Part 1: AMIENS and the
AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL MEMORIAL, VILLERS-BRETONNEUX
The aim of taking this route was to go to city of Amiens, visit Hill 104 where thousands of Australian soldiers were killed and the Australian National Memorial. Nearby is the village of Villers-Bretonneux liberated by Australian troops in the Battle of the Somme. Today it’s hard to fathom why Australians would sacrifice their lives in such a distant place but I guess times were different then. It was when Australians had a deep love of the motherland and when she went to war Australia went as well.
Our journey to Amiens was by train and departure from Dieppe was at 10am. Because we stayed five kilometres out of Dieppe, and in view of Bev not having motor assist (because I was using her battery as mine was not working), I had rigged up a system to tow her. It was necessary to leave several hours earlier because we had to climb the steep alabaster hill between our camp and Dieppe. That would give us time to reach Dieppe if we had any towing problems.
Negotiating the hill was without incident. With Bev pedalling my towing system worked like a charm. It took only one hour with a stop to admire the view.
For your amusement, following is a sketch from my concertina diary showing us powering up the Alabaster Hill.
While on the train our guardian angel/patron saint came to the fore. I pressed the power button of my faulty battery and it came to life! A computer electronics expert has informed me that sometimes the computer that regulates the e-bike motor activity corrects itself but it takes some time. Regardless, we were more than happy it decided to fall in again and carry us forward. I have since learnt that there is a patron saint of cyclists near Lake Como in Italy and maybe she helped get us moving.
Medieval legend says that Count Ghisallo was travelling near the village of Magréglio when highway bandits attacked him. Spotting an image of the Virgin Mary in a roadside shrine, he broke away from his attackers and ran to it. There he took refuge, prayed for Our Lady’s protection – and was miraculously saved from the robbers.
As the story spread, the Madonna del Ghisallo became known as the patroness of local travellers. The shrine sits at the top of a steep hill and in more recent times has become a natural stopping place for cyclists intent on having a rest after riding up the hill. The chapel has become equal part religious shrine and cycling museum, with artefacts and photos from the sport.
The images in the above photograph are of cyclists who have died whilst cycling. Looking at the number of images makes me wonder whether I should continue to put my trust in the patron saint of cycling as she doesn’t seem to have a good track record. In the church there is one notable artefact, a crumpled bike of a local who died in a Tour de France. In Tour de France history three riders have died whilst competing. One crashed into a ravine, another of a heart attack and a third after hitting his head following a crash.
Our accommodation in Amiens was at the Hotel Normandie, a unique experience as it was built in the 1920s along art deco style. It is said the simple, clean and repetitive geometric shapes induce a feeling of glamour and just after its introduction at the end of WW1 the style gave people a feeling of optimism for the future.
Before moving onto the Somme WW1 battlefields I will take you into Amiens and give you a glimpse of the majestic Amiens Cathedral. Like most other buildings in France it suffered damage during both WW1 and WW2. Firstly, it is worth looking at how these buildings were protected against the ravages of war.
Constant shelling gave rise to fears of irreparable damage to the Gothic portal of the cathedral, not just from shrapnel fragments but also by the wooden doors catching on fire. On June 24th 1915, work began on the protection of the west portal and the portal of the Golden Virgin. Carpenters installed a wooden frame to support the weight of the sandbag shell around the outside. The lower parts of the sandbag shell were tarred to stop them rotting, authorities must have anticipated the war was going to drag on.
Fortunately, the portal survived for us to see it today and its survival was not only because of sandbag protection but also the intervention of Pope Benedict XV. The Pope persuaded the Germans to stop aiming at the cathedral. During WW2, successive bombings by the Germans in 1940 caused extensive damage to buildings in Amiens, however the cathedral miraculously survived without major damage.
The figures within the confines of the portals all have a story to tell. If you are interested in reading more about the depictions, search the web page, French Moments. www.frenchmoments.eu
A video detailing stories about Amiens Cathedral can be found at http://www.khanacademy.org It details stories relating to the cathedral’s caricatures and is worth watching.
Inside the cathedral efforts were made to protect some of the symbolic statues.
