The Battle of the Somme, an international arena
In 1916, the Somme department became an international zone, a place where people of roughly twenty nationalities came to fight and work, originating from the 3 empires involved (France, Germany and Great Britain).
The battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916) was a joint Franco-British offensive, one of the largest battles of the Great War. It was both industrial and international, and in four and a half months caused more than a million losses (dead, injured, missing in action). The Battle was not only an international affair in 1918; it continued with the souvenirs brought back home by millions of men, and even continues to this day with memories of the war that are still very much alive, thanks to pilgrimages and commemorative monuments.
A territory strewn with monuments paying homage to the allies
The Circuit of Remembrance brings together the 2 towns that symbolise the Great War; Albert and Péronne. It enables visitors to discover and understand this terrible episode of international history. The Historial of the Great War gives an introduction to the Circuit of Remembrance. This outstanding museum compares and objectively examines the painful experiences of the 3 main warring parties according to historical chronology.
The German occupation of the town of Péronne began in August 1914, and it immediately became a centre for intense military and logistical activity, particularly during the Battle of the Somme. Although it was bombarded by the French artillery for 8 months, it remained in the hands of the Germans, who only evacuated Péronne in March 1917, when they fell back to the Hindenburg line. The town was occupied once again in March 1918, and then liberated on 2 September by the Australian 2nd division.
The village of Rancourt, a few kilometres from Péronne , is where the main German supply and communication line was broken: the road from Bapaume to Péronne. Today the village has the sad and unique privilege of having a French, a British and a German cemetery. The French Chapel of Remembrance is also an important place for remembrance of French participation in the Battle of the Somme.
Homage to South-African and Australian allies
The capture of Bois Delville at Longueval was vital to allow progress towards the east, and this mission was assigned to the South Africans. They went through this baptism of fire on the Western Front from 15 to 20 July 1916. Of the 4,000 men in the brigade only 143 emerged unharmed from their trenches. The South African National Memorial and Museum pay homage to all the South Africans who fell during various 20th century conflicts, in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
To the north-west, the village of Pozières represented a blockage that had to be removed in order to occupy Thiepval hill. This objective was partly assigned to the Australian troops. They had arrived on 23 July 1916, and after taking control of Pozières , the exhausted Australians were relieved on 5 September by the Canadians. Three of their divisions lost more than a third of their forces. As for the village, it completely disappeared. The monument to the 1st division, the remains of the "Gibraltar" and the "Windmill" bear witness to this battle.
Homage to the British, Irish and Newfoundland allies
The nearby hill and village of Thiepval were one of the pillars of the German defences near the northern part of the British sector, and on 1 July 1916 proved to be one of the main theatres of the disaster suffered by the British army. The fighting to take Thiepval began on 1 July and ended on 26 September 1916.
In 1932 the British government decided to erect the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval, an imposing brick and stone monument 45 m high, designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. It is the largest British war memorial in the world. It commemorates the 72,205 men of the British and South African armies who died or were reported as missing in action between July 1915 and March 1918.
The 36th Irish division was the only unit to achieve its objective, on 1 July. But it was caught in crossfire from the British artillery's creeping barrage and the German machine guns. After losing more than 5,500 men in just a few hours, the division had to evacuate the next day. The Ulster Tower erected in 1921 is an exact replica of a tower near Belfast on land belonging to the 36th division. It is the Irish monument for the Battle of the Somme, and is also the memorial for all the soldiers of Ulster who fell during the Great War.
At the time of the war, Newfoundland was a British colony, and as such it raised an army of volunteers. On 1 July 1916, at 7.30 am. the men of the Newfoundland regiment had barely climbed out of their trenches when they were caught in the fire from German machine guns. Half an hour later, only 68 uninjured soldiers remained. In proportion to the forces engaged, this action was one of the most deadly of the Somme offensive. In memory of this tragedy, Newfoundland decided to erect its national memorial to the missing at Beaumont-Hamel.
On 1 July 1916, at La Boisselle, ten minutes before the infantry assault, several explosions designed to break through the 1st German line dug deep craters into the ground. Lochnagar Crater is 100 metres in diameter and 30 metres deep, and can be visited to this day.
The British at the heart of the Battle
The town of Albert was occupied by the Germans from 29 August to 14 September 1914 and then evacuated after the Battle of the Marne. It was shelled constantly July 1915 the British army relieved the French army. The town then became a centre of intense military activity, and remained a symbolic town for the British. When it was taken once more by the Germans in March 1918, and then again by the British in August, nothing remained except a vast field of ruins.
The 1916 Somme Museum invites visitors to discover the life of soldiers in the trenches during the offensive of 1 July 1916, in a series of former underground shelters, 250 metres long at a depth of 10 metres.
A railway line was built in 1916 to transport supplies to the artillery trenches for the Battle of the Somme. Nowadays, the "P’tit train" of Haute Somme , drawn by steam or diesel locomotives, takes visitors from Froissy along the banks of the Somme river.
Homage to the Australian and New Zealand allies
In the area of Amiens , the village of Villers-Bretonneux became part of military history on 24 April 1918, when the Australian troops definitively brought the German March offensive to a halt.
Since the building of the Victoria school in 1927 and the inauguration of the National Australian memorial in 1938, the official and informal links between the residents of Villers-Bretonneux and the Australian people have become ever stronger. This is where the Anzac Day Dawn Service is celebrated every year on 25 April. This ceremony pays homage to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps which offered such distinguished service in the Battles of Picardy in 1918.
The Franco-Australian Museum inaugurated on 25 April 1975 is on the first floor of the Victoria school. It tells the story of the Australian expeditionary force during the First World War, and in particular on the Western Front in 1918. In the school playground, in addition to an Australian fresco in the Aborigine style, there is an inscription on the wall "Do not forget Australia".