Tag Archives: Battlefield Tours

South Africans on the Somme

 

100 years ago, the Battle of Delville Wood was being fought. It was one of the many engagements that made up the Battle of the Somme, and part of the wider Battle of Bazentin Ridge.

The battle saw the debut of the South African Overseas Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. They took Delville Wood on the 15th of July 1916, and they held on grimly during numerous German counterattacks, until they were relieved.

The South Africans held the wood until 19 July, at a cost in casualties similar to those of many British brigades on 1 July. They lost 2,536 men in the attacks, counter-attacks, and defence in this small stretch of the front.

Delville Wood is now the site of the South African National Memorial, which was opened in 1926. There’s some great original footage here of the unveiling of the memorial – and you can really see the destruction of the wood as there are virtually no trees standing.

The memorial building itself is near the centre of the wood, with this rather moving inscription in English and Afrikaans:

Their ideal is our legacy.
Their Sacrifice our Inspiration.

The memorial commemorates not only the actions of the South Africans at Delville Wood, but also all those who fought and died in the battles of the First World War, both in Europe and elsewhere in the world. But it was only recently that the names of 1100 black and coloured troops from the South African Native Labour Corps who served as stretcher bearers and trench diggers were added to a remembrance wall.

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There is also a small museum designed to look like the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. Disappointingly, on my last two visits (even on 2 July 2016) the museum has been closed. I hope it is now open to tell the story of the South Africans at war.

Of the wood itself, while it looks full only one tree is an “original” hornbeam that survived the fighting. It is marked by a small plaque and shows battle damage. The rest of the hornbeam and beech trees were destroyed, and those there now are oak and birch trees planted by the South African government.

The wood is enormously peaceful, but it’s easy to see the scars of the war here. The trenches are still visible in the trees, and little memorials are still dotted around, such as pointing out where the South African HQ was.

Across the road is the Delville Wood Cemetery. It is the third largest British cemetery on the Somme, with 5,523 graves, and was created after the Armistice by concentrating a number of smaller cemeteries from the area, as well as those recovered from the battlefields. As a testament to the level of fighting here and in the immediate surrounds, two thirds of these are unidentified.

Delville Wood does not hold the same resonance for South Africans as Vimy Ridge for the Canadians, or Villers-Bretonneux or Gallipoli do for Australians. I think that is due to the contested and divided nature of South African 20th century history. Commemoration of these times remains difficult as it remains a painful issue about what is remembered – though it was good to see President Jacob Zuma lay a wreath at the memorial.

Delville Wood is an important site that helps people remember those who went before and fought for their country, and to my mind one of the most remarkable sites on the Western Front. I certainly recommend you visit it.

 

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The Hillman Bunker Complex

As today is the anniversary of D-Day, I thought I’d put up a few photos of my recent trip to Normandy, specifically looking at the Hillman Bunker complex.

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The Hillman bunker complex is a 24 hectare site made up of 18 concrete bunkers crisscrossed by trenches. The site was a defensive command post on the Côte de Nacre, but was unfinished when the Allies arrived on D-Day. Originally it was surrounded by  barbed wires and a mine field, and designed to provide an observation platform

It was captured by the 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment who overran the position after landing at Sword Beach that morning. It saw considerable heroism and acts of tenacious attack on defence – on both sides. There was J Hunter’s charge which singlehandedly led to the capture of one of the outlying bunkers, and the stubborn defence of Colonel Krug and his men from the 736 Grenadier Regiment, who held out overnight with two other officers and 70 men – only surrendering the following day.

The Hillman complex is now a memorial to the Suffolk Regiment, and is a great site to explore, with much of it still open to visitors. There are three main bunkers with Tobruk pits that you can climb up inside (complete with range indicators based on church steeples), observation cupolas, trenches, a water reservoir, a cook house, a guard post… even the old water tank – all of which you can see in the pictures below.

 

 

Hillman is easy to find, and definitely worth a visit. It is on the Rue Suffolk Regiment, just south of Colleville-Montgomery. It can be reached by following the D60 north out of Caen, then turning north-east onto the D60 into Colleville-Montgomery.

Hillman may be off the beaten track, and is not often featured on the regular tourist trail, but I would highly recommend going. From it you can look down to the coast and Sword Beach, past another former German gun emplacement, and really get a sense of how far in land the British were trying to push on D-Day.

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The Sir John Monash Centre, Villers-Bretonneux

In December 2015, the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs announced that construction would begin on the new Sir John Monash Centre at the Australian National Memorial near Villers-Bretonneux, France.

This brand new interpretive centre will tell the story of Australian involvement in France and Belgium in the First World War. The Centre is named after General Sir John Monash, who led the Australian Corps with outstanding success on the Western Front in 1918, including the famous 4 July 1918 victory at Le Hamel, which transformed First World War tactics. Situated at the Australian National Memorial near Villers-Bretonneux, it will be linked inexorably to the site of Australian sacrifice in foreign fields.

Centenaries and anniversaries are popular times for new and refurbished museums. The new memorial museum at Verdun, for example, opened this year, and the Sir John Monash Centre will open for Anzac Day 2018.

