Premier’s Westfield Modern History Scholarship
Richmond River High School, North Lismore
Very successful attack this morning... All went like clockwork... The battle is going very
well for us and already the Germans are surrendering freely. The enemy is so short of men
that he is collecting them from all parts of the line. Our troops are in wonderful spirits and
full of confidence.
- report by Haig on the first day of attack, 1 July 1916
The battle of the Somme on the Western Front in July 1916 is easily one of history’s
most recognisable events. Any student of World War I can easily command respect
through a divulging of statistics of the operation on that 1 July 1916: 20,000 dead or
wounded in the first hour, 53,000 on the first day and more than 1,500,000 over the
course of the campaign. Yet after 90 odd years, the study of history books, photographs,
film, even personal accounts can never replace the empathy of understanding and
experience of the Western Front one gains when actually standing in a trench or
searching dumbfounded through the names of tens of thousands of soldiers whose fate
remains to this day unknown.
The trench was a horrible sight. The dead were stretched out on one side, one on top of
each other six feet high. I thought at the time I should never get the peculiar disgusting
smell of the vapour of warm human blood heated by the sun out of my nostrils. I would
rather have smelt gas a hundred times. I can never describe that faint sickening, horrible
smell which several times nearly knocked me up altogether.
- British Captain Leeham, talking about the first day
of the Battle of the Somme, in Tommy Goes to War
My visit to this most infamous battlefield was made with the desire to experience as
much of the area’s memorials, museums and sites as I could. I was keen to follow an
Australian experience as well as an overall historical perspective. My experience proved
much more than I was prepared for. The battlefield of the Somme now covered in
beautiful shades of green, alive with the activity of farming, remains hauntingly quiet,
ever remindful of what occurred so many years before. The memorial at Thiepval,
housing 73,367 names of the missing on the Somme, is a significant reminder of the
suffering and futility of the event.
A new visitor centre linked to our Australian Museum in Canberra allows the student to
research all that is important about this campaign.
Monuments at the Ulster Tower and Mouquet Farm, and the Newfoundland Memorial
at Beaumont Hamel allow historians to retrace the trench systems and battle strategies of
the day. The Tank Monument at Pozieres (first tank engagement 15 September 1916)
heightened my interest in early tank warfare and I was lured by locals to visit Flesquieres
in search of the ‘Deborah’. This tank was dug out from the paddocks by local farmers in
the 1990s and painstakingly restored. My excursion proved bitter sweet. I found
Deborah, but she was locked away in a private barn with the owner ‘on vacation’.
At La Boisselle the Lachnagar Crater is a 100 metre wide and 30 metre deep mine hold
that typifies the struggle for position on the battlefield. More significant, however, is the
memorial to a young French soldier lost in the explosion in 1916 and uncovered in 1996.
At Vimy Ridge where a most magnificent memorial to trench warfare is maintained by
the Canadian Government, my young guide enlightened me to the uses of mine warfare.
More than to blow up positions from underground, much of the mining that occurred
was to alter the surface above so that offensive and or defensive positions could be
found. Vimy Ridge is pitted with mine craters—a testimony to the need to break the
stalemate and to the bitter fighting that took place there.
I had always been intrigued by the names of places such as Deville Wood, where 4000
South Africans experienced the unimaginable nightmare of 400 artillery rounds per
minute. After six days, 143 men emerge alive. They held their position and the South
African National Museum stands as a unique monument to such bravery against the
Numerous museums dot the Somme. The best include the underground Somme 1916
Museum in Albert and the most impressive Historial of the Great War at Peronne, with
its open galleries and student focused resources.
Without exception, no study of the Somme is complete without a visit to Villers-
Bretonneux, experiencing the Adelaide Cemetery, the Australian Memorial and Hamel.
This ‘Australian’ village welcomes Aussies at any time, but April is especially significant.
Of all my Anzac Day observances, Saturday, 23 April 2005, will remain my most
complete. Driving rain and bitter cold were tempered by the warm welcome at the
Victorian School. The Franco-Australian Museum within this small school gives a
wonderful account of the life of Australian soldiers behind the lines. I feel it is important
for our students to understand why such observances are maintained by generations of
primary school children at the ends of the earth from Australia. The stone at the
building’s entrance is testimony to the bonds forged in war:
The empathetic nature of the Somme is no more significant than at Rancourt. This is the
only village of the Somme with the sad distinction of having cemeteries for France,
Britain and Commonwealth, and Germany. It is understandable but poignant that most
cemeteries are commemorated with beautiful gardens, sandstone monuments and home
country memorials, except of course for the German cemeteries. Dark and foreboding,
they sit uncomfortably: the legacy of an invading and unwanted intrusion.
... yesterday I visited the battlefield of last year. The place was scarcely recognisable.
Instead of a wilderness of ground torn up by shells, the ground was a garden of wild
flowers and tall grasses. Most remarkable of all was the appearance of many thousands of
white butterflies which fluttered around. It was as if the souls of the dead soldiers had come
to haunt the spot where so many fell. It was eerie to see them. And the silence! It was so
still that I could almost hear the beat of the butterflies wings ...
- letter from a British officer, 1919
My previous visits to Ieper had been centred on the Menin Gate. I had been drawn to
the names of the 55,000 missing. This visit would give me time to explore the region and
hopefully to further develop my understanding.
Ieper is a most beautiful town. It has a tragically romantic story, particularly from 1914 to
1918 when it was totally destroyed, then painstakingly raised phoenix-like brick by brick
from the ruins. Yet unlike The Somme and France in general, Flanders seemed more
‘commercial’ in its memories of and memorials to the Great War. During my time there I
was continually torn between my reverence and awe of this place and time and my
uneasiness at the tourism which brought bus loads of mainly British to the district. On
The Somme; the war, the trenches, the sacrifice, are softly remembered as they slowly
fade and return to the earth. Only the monuments stand tall and the solitude and silence
make the experience very personal. In Flanders, one is always sharing the moment and
the trench with coach loads of people on tourist drives of the area.