For some time now I have been under the impression that the builders of cathedrals and other impressive buildings in Europe had ‘the knowledge’ when it came to engineering structure design. However my thinking changed since visiting Amiens Cathedral and my learning that it was on the verge of collapse in 1498. A master builder noticed that the building was about to collapse when he found that large pillars of the transept were dangerously unstable under the thrust of the large internal archways. To remedy the problem and eliminate the cathedral crumbling into a heap of rubble he proposed a plan to incorporate steel ties within the structure. The red-hot chain ties were installed to act as a clinch, tightening as they cooled. The added ties are still in place today. In modern times turnbuckles would most probably be used.
There were other structural defects as well. Exterior statues at some time were about to fall off their pedestals and required straps to hold them in place. The next image shows a statue strapped in an attempt to stop a saint in a heavenly state falling to earth.
The structural problems were caused by ‘competition haste’ as there was a race between cities to get their church up as quickly as possible and to claim it as the highest, thus being the closest to heaven.
The form of architecture of the cathedral is known as sacred Gothic art and within its bounds are a myriad of sacred stories. For example, there are human heads on animal bodies representing evil and tall sculptures of saints, called jamb figures, standing on grotesque animals representing good over evil.
At floor level in the cathedral is a labyrinth, only slightly smaller than the one in the Chartres Cathedral. Walking the maze is a symbolic journey of salvation. The maze was created in 1288. It was vandalised during the post-revolutionary period in France but was expertly restored and survived undamaged during the two World Wars.
The aim is to follow the maze route from the outside to the inside. At the centre is a plaque. Originally, it was a medallion that commemorated the construction of the medieval cathedral but has now been replaced with a stone inlay. The original medallion is in museum care.
On the walls of the cathedral are some equally exquisite pieces of artwork, namely the decorative stained-glass windows. Many of these are considered to be some of the finest in France.
Rose windows were an important addition to any church and they represented Creation, Last Judgement and the Glory of God.
During the First World War an order was given to dismantle the stained glass windows, pack them in boxes with straw and send them to Martainville (northern France) for safekeeping. When it was decided to restore the windows after the war the restorer didn’t have sufficient space in his workshop for all the windows so he left half of them with his brother-in-law. Sadly, however, a fire broke out at the brother-in-law’s storage and the windows were damaged. These windows sat in a sorry state until 1992 when restoration work commenced on them.
The cathedral has ‘come in for a lot of flak’ and these events are reflected on the faces of the statues around the cathedral. Flak comes from the German word for anti-aircraft gun, Fliegerabwehrkaninen, and pilots under enemy fire needed a shorter word so the word ‘flak’ evolved.
Amiens is located on the Somme River and around the area were peat bogs and fens. The draining of these fens created agricultural land. These fens were formed when glaciers began retreating. Today many vegetables are grown in the fertile hortillonnages (floating gardens) and distributed across France. Closer to Amiens there are many hobby farms as well and I get a feeling that the key word is ‘show’, neighbours attempting to outdo each other.
To reach the properties across the small waterways are a hotchpotch of creative gateways.
A cycle path meanders through the marsh gardens and after spending the day simply wandering I came to the conclusion that the only way to travel is on a bike.
To get to the Australian Memorial and Hill 104 near Villers Bretonneux it meant riding the towpath on the Somme River to the town of Corbie 19 kilometres away, stay the night and ride out to the memorial the following day.
The word Somme is of Celtic origin and means tranquillity, however the valley has not always been peaceful. During WW1, according to an Australian Government web site, in less than 7 weeks of fighting around Pozieres Australian divisions suffered 23 000 casualties including 6800 deaths. Today there is little evidence of the carnage of WW1 & WW2, but there is one activity along the Somme that brings wars into reality and it’s the magnet fishing.
A number of Frenchmen fish the river with magnets. The magnets are made from neodymium rare earth and are considered to be the strongest magnets available. The fishers throw their magnets attached to a rope into the river with the hope of snagging something ferrous.
To elaborate on taking a chance, sometimes magnet fishers snag WW1 explosive devices, including incendiary bombs containing toxic mustard gas. The ultimate aim is to catch a medieval sword inlaid with valuable gemstones, but I think most of the snagged items are worthless. The following photograph shows a bucket of booty. As a memento I was given a steel key from a sardine tin, something I will treasure.