The Centre looks like a fantastic layout already, with large investment in multi-media to give an immersive experience. You can see a preview of it here:

I’m excited to see how the project develops, and will no doubt go once it’s opened in 2018. I’m sure it will become a favourite stop on the battlefield tourist trail for European visitors, and a site of pilgrimage for Australians.

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The new Verdun Memorial Museum

Really excited to see the below video for the Verdun Memorial, which is due to open after an extensive redevelopment. It first opened in 1967, and has been extensively modernised to commemorate the centenary of one of the most famous battles of the First World War.

As I have more than a passing interest in redeveloped military museums, it’s exciting to see another project so close to completion! With its forts, trenches and cemeteries, the Verdun battlefield is an incredible site to visit. This looks like an exciting, modern museum that promises to deliver a great visitor experience. I’ll certainly be going back as soon as I can to see this new museum!

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Hougoumont 200 years on

Last year I was lucky enough to visit the battlefield of Waterloo, just ahead of the bicentenary commemorations.

One place I desperately wanted to visit was Chateau d’Hougoumont, the stronghold on Wellington’s right flank that proved so decisive in the outcome of the battle.

Until recently, the extensive buildings have been in private hands, but were extensively refurbished and redeveloped to open to visitors (you can read more about that here).

It was amazing walking around such an iconic site, so steeped in history!

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The famous North Gate. Breached during the battle, Wellington said ‘The success of the Battle of Waterloo turned on the closing of the gates’

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The walls of the grounds still have their loop holes. Recent excavations suggest the French may have gotten into the gardens – something not previously know

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The inside of the chateau

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The South Gate

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The view up to Wellington’s position from the chateau

 

 

 

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New Battle of the Bulge Museum in Bastogne

Last year I walked part of the Battle of the Bulge battlefield, with a particular emphasis on Easy Company. I visited the Mardasson Memorial, just outside of the town of Bastogne, and noticed that a brand new museum to the battle was being constructed.

It seems that the museum is now up and running, and offers a highly-interactive experience – as you can see from the trailer below.

One to see on my next visit!

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In the Footsteps of Easy Company in the Battle of the Bulge

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Recently I was able to spend a day in Bastogne in Belgium tracing some of the history of the Battle of the Bulge.

Unsurprisingly, much of the town is given over to the tourist trade, and in particular the story of the 101st Airborne. This was further immortalised in Stephen E Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, which focused on the story of Easy Company, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne, and the subsequent HBO TV mini-series that was a global success.

The town itself remains one large museum to the Battle of the Bulge, 16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945, which is otherwise known as Le Bataille des Ardennes. Bastogne was central to the fighting, it’s network of 11 hard-topped roads providing essential routes for tanks through otherwise heavy countryside. It was defended throughout by the 101st Airborne, along with Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division who became encircled in the town. For a the visitor, this therefore makes it a great place to explore, but one that needs more than one day (which regrettably I didn’t have!).

The main square is now named Place General McAuliffe, and there is a statue to honour the acting commanding officer of the 101st throughout the siege.

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Alongside this statue is the most photographed monument in Bastogne, a M4A3 Sherman tank that had served in the 41st Tank Battalion, Company B of the 11th Armored Division. The tank, called “Barracuda”, was under command of Staff Sgt. Wallace Alexander, was put out of action near Renaumont, a few kilometres west of Bastogne, on 30th December 1944. It still shows some battle scars, including a hole where a German shell penetrated the armour on the left hand side, with another at the rear of the tank.

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However, the major attraction of a visit to Bastogne, much because of Ambrose’s book and the subsequent TV series, is the opportunity to walk the same ground as Easy Company. While there are no direct signs, I found that this is actually fairly easy to do. For starters, there’s the Airborne Museum inside the old officer’s mess near Place General McAuliffe.

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However, I was keen to get out in the field, so headed away from the town centre. The first stop was on the Bizory-Foy road, for the specific Easy Company memorial. This is actually located closer to the hamlet of Bizory, which is to the North-East of the centre of Bastogne. It commemorates the 14 men killed during the Battle of the Bulge, and was dedicated on 10th June 2005.

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Following the road onwards towards Foy, I began to pass through the Bois Jacques. It was here that Easy Company took up positions and were extensively shelled before attacking the town of Foy on 13th January 1945. I was keen to see if I could find any of the old positions, but was a little sceptical given that the forest is logged commercially, and so has been subject to substantial change. Pulling over on the side of the road I was able to wonder between the pines.

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It’s a very peaceful place today.

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I was also extremely lucky that I was able to find the remnants of fox holes:

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From here, you could see out across a broad front and down into the town of Foy, which in 1945 housed a German force. The town is just beyond the electricity pylon behind the tree in the foreground.

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As you can see, there was a lot of open country to cross before reaching what remains a tiny town.

We passed through on our way to rejoin the main road to Bastogne. On the other side of Foy there is another poignant memorial, though unrelated to Easy Company, marking the site of the original US cemetery at Foy, one of several containing the casualties, and which held 2,701 US troops killed during the Battle of the Bulge until 1948.

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There was also this rather moving inscription on the monument:

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I would certainly recommend a trip to Bastogne to anyone who’s in the area. I only had a few hours but was able to cram in a lot, as the battlefield is quite small. The town of Bastogne itself is also really nice, and would be a good base from which to spend a few days exploring the site more fully!

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