Between March 1916 and November 1918 more than 295,000 Australians served in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in France and Belgium. Of these, some 132,000 became casualties and 46,000 lost their lives. As the centenary of the First World War (1914–1918) approaches, more and more Australians are travelling to places along the old Western Front associated with the AIF. They go to Pozières, where in a little over six weeks in 1916 the AIF suffered 23,000 battle casualties; or the fields of Belgian Flanders, where in October 1917 alone 6673 Australians died and a further 13,328 were wounded, missing or made prisoners of war. Everywhere the memorials and cemeteries mark locations of loss to nation and family.To help visitors appreciate the contribution of Australia to the Allied war effort along the Western Front, and the stories of those who served there, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is developing the Australian Remembrance Trail. The Trail highlights twelve sites, and other significant locations, from Passchendaele in Belgium down to the area of some of the AIF’s last actions in France around Péronne in 1918.
Each site will be interpreted in a unique way. At Bullecourt in France, for example, where the AIF fought in two battles with great loss in April and May 1917, there is now the ‘Jean and Denise Letaille Museum’. For many years, Jean Letaille, a farmer, collected relics from his fields associated with those battles and stored them in his barn. He also established a collection of smaller objects and, together with his wife Denise, he welcomed visiting Australians to his home and shared with them his understanding of what had happened to their ancestors at Bullecourt. Sadly, both Jean and Denise passed away before the opening of the refurbished museum on Anzac Day in 2012.
The remaining interpretive displays along the Trail will be developed and opened to coincide with the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War. Once completed, it will be a fitting tribute to the service and sacrifice of the Australian Imperial Force on the Western Front.
The aim of the Trail is to improve visitors’ understanding and appreciation of the achievements and sacrifices of Australians in the main theatre of conflict during the First World War. The Trail will link the sites of the most significant Australian battles of the war. It is being developed by the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs in partnership with local French and Belgian communities, councils and regional governments.
The Australian Remembrance Trail project builds on the remarkable efforts of many local people, over almost a century, to honour and commemorate the service of Australians on the Western Front.
Ieper (Ypres) – Belgium
During the First World War the Belgian town of Ypres (Ieper) was devastated by shellfire and deserted by its inhabitants. Unforgettable images of this destruction were made by the Australian official photographer, Captain Frank Hurley, who also captured the lives of the Australian soldiers who inhabited these ruins during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), which was fought to the east of the town between 31 July and 10 November 1917. The tragedy of wartime Ieper is told at the In Flanders Fields Museum in the Cloth Hall, a site on the Australian Remembrance Trail which includes stories of Australians associated with the town and its determined defence.
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Tyne Cot Cemetery – Zonnebeke, Belgium
Towering over the headstones in the Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium, is a Great Cross. Hidden beneath the cross’s stone pedestal are the remains of a German concrete bunker which, an inscription relates, was captured by the 3rd Australian Division on 4 October 1917. In this countryside was fought one of the most costly and horrific battles of the First World War – Passchendaele. In the mud of Passchendaele, in the month of October 1917 alone, the AIF lost 6673 dead. The Australian story at Passchendaele is told nearby in the ‘Memorial Museum Passchendaele’ in Zonnebeke, where a new gallery was opened on 12 July 2013 as a site on the Australian Remembrance Trail.
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Toronto Avenue Cemetery – Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium
On the night of the 6–7 June 1917 gas shells rained on Ploegsteert Wood. The soldiers of Australia’s 3rd Division fumbled for their gas masks; dozens of pack horses and mules gasped for air; and men collapsed retching by the side of duckboard tracks. They struggled on and were soon in trenches ready to attack in the opening moments of the Battle of Messines. At the edge of the wood is Toronto Avenue Cemetery, an exclusively Australian burial ground. These stories are brought to life at the ‘Plugstreet 14-18 Experience’ Interpretive Centre, officially opened on 9 November 2013 as part of the Australian Remembrance Trail.
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VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial – Fromelles, France
On 11 November 1918 Charles Bean, Australia’s official war historian, stood on the battlefield of Fromelles: ‘We found the old no-man’s-land simply full of our dead’. These men died on 19–20 July 1916 assaulting the German lines, and their remains lie buried in VC Corner Australian Cemetery. In 1998, an Australian Memorial Park was dedicated on the old German front line and at its centre stands ‘Cobbers’, a statue showing an Australian soldier carrying a wounded mate from the battlefield. The story of this catastrophic event for Australia is told in the ‘Battle of Fromelles Museum’ which opened in July 2014 as part of the Australian Remembrance Trail.
