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WWI won't stay buried

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BerichtGeplaatst: 22 Mei 2010 16:38    Onderwerp: WWI won't stay buried Reageer met quote

WWI won't stay buried
MATTHEW CAWOOD, 29 Apr, 2010 04:00 AM

BOOKS and imagination give some idea of the hell that was First World War trench warfare, but there’s nothing like walking over the old battlefields.
My mental images of the Somme never included topography.

The old black-and-white photographs only seem to show an endless blasted plain.

But there in person, you see how strategically important high ground was – as it has been in every battle since men began fighting.

In the Péronne-Poziéres area of the Somme, where Australians fought from 1916-18, high ground isn’t all that high.

The slopes the Australians had to advance up at Mont St Quentin and Poziéres could be easily jogged up by a moderately fit person on a fine day.

But imagine these pleasant farmland slopes covered in a moonscape of craters and mud, covered with barbed wire and raked with gunfire from men as full of berserk fear as the Diggers, and the slopes look a whole lot less inviting.

Being there in person also puts some flesh on the numbers.

The histories tell us how many men died to gain (or lose) so many yards of ground, but to see how small these battlefields really were; the row on row on row of inscriptions on the great memorials; the literally hundreds of war cemeteries across the Somme and their thousands of white headstones – that gives the figures a new and poignant dimension.

But the most enduring memory for me will be the new appreciation of how much explosives and metal both sides hurled at one another.

At Le Tommy café in Poziéres, owner, Dominque Zanardi, has stacked up what he says are 10,000 WWI shell casings – a stack that runs for about 30 metres and ranges from chest- to head-high.

Zanardi reckons a six-gun artillery battery firing at an average pace of 12 rounds a minute could pump out this number of shells in two to three hours.

When you consider that there were dozens of artillery batteries at work on both sides, pumping out shells for days, you start to see how the Allied forces alone could pump out 3.5 million shells in a big bombardment.

Underneath those shells, and the 400 marble-sized balls of lead that the most commonly-used shrapnel shells blasted out, were men. (And not always the enemy: WWI artillery frequently smashed its own side in the confusion of battle.)

Nearly 100 years later, the Somme ground is still spewing out reminders of those horrendous battles.

At Mouquet Farm – a furious and futile battleground that cost Australia nearly 11,000 men before the British generals decided they didn’t want it after all – I was shown an unexploded British model grenade, carried there 94 years ago by a Digger or a Canadian and picked up the day before Anzac Day, 2010.

The Mouquet Farm yard has a couple of tonnes of rusting shell casings piled up in it.

The owners pick up shell casings like we used to pick up mallee roots in West Australia farmland.

Earlier that week, in Poziéres, workmen digging around the foundations of a house that stood on old trenches found the rusted remains of a Lee-Enfield rifle, buckled by an explosion, and an unexploded shell, which they casually leaned against the house they were working on.

WWI just keeps on coming up in the Somme.

But that’s a good thing, I think.

Matthew Cawood was in France courtesy of NSW Farm Writers, and was assisted in the Somme by Quadrant Australia and Nathalie Witz, Péronne.

“I hope you live a life you are proud of. If you find that you are not, l hope you have the strength to start all over again.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
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