I made this pilgrimage in honour of a great-uncle I never knew, and in memory of a grandfather I loved.
Remembering the First World War
On the 8th September 1916, my great-uncle died from wounds suffered during the Battle of the Somme. Second Lieutenant Henry Byron, 1st/5th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment, was twenty-two. His brother – my grandfather –enlisted at the age of fourteen, had a kidney shot out in Ypres, contracted TB while convalescing, and was given six months to live.
Deciding the only way to survive was to escape the miasmas of war-time Liverpool, he worked his way to Australia, jumped shipped in Perth, and died at the age of ninety two. He could never bring himself to return to France and visit his older brother’s grave.
World War One Cemeteries
In contrast to the American Army, which built large cemeteries for their war dead, the Commonwealth Forces tried to bury their soldiers near where they fell. Consequently, this area of France is dotted with cemeteries. Uncle Harry rests in Dartmoor Cemetery, Becordel-Becourt, not far from Arras.
The landscape here is flat, and has been farmed – and fought over – for centuries. Tilled land spreads in all directions, dotted by the occasional stone farmhouse, a church spire, a copse of trees. Shrapnel from the war surfaces each season as the fields are farmed. The heavy soil sticks to your shoes, and all too easily turns to mud. A confusion of back roads loop and intersect through small villages, where horse-drawn carts are still in use.
The Town of Arras
Arras is a medieval town of cobbled streets and limestone tunnels. From the end of 1914 until early 1918, the Western Front (which stretched from Belgium to the Mediterranean) was never more than three kilometres away, and the town itself was occupied and nearly destroyed. Much of the town was rebuilt in traditional style, and Arras is now World Heritage Listed by UNESCO.
Since medieval times, the main square – Le Place des Héros – has been home to a market, and now every Saturday stalls of meats, poultry, cheeses, fruits de mer and all manner of fresh produce spill over the cobbled stones and into the surrounding streets. Le Place des Héros is dominated by the gothic Hôtel de Ville. For anyone brave enough to climb the Belfry and face the bleak winds, the entire countryside is on display, and on a clear day Paris is visible. Not surprisingly, this was used by both civilians and the military for viewing the progress of the war.
Beneath the Hôtel de Ville is an entrance to the Boves, or medieval tunnels. The origin of the name is uncertain; however, from the 10th century limestone was quarried here, until the practice was moved outside the city amidst fears the town would collapse. The tunnels run along five different levels, at times up to twenty metres deep. Most of the buildings on Le Place des Héros have an entrance, now used mainly as cellars or for storage (and an exquisite restaurant, La Faisanderie, perfect after a day touring the battlefields
The War To End All Wars
Despite the cold and damp – the tunnels remain at a constant 11º C, with 80% humidity and no sunlight – people lived here in medieval times. In WWI, New Zealand Royal Engineers (complete with canaries in cages) extended the tunnels so troops could move in secrecy to emerge near the German front line. Up to 24,000 men could be concealed, and the remnants of electrical lighting, makeshift kitchens and even latrines are still visible. Tunnels were divided into those for foot traffic, hand-drawn trolleys and a light rail system. Casualties were moved with relative safety, and a field hospital (complete with operating theatre) was established underground.
After a few hours spent touring the battlefields, the number of lives lost becomes mind numbing. (An organized tour helps give some structure to the mayhem of the First World War.) The Battle of the Somme commenced on the 1st July 1916. On the first day, some 20,000 British soldiers died; this figure does not include those, like Uncle Harry, who were to die later of their wounds. By this stage of the war, some generals on both sides had come to accept a loss of 1:1 as a good result. Reflecting this, the Franco-British Thiepval Monument is simply huge, largely to accommodate the names of the 73,367 British soldiers with no known grave. The country of Newfoundland never recovered from the loss of men, leading to its absorption by Canada in the 1920’s.
