La SommePosted: September 2, 2011
La Somme takes after the way it sounds – it’s sombre here, sobering. During the years 1914 – 1918 this peaceful, open French countryside was a Battleground! The Western Front. Over 4 years, two opponents of seemingly equal strength, staged an arm wrestle of sorts, battling it out, man for man, neither gaining or losing hardly any ground, staged over an area, it seems, no greater than 90 kilometres wide – 4 years of war – 90 kilometres!!! Driving through and cycling around the villages of Le Hamel, Pozieres and Villers-Bretonneux we constantly pass a memorial or a cemetery, commemorating one battle or another, the loss of lives, millions of lives! The memorials are simply planned, beautifully maintained and poignant. Germany declared war on France, 3 August, 1914. All the dominions to the British Empire immediately declared their support to the French. The Australian Labour prime minister of the day, Andrew Fisher, famously promised that Australia would commit herself “to the last man and the last shilling!” Whether he was aware at the time he spoke, the Defence Act did not allow the regular (trained) army to be deployed out of Australia. Hence there was a call to the men – boys really, many 17, 18, 20 years of age, to “sign up” and fight for our country! Young men from all corners of Australia and all walks of life applied and 20,000 registered in 3 weeks. Thus the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was created.
One of the saddest memorials for me was the site of the Old Windmill. The Australians won this battle and took control from the Germans, of the city of Pozieres, and it is said, marked as a turning point in the war. It was a battle about which, Australias’ official historian, Charles Bean remarked: “The ruin of the Windmill marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.” In just 7 weeks the Australians endured 23,000 casualties, of whom 7000 died. Almost 10% of Australias population at the time, (4,875,000 million), were recruited into this war. (417,000). At least 330,000 of them served overseas. A total of 60,000 Australian men died, 46,000 on the Western Front.
Whilst it is not a compensation, something tells me many of the “Diggers” would be proud of the reputation they left behind. Known for their discipline, character and courage. I have read that until recently there were still older residents of La Somme who could recall with emotion those “tall, friendly and warm-hearted young men with their characteristic appearance, wearing the famous hat with the turned-back brim.”