Writer Historian Producer

The Western Front has changed since those violent days

Unknown Australian grave Western Fornt
 Unknown Australian grave

As we have all seen, the observance of Anzac Day, the attendance at the Dawn Services across the country and the march, probably from the 1960s’ until relatively recently, slowly slipped from popular consciousness.  However, and there seems various reasons for this, Anzac Day and indeed remembrance generally, has had a welcome resurgence and interest. Some say it takes five generations to get over a war and perhaps it is just now that interest and commemoration can embrace the terrible loss of the Great War.

For my part as a historian with a strong interest in the military tradition, this was never far from my mind. I was quite affected by the re-internment of the Unknown Soldier in the Australian War Memorial in 1993 and in 1994, made my first trip to the Western Front in France and Belgium. In 1998, I wrote a driving tour for DVA between Villers Bretonneux and Le Hamel and in 2006, edited the unpublished manuscript, Somme Mud, written by a young 45th Battalion boy from Bathurst; Private Edward Lynch. Since then I have had three books published on the Great War (In the Footsteps of Private Lynch, Beneath Hill 60 and The Boy Colonel) and regularly lead battlefield tours to the Australian areas of operation in France and Belgium.

And how the Western Front has changed since those violent days nearly one hundred years ago when so many Australians were lost in the mud of the Somme and Flanders. We all know those stark black and white images of the shattered landscape, up-turned waggons, expanses of cratered mud and desolation. Today it is hard to imagine this is the same place; the fields of wheat and sugar beet, the dark forests and the green fields belies the destruction and death that once transformed this place. Today, it is all in vivid colour.  Gone are the trench lines and barbed wire, the cratered earth and the destroyed villages, and instead, a peaceful rural landscape is everywhere evident.

The village of Le Hamel from the German position on the Wolfsburg.
The village of Le Hamel from the German position on the Wolfsburg.
The Menin Gate in Ypres Belgium where 55,000 men with no known grave on the Ypres salient are remembered with their names inscribed on the walls.

But what remains of the Great War and what can be seen by the visiting traveller, the battlefield “pilgrim” today?  First and most obvious are the beautifully kept cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  In all there are 1200 cemeteries now in France and Belgium, the majority from the Great War.  The largest is Tyne Cot just nine kilometres from Ypres on the slopes before Passchendaele with nearly 12,000 graves of which 1,368 are Australian, most unidentified and “Known unto God”.  Nearby on the walls of the Menin Gate, are the names of another 55,000 men with no know grave on the Salient. Here the Last post is played, a daily ritual since 2nd July 1928, its only disruption being during the German occupation of Ypres from the 20 May 1940-6 September 1944. Infact, the very day the Germans left, that night the ceremony recommenced and has continued, “rail, hail or shine” ever since.


Actual evidence of the fighting is harder to come by. Near Pozières on the German frontline on the 1st July 1916 (the opening of the battle of the Somme) is the massive Lochnagar crater, the result of the allied mine explosion blown under the German lines at zero hour on that day.  Similarly, a line of nineteen craters now filled with water, meander from Messines to Hill 60; a combined explosion that killed 10,000 Germans and was heard as far away as Dublin. This, the biggest man made explosion in history to that time, blew open the German frontline, allowing the subsequent offensives along the Menin Road, through Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke, Broodseinde and on to Passchendaele. The two northern craters at Hill 60 and the Caterpillar were blown by Captain Oliver Woodward and his mates of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company on the opening of the battle on the 7th June 1917. 

What is however fascinating for the battlefields visitor to use, is a combination of old trench maps (1:10000 scale) and Google Earth to locate the ground today, the exact position of trenches, artillery positions, German strong points and where decorations were won. At times, these aerial views still show the lines of chalk in the soil where trenches once crossed the fields or the explosion of shells or underground mines. As a battlefield guide, I can take people (within a metre or two)  of a position held by the AIF or show the start line for an advance for Australian battalions in an attack, something fascinating and very special for relatives and descendants of those amazing diggers.

  Rusty Mills bomb on the gates at Mouquet farm


There is also the detritus of war; shrapnel, spent cartridges, bullets, even human bones that still litter the battlefield. Though the chances of finding a helmet, rifle or a more substantial relic is perhaps past, these are still regularly turned up by excavations and the deeper furrows made by modern ploughs. And with these comes the bodies of men.  A few years ago, five Australians were discovered by a work party laying a gas pipeline near Zonnebeke in Belgium.  These were recovered, their DNA extracted and then formally buried in the Buttes New British Cemetery in Polygon Wood.  Of the five men, three have been positively identified, another almost certainly identified and their relatives notified; a wonderful outcome for the long suffering families.

And with all of this, with the new interest both from the older relatives and from young Australians, the Anzac torch has again been lit. Now, apart from cities and towns across Australia and Anzac Cove, there are Dawn Services in France and Belgium. And in answer to the call and the new interest and respect, thousands now crowd the hallowed cemetery at Villers Bretonneux, an event televised by the ABC and Polygon Wood in Belgium. So if you thought the Anzac tradition, the respect and the commemoration of our dead and our returned service men and women has been forgotten, think again.  Anzac Day is again very important, some saying it surpasses Australia Day, but one thing is certain: “We Shall Remember Them”.

©Will Davies 2013

Will Davies


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