Day 14 .. An Iconic Australian Site
Last day of our little road-trip around the Somme Battlefield sites and we headed out in the rain. The landscape was shrouded in low cloud and visibility was quite low. First stop tody was another town etched in the collective conscience of Australia. Villers Bretonneux was the scene of ferocious fighting during April of 1918 and it was the Aussie’s recapture of the town on April 24-25th that halted the German advance on Amiens. The once beautiful and prosperous little town, Villers Bretonneux lay in ruins.
After the war, schoolkids in Victoria donated their pennies towards the re-building of a school in Villers Bretonneux (which opened in 1927) and an enduring friendship began. In 1975 the Franco-Australian Association opened a museum on the second floor of the school building. Stocked with donated items from soldiers who served in the area, and with photos reprinted from some in the National War Memorial in Canberra, the little museum underwent a major renovation in 2016 and is now a first-class display detailing the events of April 1918 and Australia’s role in the liberation of the town.
On cue, the rain stopped as we left the museum and headed for the Australian National Memorial. An imposing white stone edifice atop Hill 104, the memorial bares the names of over 11,000 Australian soldiers who died in France but have no known grave. By the time we had made our way up through the rows of headstones (some for an identified soldier, others with only ‘A Soldier of the Great War … Known Unto God’) the dark clouds had become more ominous and the wind was howling from the north. It was bitterly cold but we would not have missed this stop for anything.
The final destination for today was Peronne. The need for sustenance meant our first priority was some lunch. A little bistro near the about to open Christmas Markets served up a great ham & mushroom crepe and breaded camembert. Nearby was the Chateau du Peronne – the 13th century castle, restored after being almost destroyed by shelling during the war (and damaged again during WW2) it now home to a world-class WW1 museum and several smaller displays in the old guardhouses.
After a couple of photos of the outside, we followed a set of stairs down to the entrance only to find it closed. I was certain it should have been open (cos I checked the website).
A man came out with a coffee and cigarette in hand and told us ‘sorry we are closed for the winter’ He must have thought we were from the UK and said something about ‘coming from next door’ but when we explained that no, we had not come from next door but the other side of the world, he invited us in. Turns out he was the museum director and was most embarrassed that the website did not show up to date information. We had a very quick look through the guardrooms and their AV display of Australian involvement in the war. We even had a quick chat with a bunch of high school kids from Melbourne there on a day trip from Paris while on a school exchange.
By now it was getting on towards 3pm and we needed to head back to Amiens and return the car by 4.30pm. Three days of driving beautiful French countryside, visiting sites so personally special had come to an end. Tomorrow we’re off to Paris.