The Battlefields of Flanders
The Liberartion of Villers-Bretonneux
In an attempt to break the ongoing stalemate of the war, in March 1918 the Germans launched another offensive to capture Amiens (which, being near the sea, was vital for supplies). As a consequence, the small town of Villers-Bretonneux was captured in the world’s first battle between two tanks forces: British Mark IVs against the German A7Vs. After a house-to-house battle, Australian soldiers liberated the village on 24th April 1918, at a loss of some 1200 Australians lives. Amiens was never captured, and the German front line began to recede, leading to the Armistice of 1918. Many historians see the liberation of Villers-Bretonneux as a turning point of WWI.
Although nearly a century has passed, pictures of kangaroos and slouched hats still fill the town, and there is even a Restaurant le Kangarou . The main road is Rue de Melbourne, and the Australian flag flies atop the Australian National Memorial, which lists the 10,982 Australian soldiers with no known grave. ANZAC Day is celebrated here every year. The first floor of the school (a gift in the 1920’s from the school children of Victoria to the children of the town) houses the Franco-Australia Museum. Above every blackboard are the words N’oublions jamais l’Australie – Never forget Australia.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial encompasses a 250 acre battlefield park, which includes the area of the Battle of Vimy Ridge (9th April, 1917). Both Allied and German trenches have been preserved, and it is still possible to walk along them. The trenches never ran in a straight line, and had alcoves at regular intervals for shelter from bombs and snipers. Some barbed-wire stakes remain; earlier ones with only one hole, and a later design which could hold three stands of barbed wire. These also had the advantage of having a screw on the base, allowing them to be silently screwed into the heavy soil, and not hammered.
Uncle Harry’s grave is in a corner of the small Dartmoor Cemetery, which began as Becordel-Becourt Military Cemetery in 1915. It has only 768 (762 identified) WWI Commonwealth burials. In September 1916, the XV Corps Main Dressing Station was established nearby, and it is here Uncle Harry died. Surrounded by fields, Dartmoor Cemetery is now a peaceful spot, overlooked by most tourists, for there are so many cemeteries, and so many memorials to the War To End All Wars.
© 2012 Anne Harrison
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on July 09, 2020:
I know very little about world war I but your article is very informative. Your story about your relatives in the war is compelling.
Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on August 05, 2019:
Dear Anne . . .your hub speaks volumes about real history; world history; freedom and slavery. I am sorry, but I see all of these things in your piece. Thank you for writing. You are one talented writer.
Write me at anytime.
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on February 24, 2016:
Many thanks Stella. I agree about Villers Bretonneux marking the turning point of the war, especially considering its proximity to Amiens an the supply route the town promised. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub.
stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on February 23, 2016:
A very interesting hub on WWl and a bit of personal history. I believe the Villers Bretonneux were the turning point for the war, this caused the Germans to start to fall. Great article, Stella
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on January 07, 2016:
Thank you for your kinds words, gerimcclym. These cemetries are truly moving placex to visit. I hope you manage a visit one day.
Geri McClymont on January 02, 2016:
It is gripping to hear this account from somebody with lost a relative, and almost lost another, as a result of WW I battles. Thank you for sharing your story. I can understand why your grandfather could never bring himself to visit his brother's grave, and I appreciate how you honored both your grandfather and great-uncle through this article. Your photography is stunning -- I noticed you took your own shots-- and adds so much to the depth of your article. I would like to visit these locations someday.
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on December 02, 2015:
You are so right, aesta1 - it makes no sense that we still wage war. It's time that as a society we evolved beyond such things. Thanks for reading my hub.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on November 30, 2015:
Years ago, my husband and I visited Somme, Arras, Verdun and Vimy and until today, sadness still encompasses me when I think of our experience there. It is sad that until now we still wage war.
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on July 23, 2015:
I agree, Gary, the map is amazing, and helps to put the tragedy in perspective. Thank you for your kind words
Gary Malmberg from Concon, Chile on July 20, 2015:
Thanks for a beautiful article, Anne. So, so many now resting in peace. I was floored by the Arras area map. I like the spread out burial plan. A better testimony of the sacrifices made. Your grandfather was quite a guy. Two thumbs yup.
