Travel Story Emotional journey honours fallen

Photo of Annelies Gartner

Through muddy fields they marched and many a brave man fell.

A hundred years after the end of the Great War, the toll of the fighting on the Western Front is still evident across the landscape.

Cemeteries with uniform white headstones mark the resting places of countless soldiers, the names of many still unknown. Craters created from powerful detonations and the remains of bunkers dot the green countryside. Farmers are still today unearthing remnants of unexploded ammunitions and it is estimated it will take another 150 years to remove them all. Many memorials and museums in the area also offer an emotional insight into the bloody history of World War I.

More than 295,000 Australians served in Belgium and France and the 200km Australian Remembrance Trail gives visitors the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of our servicemen and pay homage to their sacrifice.

The route can be taken by car, on foot and in parts by bicycle, with a plan to make the entire path cycle-friendly in the not too distant future. In the north, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Brussels, is the medieval town of Ypres.

 It was reduced to a pile of rubble during the war but was rebuilt to reflect its flourishing past during the Middle Ages.

 It is home to the Flanders Fields Museum and Menin Gate, the memorial to the missing, where at 8pm a crowd gathers every day for the Last Post, which has sounded since 1928. 

The ceremony was forbidden by German occupiers during WWII but resumed the day after they were forced out. 

Within 20km of the city centre are the sites of Passchendaele, Zonnebeke, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Messines, Ploegsteert and Tyne Cot Cemetery. 

The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 tells a tale of the futility of war where in the Third Battle of Ypres, or the Battle of Passchendaele, between July 31 and November 10, 1917 about 600,000 men became casualties (killed, wounded and missing) to gain just 8km of territory. 

It also offers a glimpse of the claustrophobic life in the trenches.

Polygon Wood is just over 1km from the centre of Zonnebeke. The site has two cemeteries and a memorial to the 5th Australian Division. 

Today the area is surrounded by tall trees that provide a leafy canopy but during the Battle of Passchendaele the area was decimated, the woods reduced to a moon-like surface.

Other notable sites in the area include Hill 60 in Zillebeke where the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company blew up the hill under German lines. 

West Australian Jeremy Sims paid tribute to the men who worked in the dark, clay-filled tunnels when he directed the film Beneath Hill 60. 

Not far from here is Ploegsteert Wood, which is home to the only all-Australian cemetery in Belgium — Toronto Avenue Cemetery.

A short, marked walk of about 4km from Zonnebeke station, Tyne Cot Cemetery is a reminder of the cost of war. 

It is the biggest Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in the world — the resting place for 12,000 soldiers including 1372 Australians.

 A memorial to the missing British soldiers is inscribed with 35,000 names (the names of Australians missing in Belgium are all etched on Menin Gate).

South of Ypres at De Palingbeek is an art installation created by tens of thousands of people from around the world. 

ComingWorldRememberMe features 600,000 clay sculptures and each piece represents a soldier or civilian killed in Belgium during the war. Dog tags in a transparent vessel at the start of the outdoor exhibition are engraved with the names of each victim and the person who made the figurine. The temporary installation covers 3ha of no man’s land and can be visited until November 11 this year.

Moving on to the central region of the Western Front are Arras, Fromelles and Bullecourt.

Opened in 2010, Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery is the resting place of 250 British and Australian soldiers. Their remains were only found in 2009 in mass graves on the edge of a forest known as Pheasant Wood.

Through DNA some have been identified but many are still unknown soldiers. 

The museum next to the cemetery opened in 2014 and staff at the centre say every day they discover new stories from the memories visitors share.

At Bullecourt in April, 1917, Australia suffered 3300 casualties in a day.

 A few days later in the second Battle of Bullecourt there were another 7400 casualties. 

In 1993 at the Australian Memorial Park of Bullecourt, a statue of a Digger was installed to honour the memory of the Australian soldiers who fell in these battles. 

In the southern region the beautiful town of Amiens is the gateway to Somme Battlefields. 

Before heading to some well-known war sites, take time to visit Amiens’ Gothic cathedral. Sandbagged for protection during the war, it survived relatively unscathed apart from a few scars from small German shells. 

The Lochnagar crater at La Boisselle is a good place to start a tour of this region. The crater was left by the explosion that marked the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.

Pozieres is also a significant stop for Australians as more soldiers were killed here than on any other battlefield in France. The Australian Memorial (The Windmill) represents the hardest-won point of the battle and the place where most Aussies died. 

An Australian Remembrance Trail app, Pozieres, explains areas of interest on two and 10km walks in the area.

Australians were sent to Dernancourt in 1918 to stop the German advance to Amiens.

 A walking trail from this town, adopted by South Australians who helped raise money to rebuild the town after the war, can also be taken using the app. Locals haven’t forgotten Australia’s sacrifice and gratefully welcome visitors with open arms. 

Australians were sent into a counterattack at Villers- Bretonneux in March, 1918, bringing a German advance towards Amiens to a halt. 

 The enduring relationship between Australia and France could not be more obvious than at the Franco-Australian Museum. 

Children from Victoria collected donations to build a school in the town after the war.

 The museum sits on the top of the school and out of the window looking over the school yard hangs a sign :“Do Not Forget Australia”.

Not far from the town centre is the Australian National Memorial that commemorates more than 10,700 Australians who died in France and have no known grave.

The newly opened Sir John Monash Centre is out of sight behind the memorial.

 The approach to the centre is designed to give the impression of walking down into a bunker. 

The state-of-the-art centre tells the story of Australia’s participation in the Great War.

From life in the sunburnt country before the outbreak of war to the horrific toll it took on the returning soldiers and their families this interactive display uses an app to allow visitors to explore our history on the Western Front and remember the 46,000 Australians who died. 

The Australian Corps Memorial at Le Hamel is not far from the Australian National Memorial. This site commemorates the battle well-orchestrated by General Monash, who was commander of the entire Australian Corps. 

He made history here when it took about 90 minutes to take Hamel from the Germans after they had occupied the town for three months. 

There are many other places of importance along the 200km trail, such as Vignacourt, but to get the most out of your trip, getting a local guide for at least a day in Belgium and France is recommended.

This is a journey that at times is confronting when the reality of lives lost and horrors witnessed are learned, but the Australian Remembrance Trail also means the memories of our soldiers, their camaraderie and sacrifice and the families left behind can continue to be honoured.

Disclaimer

Annelies Gartner travelled as a guest of the Department of Veterans Affairs. They have not seen or approved this story.

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