Magnet fishing is actually illegal in France due to the dangers associated with catching a bomb but the police do not pursue the fishers, as they are too busy catching real criminals and revolutionaries.
The theory when digging trenches is not to have long straight sections as projectiles could kill or maim multiple numbers of soldiers. A zigzag pattern eliminated this problem as this construction absorbed shrapnel.
It was on battlefields like the one in the above photograph where men experienced shell shock, a term coined in 1917 relating to the disorder where men, feeling the full effects of the sheer horror of the battlefield, fell into an incoherent state. Official figures suggest 16 000 soldiers on the Somme suffered shellshock and many carried the effects for the rest of their lives. Today the condition is known as ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’.
The aim of military strategists was to take command of all the high points within a battlefield as from there they had a clear view of enemy movements. Hill 104 was one such hill.
On the plains, unbelievable suffering and carnage occurred. Following are a few images of life on the battlefields.
The Battle of Amiens, also known as the third Battle of Picardy, and later known as the Hundred Days Offensive, was the opening phase of the Allied attack and began in August 1918. Ultimately this offensive led to the end of the First World War. Allied forces advanced eleven kilometres on the first day, one of the greatest advances of the war. The battle was one of the first major battles that involved armoured warfare such as tanks.
Canadians experimented with transporting infantry to and from the front lines inside tanks, but carbon monoxide exhaust fumes and extreme heat left most of them in no state to fight.
The designers of these machines would not have considered ergonomics and the tanks would have been most uncomfortable to ride in, especially when crashing down into a ditch such as above.
The notation with the above image did not state what nationality the prisoners were, however it is a simple enough matter to determine simply by looking at the shape of the helmets some of the prisoners are wearing (that is, assuming they are not wearing enemy helmets, which I doubt).
The village of Villers-Bretonneux is near to Hill 104 and sixteen kilometres east of Amiens. Soldiers of the AIF liberated it during World War 1. There were two battles, the decisive second battle took place from 24 to 27th April 1918 and it was notable for being the first occasion on which tanks fought against each other. The population of Villers-Bretonneux was of course appreciative of the Australian soldiers sacrifice and efforts and as we rode into the village we were confronted with signs indicating the enduring connection with Australia.
The small sign with the kangaroo says Robinvale indicating the name of the twin town in Australia. Robinvale is on the south bank of the Murray River in northwestern Victoria and is named in memory of George Robin Cuttle who was killed in action during an air raid combat over France in 1918.
The people of Victoria have a connection with Villers-Bretonneux. Schoolchildren collected monies for the rebuilding of the village school. Around the school are plaques praising the AIF’s heroic recapture of the town and prominently displayed in the schoolyard is a sign stating ‘N’oublions jamais l’Australie’ (Never forget Australia).
Villers-Bretonneux was rebuilt following WW1, destroyed during WW2 and again rebuilt.
According to history.com, World War 1 took the lives of more than nine million soldiers and twenty-one million more were wounded. Civilian casualties caused indirectly by the war numbered close to ten million.
There is no doubt our visit to Hill 104 and the village of Villers-Bretonneux had an influence on our thinking and war. We came away in a sombre mood. It was hard to comprehend the waste of human life, lives never fulfilled and the sorrow of those left behind.
During our visit to Amiens I had the feeling of cultural overload. We needed a week with no new things to see and absorb. Such a condition is known as Stendhal’s Syndrome and is brought on when one is overwhelmed with the aesthetic beauty of the streetscape. The French writer Stendhal (1783-1842) collapsed one day while visiting Florence, overwhelmed by the beauty of the Renaissance period buildings. Collapsing is a rare event, you are more likely to become irritable and tired, or simply cease to care if you never see another piece of ancient architecture. I thought that, in Amiens, the overload syndrome might be coming on.
With this in mind, we decided to speed up the journey and travel by train across northern France to Strasbourg and then to Stuttgart in Germany and hold up with cycling friend Martin for a week. Another good reason to go by train was the heat. It was becoming unbearably hot for riding with Europe experiencing heatwave conditions. A record-breaking temperature was recorded in southern France, 45.9 degrees and that’s sizzling for Europe.
That’s the end of this post, the next stage of our trip takes us to Reims, Nancy and an air-conditioned stop in Strasbourg on the French-German border. Make a comment if you wish.