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on July 20, 2015:
I am always struck, FatBoyThin, by the stoicism by which they endured these times, and the degree of understatement which runs through so many diaries kept by soldiers, nurses and others near or on the front line. Thanks for your kind words.
Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on July 20, 2015:
Very interesting and poignant piece about a period in history that seems ridiculous from our modern-day standpoint - the conditions men and women were expected to survive under is just deplorable. Great Hub, voted up.
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on April 25, 2015:
Such true words, agvulpes.
I do worry about the jingoism which seems to be replacing the insight and simple gratitude at memorial services today - not to mention the commercialism.
Hubs like these are our way of saying thankyou
Peter from Australia on April 25, 2015:
Such tragic losses :( I hope that the Field is not forgotten because if it is our human race is condemned to have history being repeated !
There's been too many brave men who made the 'ultimate' sacrifice so that we can live peacefully in this wonderful Country that we love so much :)
Lets work to make sure that their sacrifice was not in vain !
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on April 20, 2015:
As you sat, ReviewsfromSandy, sad in so many ways. Thanks for taking the time to read my hub
Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin on April 19, 2015:
Interesting hub about this part of history. Sad in many ways.
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on March 28, 2015:
Tragically, in this area of France there is much to see from WWII as well as WWI. Hand grenades and the like are still occasionally dug up in the fields.
Thanks for taking the time to read my hub, I'm glad you enjoyed it,
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on March 28, 2015:
It was so strange to walk through trenches 100 years old, to see how close together they were,
Thanks for taking the time to read my hub,
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on March 28, 2015:
What you write is so true, and so tragic that it continues today.
I thought it important to take my daughter to see where it happened, and to remember what we read in a history book touches so many at a personal level.
Thanks for your kind words
stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on March 28, 2015:
Hi, this was a very interesting hub you have written. I am fascinated with the war and but have read mostly WWII. You are lucky to have gone to see the grave.
Shannon Henry from Texas on March 28, 2015:
Very interesting! Must feel Sso surreal to walk among those places and to see your uncle's grave as well as where he fell.
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on March 28, 2015:
My Daddy used to tell us of his War years and as a little girl I think he left out much that he thought he did not want his 'baby' to know.
As I grew up and learned more we would discuss the parts that were left out when I was a wee bit of a girl.
War is so ugly...and thinking of the thousands who lives were lost...it is more than I can wrap my mind around...and it continues....
throughout the world today...
It is important for us to read of these times ...
thank you for such a detailed expose ...
Angels are on the way to you ps
voted up and shared
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on February 17, 2015:
Thank you so much for your kind words, they mean much to me. Next time you come to Australia, make sure you see beyond Perth - the country has so much to offer. The fascinating thing about history is thre is always so much to learn, even about such a major event as WWI where one would thing all was recorded and already known.
Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on February 16, 2015:
This was a spectacularly written piece. N'oublions jamais l'Australie happens to be my motto too, having visited your wonderful country (Perth) with its wonderful people a couple of times while in the service of the US Navy. I consider myself a pretty good student of history, but you have shamed me because I never knew Newfoundland used to be a country. Great hub!
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on September 17, 2014:
What an amazing story about your grandfather. I know my grandfather carried memories of the horrors of what he saw to his grave; how anyone after seeing active service returns to a normal life is an incredible challenge.
Thanks for taking the time to read my hub.
CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on September 14, 2014:
Thank you for such an interesting article Anne and so sorry to read your great-uncle was killed on the Western Front. My own grandfather went right through the war. He was already in the army posted in India in 1914 and from there he was posted to France, then to Galliopoli, back to France and then on to Iraq. He was very lucky to survive, but I can't begin to imagine what courage and fortitude all those young men must have had to get through such horrors and go on to rebuild their lives back home
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on August 16, 2014:
Sorry for taking so long to reply, chef-de-jour. I'm glad you enjoyed my hub. Almost 100 years ago, and we still feel the effects of that war...
