Afternoon, Saturday, July 12, 2014. After our morning visits to the battlefields and memorials at Beaumont-Hamel, Thiepval, Coucelette and the Lochnagar Crater, we lunch in Peronne at a roadside cafe. Across the road from the restaurant is the Historial de la Grande Guerre, an interesting World War I museum dedicated to developing a better understanding the First World War. Here one can examine the causes and consequences of the conflict, as well as its influences on our society today. Rich and absorbing, the museum also inspires humility and decency. Following the chronology of the war, it gives a comparative and objective view of the painful experiences of the three main combative nations.
More than simply retracing the events of the First World War the Historial de la Grande Guerre also provides a glimpse of civilian life and life at the front. There are many everyday items gathered together here, all left behind by the soldiers – vestiges of a world seeking meaning and direction in the midst of anguish and distress. Attracting over 80,000 visitors each year, the modern part of the museum has been inserted into a very imposing historic fortress which, like the rest of the town, was damaged during the fighting. The museum’s presentations are in French, English, and German and Sonya and I especially enjoyed the 30-minute film on the Battle of the Somme. It’s a featured presentation here, and definitely should not be missed.
One of the displays that caught my attention was of a wooden sign painted with the German words – “Nicht argern, nur wundern!” which roughly translates to “Don’t be angry, just be amazed!”. This was the calling card left behind by German troops in the destroyed town hall of Péronne after their withdrawal to the Hindenberg Line in 1918. For almost the whole of the war, the town of Péronne was occupied by German troops. It was finally liberated on the 2nd September 1918 by Australian troops. Life under German rule deeply affected the inhabitants of Péronne and the town suffered heavily with bombardments, fire and destruction. Between 1914 and 1918, almost 30% of the town’s inhabitants became civilian victims of the war!
A major portion of the Historial’s collection is comprised of maps, posters, uniforms and firearms. Highlights are the display of medical devices used during the Great War and the displays dealing with the standard uniforms of British, French and German infantry units worn during the Somme battles. The museum’s bookshop is also impressive offering a wide variety of publications on literary, historical, artistic and military aspects of the First World War. It’s a place where I could easily spend the whole day, but that was not to be and by mid-afternoon we were on the road again to Villiers-Bretonneux and a stop at the Australian National Monument.
Located at Villers-Bretonneux, 16 kilometres east of Amiens, the Australian National Memorial stands in Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery. It is built on one of the hills stormed by Australian troops in their famous action on Anzac Day (25 April) 1918 to recapture Villers-Bretonneux from a much larger German force. The Memorial was erected to commemorate all Australian soldiers who fought in France and Belgium during the First World War, to their dead, and especially to name those of the dead whose graves are not known. The memorial lists 10,773 names of soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force with no known grave who were killed between 1916, when Australian forces arrived in France and Belgium, and the end of the war.
Interestingly, one of the graves at Villers-Bretonneux that caught my attention was for a Canadian, Lieutenant Jean B. A. Brilliant. Serving with the famous 22nd Battalion, (Canadien Francais) he won the Military Cross and the Victoria Cross for his extraordinary bravery in the face the enemy during the summer of 1918, and died near here on August 10, 1918. He was just 28 years old.
The pictures which follow are from our Somme Battlefields collection. They can also be viewed separately from the Photo Gallery menu above. Click on any image for a full description.