques were unveiled in 1993 and were placed by Ross Bastiaan of Melbourne, Australia. Ross sculpted each map, wrote the text, raised the money from Australian companies and individuals and cemented them in place. In his words he “did them so the next generation knew the truth about our diggers”. During my trip I was to find these plaques at the sites of all major battlefields or sites of Australian military significance throughout the Western Front. The plaques are very informative and are a credit to Ross and his supporters.

After a prolonged visit I rejoined the motorway and drove to Ypres (Ieper). On arrival I set about finding some accommodation. Fortunately I had some recommendations to go by, courtesy of people who had written to Tom Morgan. I was very surprised to find that the ‘Gasthof ‘T Zweerd’ on the main square did not have any shower facilities – therefore I would not recommend it. The four star ‘Ariane Hotel’ looked very nice but unfortunately it was fully booked. I then walked across to the ‘The Shell Hole, Hotel and Militaria Shop’ and secured a room with ensuite for the night. I really enjoyed my stay here and would recommend it to anybody. The publican John Woolsgrove had lots of stories to tell and we shared a few drinks, laughs and tales with David Bartlett of Bartletts Battlefield Journeys who was also in the cosy bar.

The most moving event of the entire trip was the Last Post Ceremony at Menin Gate. At 8 pm I joined approximately 200 others and stood in silence as two buglers from the Ypres Fire Brigade marched to the middle of the gate and played The Last Post. This ceremony has been held very night (apart from a period during WW2) since 11th November 1929. I made a point of saying thank you to the buglers after the ceremony.

The magnificent Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing of the Salient bears the names of more than 54,000 British soldiers who died during the War. The names of 6,176 Diggers who died in Flanders and have no known grave are engraved on the walls of this great archway.

The impressive reconstructed Cloth Hall in the town square now houses the recently opened “In Flanders Fields” Museum, which is very informative and well worth a visit. As well as modern audio visual displays and exhibits the Museum presents numerous eye-witness accounts of the Great War. The gas display was particularly moving. The aerial photographs of the front line surrounding Ypres in July 1917 overlaid on a current map of the region were interesting to see.

After visiting the tranquil Ramparts British Military Cemetery and Hellfire Corner on the edge of the town of Ypres, I made for the Passchendaele (Passendale) – Broodseinde Ridge, the scene of very heavy fighting. Known as the ‘Third Battle of Ypres’, All five AIF divisions were engaged in the fighting between July and October 1917. In the nearby Tyne Cot cemetery, 1,368 Australians are buried, more than other cemetery on the Western Front. The cross at Tyne Cot Cemetery stands on top of an old German blockhouse, which was captured by the AIF 3rd Division on 4 October 1917.

At nearby ‘Polygon Wood’ is the 5th Division Memorial which stands on the butte overlooking a British Cemetery. ‘Polygon Wood’ was recaptured by the 5th Division AIF after heavy fighting in September 1917. A little further South, the Australian 1st Tunnelling Company Memorial at Hill 60 in Zwart-Leen, Ypres, remembers the men who fought above and below the ground to prevent the Germans from finding the galleries and mines. The Germans were holding this fiercely contested observation point in November 1916 when the Australian 1st Tunnelling Company took over the maintenance of the British mine beneath it. Today Hill 60 is an enclosed grassy area of craters, shell holes and mounds.

Continue: Messines Ridge