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The Bullecourt Digger – Bullecourt, France
Helping his mother to see what the battlefield of Bullecourt in May 1917 looked like, Private John Ware wrote: ‘if ever you saw a sheep camp in time of drought you will know how many sheep [die] in one night our men are lying about just the same’. Today at Bullecourt a statue, the ‘Digger’, stands in the Australian Memorial Park gazing out towards the enemy trenches which had cost so many Australian lives to capture. In the village, the story of the battles fought by Australians here in April and May 1917 is told in the Jean and Denise Letaille Museum.
More about the Bullecourt Digger…
Thiepval Memorial – Thiepval, France
Private George Lewis Grant, Australian Imperial Force, was killed during the Battle of the Somme at Pozières on 29 July 1916. His body lies in one of the most unusual cemeteries on the old Western Front, the Anglo-French Cemetery at Thiepval. Here, on two sides of the cemetery, are the graves of 300 French and 300 British Empire soldiers, symbolising the alliance of the French Republic and the nations of the British Empire in World War I. Over them towers the great Thiepval Memorial with more than 73,000 names of soldiers of the British Army who went ‘missing in action’ in the Somme region.
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First Australian Division Memorial – Pozières, France
During the last week of July 1916 shells fell in their thousands on Australian soldiers in a village they had captured from the Germans – Pozières. I had not the slightest idea where our lines or the enemy’s were, and the shells were coming at us from, it seemed, three directions, wrote Australian Lieutenant John Raws. Pozières was reduced to rubble and shattered earth, but here the men of the First Australian Division later built their memorial in France. They remembered the tenacity with which they had held their ground and the comrades who had perished in the horror of those bombardments.
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The Windmill – Pozières, France
The Windmill site at Pozières was established as an Australian memorial in the 1930s at the suggestion of Australia’s official war historian, Charles Bean, because ‘The Windmill site … marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth’. Over seven weeks in 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, the Australian Imperial Force suffered 23,000 casualties, more than 6700 of whom died, in the countryside around the Windmill. On 11 November 1993 soil from the Windmill site was cast over the coffin of Australia’s Unknown Soldier during his funeral at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
More about the Windmill – Pozières…
Australian National Memorial – Villers-Bretonneux, France
On 22 July 1938, Queen Elizabeth laid a bunch of poppies, given to her by a local schoolboy, at the unveiling of the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. Was she thinking of her own brother, Fergus Bowes-Lyon, ‘missing’ at the Battle of Loos in 1915? Around the walls of the Memorial were the names of some 11,000 Australians ‘missing’ in action in France. On the night of 24–25 April 1918, Australian soldiers recaptured Villers-Bretonneux from the Germans, a battle also remembered in the Franco-Australian museum at the Victoria school in the town. In the playground is a sign: ‘Do Not Forget Australia’.
More about the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux…
Australian Corps Memorial – Le Hamel, France
The Battle of Hamel on 4 July 1918, it is usually claimed, took 93 minutes. According to one source in their official ‘War Diary’ the 44th Australian Infantry Battalion required only 85 minutes to take all their objectives. Starting at 3.10 am, then moving around Le Hamel village, the Western Australians advanced uphill, and by 4.35 had driven the Germans from a series of trenches and dugouts on top of the hill. There today stands the Australian Corps Memorial, with sweeping views across the valley of the Somme, a fitting place at which to remember the victories of the Australian Corps in France in 1918.
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Second Australian Division Memorial – Mont St Quentin, and Péronne, France
Between 31 August and 2 September 1918, Australia’s Second Division attacked and captured the German stronghold of Mont St Quentin, the key to the strategic town of Péronne on the Somme River. Tired and under strength, units such as the 21st Battalion skilfully drove the enemy from their well-established positions, and for his courage and leadership during the battle Sergeant Albert Lowerson, 21st Battalion, was awarded the Victoria Cross. It was a costly action: twenty-three men of the battalion lost their lives that day. Today the Second Australian Division’s Memorial stands at Mont St Quentin, the scene of one of the division’s greatest victories.
More about the Second Australian Division Memorial…
Fourth Australian Division Memorial – Bellenglise, France
Between 18 and 20 September 1918, the 48th Battalion, Fourth Division AIF, fought its last successful action on the Western Front. Advancing on the Hindenburg Outpost Line near Bellenglise, they suffered 65 casualties but captured 500 prisoners, ‘nearly one per man of the battalion’. Holding the line they got into a ‘bit of a fight’ for which Private James Woods was awarded the Victoria Cross. The Division, achieving all its objectives, took more than 4300 prisoners for 1260 casualties. Today the Fourth Division’s memorial in France stands on the heights above Bellenglise. It is little visited.
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