2010 Western Front Commemorative Battlefield Walk-Peter Pickering
Early in 2010 fellow “living historian” Drew Laird and I decided to visit the battlefields of the Somme and the Ypres Salient in France and Belgium respectively. We always intended to go in full A.I.F Marching Order, but had to select a Tasmanian unit to follow and represent with colour patches on our tunics.I made the decision to represent the 26th Battalion A.I.F, which comprised of two Companies of Queenslanders (A & B), and two Companies of Tasmanians (C & D). The reason I chose the 26th is that it was not as well known as the more high profile 40th and 12th Battalions, and very little has been written about the Battalion: it has no published unit history. We needed to select a task that was both meaningful and achievable in the time we had available. I used the Soldiers Memorial Avenue website to make a list of Hobart 26th Battalion men, and then reduced this to the men killed in France and Belgium. With a master list of 43 men killed in France & Belgium, I accessed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website and found the grave references for each of the men who were buried. Most of the men killed are missing, and are listed at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. With this information and the unit history from the Australian War Memorial I sat down with a map of France & Belgium and planned a route that would take us through the major areas of action of the 26th Battalion. I also plotted the gravesites for the men commemorated on the avenue who were buried. I studied the information I had gathered so I was clear in my own mind exactly where we needed to go, and also when we needed to be there in order to achieve all of our objectives. An excellent letter of introduction was provided by Hobart Lord Mayor Rob Valentine, and this was translated into French by the Mayor of Glamorgan Spring Bay, Bertrand Cadart.
We each packed our gear into an army echelon bag, which was bulging by the time it had full marching order including helmets & mess tins, as well as our uniforms. The bags came in at just over 20kg, which was fine as we had a 30kg baggage limit, allowing us to bring back our battlefield finds. Armed with hard copies of my research and maps which I carried in my small box respirator bag, as well as my Camcorder spare batteries / memory cards / recharger etc, we departed these shores for Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris.
Upon arrival we picked up our gear and headed straight for the train station (Gare du Nord) for the trip to Amiens where we would spend our first night. After arriving in Amiens we checked into a hotel and prepared for the walk, before donning our uniforms and heading to Villers-Bretonneux the following day. After some confusion (the train didn’t stop at our station) the conductor marked our tickets and we got off at the next stop, crossing the lines to get a train back to V.B. When in V.B we proceeded to the house of Chantal Macrez (a local teacher at the Ecole Victoria) to stash our hand luggage and limited civvie kit.
After throwing on our Pattern 1908 web gear (Marching Order) we bought some jack rations at the local shop, and started walking to the Australian National Memorial just outside Villers-Bretonneux. We spent the first night of our walk under hootchies at the memorial, a particularly cold and rather uncomfortable night, but sleeping in the presence of our WW1 dead was an honour. People have later said to me did I have permission to sleep at the memorial, to which my reply has been no-one was going to stop us, and I’m sure the diggers buried there wouldn’t mind.
Our trip was at times arduous and certainly very emotional. On one occasion after reading out the names of the Hobart 26th Battalion dead at Pozieres, I looked down at my left boot and saw a piece of an Australian 08/15 ammunition pouch. A lump immediately lodged in my throat as I realised that I was standing in the correct spot, and that the unfortunate individual who was wearing this pouch was one of the Pozieres’ dead. I brought this piece of pouch back, and although it doesn't look much it is the most poignant battlefield relic I brought back. The warm welcome we received from the French people was very heart warming, as was the seriousness with which they take the responsibility of remembering not only our war dead, but also those of the other combatant nations, not to mention their own. Worthy of particular note is Dominique Zanardi (a former French paratrooper), the proprietor of Le Tommy Café in Pozieres. Dominique was generous in the extreme, and his extensive knowledge, contacts, and his willingness to take us where we needed to get will never be forgotten. The people of Pozieres are passionate in the extreme when it comes to remembering the deeds, and the fallen of the A.I.F in and around their town. (Left: P Pickering, D Zanardi and D Laird at Pozieres Windmill)
After a week in the French Somme sector of the Western Front, we were given a lift by Jim Wright (A Works Supervisor with the War Graves Commission) to Zonnebeke in Belgium to participate in the Military Museum Passchendaele’s biennial living history weekend. This year’s theme was ANZAC, and the organisers couldn’t believe their luck when two fair dinkum Australians arrived. The local Belgian officials planned to conduct the first ever ANZAC Day Dawn Service at Buttes New British Cemetery, Polygon Wood, and Drew & I were asked to participate. I suggested we be included as part of the Catafalque Party, which was being provided by the local Belgian Army unit, and the offer was eagerly accepted. After borrowing two .303 rifles from the Old Contemptibles Association who are from the UK and a bit of drill rehearsal, Drew and I mounted guard at the base of the large obelisk overlooking the cemetery.
At the completion of the service we were invited to the reception for coffee & breakfast where we met Dr Brendan Nelson (Australia’s Ambassador to Belgium), with his wife & daughter. I had just enough Bundy left in my flask to put in his coffee. The ambassador promised to take a bottle of Bundy to next year’s service. (Above: meeting Brendan Nelson) Another highlight of the weekend at Zonnebeke was meeting fellow living historians, both German & British. Several of the Tommies even requested to attend the Dawn Service, and true to their word were ready to depart for the cemetery at 0400hrs, in Pete Knight’s and John Aston's (Old Contemptibles Association) case with no sleep at all. They were all very moved especially when I introduced them to the attending Australian General, and Dr Nelson. It highlighted for them the difference between British hierarchy, who wouldn’t give you the time of day, and Australian officials who treated everyone as equals, regardless of status. The diggers would be proud!
Towns or areas visited / walked through on the trip:
Villers Bretonneux Fouilloy Corbie
Heilly Station / Heilly Buire sur l’ Ancre Dernancourt
Albert La Boisselle Pozieres
Warlencourt-Eaucourt Le Sars Morlancourt
Martinpuich Lagnicourt Buissy
FOSMA Newsletter No.51 4
Below: Poizieres 26th Battalion Hobart Missing
Below: ANZAC Day service at Buttes New British Cemetery, Polygon Wood. Pete Pickering to the right and Drew Laird to the left can be seen in the picture at the reverse arms.