Andrew Spacey from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on June 18, 2014:
I enjoyed this article Anne. I especially like the personal connections with your Uncle Harry which fits neatly into the context of the War to end all Wars. You've provided some good information too and the images are useful.
Thank you for this timely reminder of the profound effects of war.
Votes and a share.
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on May 11, 2014:
Thank you for your comments, travmaj - war is indeed a waste. I hope one day to visit Gallipoli. Thank you for stopping by.
travmaj from australia on May 08, 2014:
Such a well documented and emotional hub. So sad and so many young lives lost. I've visited Gallipoli and know that feeling of despair. More for you as you remembered relatives. My own grandfather was drowned of the coast of Micra in Greece. Reading your hub I can't help but think about him. What a waste.
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on February 22, 2014:
Thank you for your comments, billybuc. My grandfather never spoke about his time in the trenches either, although he lived to over 90. He often woke in the night screaming, dreaming he was being ordered 'over the top'. To live in Australia, where there are no wars, is truly a blessing.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 22, 2014:
As a former history teacher I am always interested in these historical accounts. I have often wondered what it must have been like to live in Europe during one of the World Wars....the constant fear and uncertainty. My dad served in five campaigns in Italy during WWII and he never spoke about it, but that was just as a visiting soldier....to actually live there and have your entire daily existence affected by it....remarkable. I love how you started this article with a personal reflection....well done!
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on January 11, 2014:
So very true, Suzettenaples. As we approach the centenary the repercussions can still be felt; all our lives are still touched by this war, the war to end all wars.
Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on January 11, 2014:
A very beautiful article about WWI and the cemeteries. I honor your uncles for their sacrifice during WWI to keep this world free. I don't blame your one uncle for getting the heck out of there and going to Australia. War is hell! When I lived in Europe years ago I visited the WWI cemetery at Verdunn, France. It was a sobering experience. I believe men of all nationalities are buried there, if I remember correctly. I believe all soldiers and servicemen should be honored for their time fighting in wars. They sacrifice so much even if they live through the war.
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on November 30, 2013:
Thank you Writer Fox, your comments are very much appreciated. To visit these places is incredibly moving, even as we approach the centenary of when it all began
Writer Fox from the wadi near the little river on November 30, 2013:
A very moving article about about the World War I cemeteries which surround Arras! It is so sad that these young men were buried so far away from their loved ones. This article is a wonderful tribute to them. Voted up!
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on October 30, 2013:
Thank you for your comments. I agree, Dolores, if only it had been the War To End All Wars.
Jeanne Grunert on October 29, 2013:
Really enjoyed this Hub, especially the pictures. Voted up. Thanks!
IslandBites from Puerto Rico on October 29, 2013:
Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on October 29, 2013:
I hear about people visiting battlefields and cemeteries from WWII but not many from the Great War. This was awesome and the trip must have had you in tears. And how I wish that it had been the War to End All Wars. (voted up, shared, tweeted)
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on September 03, 2013:
Thank you both for your comments - my apologies for the delay in replying. It true was an amazing experience.
Pamela-anne from Miller Lake on August 17, 2013:
Wow amazing hub you researched it very well; amazing that all those tunnels are still there. Your grandfather was one tough cookie to survive all that he had been through and was able to live a long full life. Thanks for sharing this bit of history with your personal touch well done!
ziyena from the Somewhere Out There on July 26, 2013:
Awesome closure to finally see your Great-Uncle's grave. Wonderful hub! Thank you
Akhil S Kumar from kerala on June 01, 2012:
war ,,oh god
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on May 31, 2012:
Thank you for your comments. I can't tell you how moving it was to actually stand on the battlefields, see the trenches etc. How futile war is.
Wilbart26 on May 29, 2012:
War is really a nightmare... Nice hub by the way.
David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 29, 2012:
Hi, Anne. What a powerful and moving and informative article this is. I wrote a hub about the Tank vs Tank battle but your article brought it all into perspective as a real place. Voted up, etc and shared.
Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on May 29, 2012:
Thank you for your support and interest, Anne
Akhil S Kumar from kerala on May 28, 2012:
continue to add great hubs