Amiens and the WW1 Battlefields
We left Castelnaudary by train for Amiens, via a train change in Paris. It took all day. This was good. It allowed recovery time from the seemingly non stop go-go of the canal trip. It also allowed the cassoulet to settle.
Arriving in Amiens we were met at the station by our host at L’Escale 80. This is a very neat little apartment right in Amiens beside a canal off the River Somme. It felt like a palace, compared to the Maison du Cassoulet in Castelnaudary; with a bedroom, kitchen and sitting area overlooking the canal and parklands.
We had two days here, the second was a guided tour of the nearby WW1 battlefields on which Australians were engaged. So we spent our first day in Amiens. Amiens was little damaged in WW1 but WW2 saw extensive damage. It was largely rebuilt after 1945 so it appears relatively ‘modern’. Still though with feeling of a much older place. This is particularly so in the huge Cathedral that was built from the 1200s, it suffered little damage in WW2. The Cathedral is the largest in France and has a floor area big enough to hold the Notre Dame in Paris twice over. It contains the usual side chapels and adornments of these ‘big old beautiful churches’. It is particularly rich in wooden carved scenes from the bible. These are in fact ‘illustrations’ for the worshippers in the days that preceded printing and when many had limited reading and writing skills.
There are also a number of plaques acknowledging the contributions of each of the allies in defending Amiens and the surrounding countryside in WW1. Amiens was a key spot because it was the transport and provisioning hub for the allies and the Germans were keen to get hold of it for exactly the same purpose. Villers- Bretonneux (about 15 km from Amiens) was were the Australians stopped the Germans on 25th April 1918, coincidentally ANZAC day, in their attack on Amiens.
Jules Verne also lived here in Amiens and it was where he wrote many of his books. There is of course his restored house and exhibits to visit, but we didn’t. Dinner was calling.
Next day we were off on the battle fields tour. There were 5 of us, all Australians, plus the guide. She was French but spoke great English. And obviously immersed in the history of WW1 and WW2. First stop was the Australian memorial at Villers -Bretonneux, VB for short. We walked through the cemetery which carries headstones for the many identified (not necessarily by name) Australian, British and Canadians who died in and around the VB battle arena. The Australian Memorial here, however, contains the names of the 11,000 or so Australians who died in France as a whole, but have no known grave. The countryside here is rolling agricultural plains, apparently little different from 100 years ago. It is a total contrast to the rugged topography of Gallipoli, which we visited a couple of years ago for ANZAC Day. Allthego climbed the 140 steps to the top of the Memorial and took in the panorama and view across to the VB village about a kilometre away.
Leaving the VB memorial we called next at the VB school. This is the school that was built from funds supplied by a Victorian school after the War. It has an Assembly Hall in which a museum of WW1 memorabilia is currently displayed, pending refurbishment of the actual museum space. This assembly hall is unique in France. Our guide tells us that French schools don’t have assembly halls, they don’t even have assemblies for that matter! The inside walls are adorned with carvings of Australian animals and the floor is made from timber from Daylesford in Victotria. The school in its playground has a big red sign ‘DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA’.
We move onto the town of Albert for lunch and later visit Pozieres, another significant Australian site. On the way we visit a mine crater caused by the explosion of tonnes of explosives at the end of an allied tunnel under the German lines. This was one of many along the German front.
Later at Beaumont-Hamel we wander around a network of preserved allied trenches and gaze across no man’s land to where the German lines were.
On a slightly lighter note we stopped by the ‘location’ of where the famous German air ace the ‘Red Baron’ was shot down, not by Snoopy in his Sopworth Camel, but by an Australian gunner. Our guide was convinced by Allthego to try to point out the exact spot where this happened, she was a little reluctant to do so. But she did oblige with a pointed finger at ‘the spot’, but then again perhaps it wasn’t!
Back in Amiens we had a late dinner in the apartment and packed up to prepare for the next leg of our trip by train on the following day to Amsterdam.