La Grande Guerre
18-20 July 2008

In 1916, a 25 year old motor mechanic from Dalby, country Queensland, waved goodbye to his family and friends and travelled to far-away places he had probably never heard of before: Villers-Bretonneux, Pozieres, Fromelles, Ypres and Mont St Quentin.

In 2008, his great-grandson visited the places that Thomas Watts, a soldier of the Second Australian Division, Second Pioneers, lived and fought in during the battles of the Western Front between 1916-1918.

Day 1 - La Somme

When you drive through the bucolic green pastures, the softly waving golden wheatfields and the quietly heavy forests of the Somme, it's difficult to think of mud, screaming and the incessant sounds of shelling and gunfire.

Australia had the highest per capita casualty rate of any country in World War I and Villiers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery is the site of the Australian National Memorial. On seeing the long silent rows of graves and the endless list of those with no known resting place, I started weeping. There were just so many of them. And when you're 29, it's easily to imagine that if you'd lived in a different time, some of these men could have been your father, your lover, your friends. But what upset me most was reading the cemetry register. These boys and men had come from places with evocatively Australian names: Wangaratta, South Yarra, Rockhampton, Charters Towers - and before 1916, they'd probably never been to France, never heard of the villages of the Somme and Flanders and could not have foreseen their role in the misery and horror of a war of attrition. I desperately hoped that someone from their family would, one day, be able to visit this place and honour them.

In the afternoon we joined a Battlefields Experiences tour run by Rod, an English ex-soldier and instructor at Sandhurst who was extremely knowledgeable and interesting. Through him I learnt much more about the war experiences of other countries.

First stop was the Ulster Tower, a memorial to Northern Irish soldiers which is a replica of Helen's Tower in County Down. True to sectarian form, around the back there was a separate smaller memorial for Northern Irish soldiers of the Orange order.

At Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundland memorial commemorates the sacrifice of this small island - 90% of its soldiers were wounded, missing or killed. The site retains the zig-zag traces of trenches and the barbed-wire pegs and at the peak of the memorial is the symbol of Newfoundland, a proud caribou - an animal that does not leave its old, dying and injured. In France and Belgium there are five caribou facing the former German frontline and in St John there is one caribou facing them - said to be baying to its lost young across the ocean. The statue is extremely moving and evocative.

Around Pozieres there is an Australian focus: the Windmill site (where Australian troops 'fell more thickly on this ridge than on any other battlefield on the war'); Mouquet (Mucky) Farm (still an operating farm); and the First Australian Division memorial which sits on the partly excavated remains of an imposing German concrete shelter known as Gibraltar.

Our final stop was the Lochnagar mine crater at La Boiselle, which measures 300m circumference, 100m wide and 90m deep. This Allied mine caused such an explosion that soldiers were even killed by its pressure waves and there was no bigger bomb explosion until the atomic bombs of World War II.

As the sun started to set, we finally found the memorial to the Second Division in Mont St Quentin of a tall, strong digger. Maybe Thomas had looked like him, or had known someone like him.

After a pretty stressful day of battlefields, right-hand drive and small country lanes, on returning to Lille we had dinner at the chandelier-clad boudoir-chic bistro Le 86. Our menu of 25 euros was very good value - two large prawn croquettes to start, a deliciously tender duck with pear, spiced lamb with mushrooms and tagliatelle, huge vanilla creme brulee and gooey fondant chocolate pudding. In fact, we found the food in Lille very good - our dinner on the Friday night was at Le Lion bossu, an intimate low-key French restaurant in the old town. Again, for 26 euros we were served a courgette 'invaded' with creamy mussels (as translated on the English menu), pan-fried red mullet and lamb knuckle, huge profiteroles and a nectarine tart with lavender ice cream.

  • The Battlefields Experience: Le Vieux Café Jourdain, 2 Rue des Cordeliers, 80560 Mailly Maillet, Somme, France T: +33 32 27 62 960
  • Le Lion Bossu: 1, Rue St Jacques, 59000 Lille, France T: +33 3 20 06 06 88
  • Le 86: 86, Rue Gand, 59000 Lille, France T: +33 3 20 78 19 86

Day 2 - Field of Flanders

Ieper/Ypres is a chocolate-box pretty Flemish town with a beautiful Gothic-style Cloth Hall in its main square, Grote Markt (also home to a great waffle and icecream shop, the lovely Vandaele chocolaterie and a frites specialist). It's hard to believe that the whole village was razed to the ground during World War I.

For Australians, the significance of the town is in the Menin Gate - an imposing arched entryway which lists around 55,000 Commonwealth soldiers who fought around Ieper with no known grave. There are so many names that they are carved everywhere - the inside walls, the outside walls and the pillars. The sheer number is overwhelming. Every day at 8pm, the Last Post is played in commemoration.

Tyne Cot is the largest British cemetery in the world. As you enter the museum attached to the cemetery, there is an endless incantation of the names and ages of the dead and exhibits explaining the fruitless battle that was Passchendaele. As you leave the museum you are confronted with the sight of 12,000 headstones flowing down the fields of Flanders, with another 35,000 of the missing carved into the curved walls. The emotional impact was too much - my legs felt shaky and I had to sit down.

All the memorial sites are appropriately tranquil, but I think the tall forest enveloping the Buttes New British Cemetery, New Zealand Memorial to the Missing and Australian Memorial in Polygon Wood made the site particularly peaceful - it was like nature had come to claim the history. On the opposite side of the road is the Polygon Wood cemetery, which has an irregular design for the placement of the headstones because soldiers were buried where they fell.

Our final stop was Fromelles, the place where the war begun for Australia in the Western Front. The battle was responsible for one of the greatest losses of Australian lives in one 24-hour period and the 5,533 Australian casualties were equivalent to the total Australian losses in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War combined. There is now a Memorial Park with the famous Cobbers statue, which epitomises the selflessness and bravery of soldiers everywhere but particularly represents the heroism of Sergeant Simon Fraser retrieving a survivor from no-man's land. The small VC cemetery nearby does not contain any individual headstones but rather the remains of around 400 unidentified Australian soldiers as well as listing around 1,300 soldiers with no known grave. By this time I was feeling numbed by the horror in the numbers.

After this trip, my overall sense was at the universal misery caused by this war: whether you were an Australian soldier being thrown into machine gun fire to gain a few miles of ground; an underage German soldier missing home; a French farmer watching his ancestral land being torn up by artillery and trenches; or a mother waiting for news and receiving a terse standardised telegram. Lest we forget.

  • Vandaele: Grote Markt 9, 8900 Ieper, Belgium T: +32 57 200 387