My personal view and experience of Flanders was also coloured by the ironies of war set
down by poets such as John MacRae and Wilfred Owen. I have always been torn
between the contrasting sentiments of poems such as following:
‘In Flanders Fields’ ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’
In Flanders fields the poppies blow GAS! Gas! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Between the crosses, row on row, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
That mark our place; and in the sky But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
The larks, still bravely singing, fly And floundering like a man in fire or lime.
Scarce heard amid the guns below. Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
—Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae
- Wilfred Owen
Visiting the interactive In Flanders Field Museum takes one back into WWI like no other
museum I have visited. I became a young German soldier with a chemistry background
who was taken from the front line to experiment with chemical warfare. The rest is
history. Another persona was of a young Belgian nurse who suffered greatly through the
war and after, eventually committing suicide in the 1920s. The experience bombards the
mind and body with the realities of war and one exits feeling both enlightened by the
experience and sickened by the reality.
Driving around the surrounding areas I visited Passchendaele and Zonnebeke, where I
came across a little museum, the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917. Opened on
Anzac day 2004 this little gem introduced me to the tunnels used in WWI. I’d known
about tunnels and crater warfare, but I’d never realised just how many soldiers lived and
died underground. At Passchendaele alone the tunnel network could house 12,000
soldiers. That equals the population of the district in 2005. Uniquely recreated
underground galleries featured soldiers’ quarters and their fear of living and dying
underground, either by cave-in or by drowning. Each year more and more tunnels are
found, usually by home owners building extensions etc.
The museum curator introduced me to Bayernwald, a German trench system recently
uncovered and the one I had read about on the web and was keen to explore; the Belgian
Trench of Death; and the Ysertower, with its 22-floor Peace Museum. He also obtained
my services to try to find 108,000 photos of those who died in the 1917 battle at
Passchendaele. At the time they had 80 photos and since I have helped find two more.
My studies in Ieper would not be complete without the tourist visits to Hill 60–Queen
Victoria Rifles Museum, Hill 62–Sanctuary Wood Museum and Hooges Crater Museum.
Tyne Cot cemetery, the French Memorial at Kemmel Hill and the German cemeteries at
Langemark and Vladslo reminded one of the fact that more than 30 nationalities fought
here in the Great War.
The war in Belgium has become clearer to me. The early period can be understood by
those coming together to defeat a terrible foe: flooding the land, immobilising the
forward push, protecting the innocent. This is John MacRae’s war, a call to defend,
before the futility, before the Somme. As the war of attrition developed the area became
the senseless war of Wilfred Owen:
‘In Flanders Fields’ ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’
Take up our quarrel with the foe: If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
To you from failing hands we throw Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
The torch; be yours to hold it high. And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
If ye break faith with us who die His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
In Flanders fields. Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
—Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
- Wilfred Owen
I understand Ieper much better now. Yes, it is more commercial, but the real testimony
to Ieper is found at 8 p.m. every evening, every day since 1918, when hundreds of
tourists and locals, young and old, gather within the Menin Gate; its grand arches loud
and echoing one moment, silent the next. I stood shoulder-to-shoulder among the
observers as the Ode was majestically repeated and felt as if I was the only person there.
This was what I had hoped to experience in Flanders Field.
The whole earth is ploughed by the exploding shells and the holes are filled with water,
and if you do not get killed by the shells you may drown in the craters. Broken wagons
and dead horses are moved to the sides of the road, also many dead soldiers lie here.
Wounded soldiers who died in the ambulance have been unloaded and their eyes stare at
you. Sometimes an arm or leg is missing. Everybody is rushing, running, trying to escape
almost certain death in this hail of enemy shells. Today I have seen the real face of war.
- German musketeer Hans Otto Schetter
My desire to visit Verdun stemmed from the quest to gain an impression and
understanding of WWI outside the Australian experience. Verdun was, to many, the
most bloodiest of battlefields. It was here that the war was lost and won. It was this
Maginot Line theory that forced the Germans to develop the Schlieffen Plan. It features
little in the Australian experience of the Great War, but it lacked none of the passion,
sacrifice, futility and depravity that marked the four years of warfare. Here German and
French passions and hatred clashed, bringing the old world fumbling into the modern
This picturesque town steeped in ancient history became the centrerpiece of French
defences after the 1871 defeat by Germany. In the surrounding foot hills 14 heavily
fortified underground fortresses were built, designed to stop any future German
invasion. It succeeded only in forcing Germany to go around and invade through
Belgium. The eventual clash of Europe’s giants along the Maginot Line would become
the greatest ‘fight to the end’ of the whole war.
In the surrounding hills I discovered enough memorials - French, and American (there
was a distinct lack of German memorials, although not of cemeteries) - and enough
history to keep any WWI enthusiast busy for weeks. I came across Fort Vaux and Fort
Douaumont, two of the original bastions of defence, nestled almost unrecognisable
among deep green forests. Foreboding messages of unexploded bombs warn against
walking freely around these places. Once inside, the fortifications open into miles of
underground concrete tunnels, not rushed in their building like on Flanders, but
deliberate, secure, entombing. Men lived, fought and died down there in the chilly damp
recesses - soldiers from both sides, as they captured and recaptured this valuable ground.
Further along the hilltops, at one end of a small road stands the Verdun Memorial,
another well presented, informative museum, and at the other end the Douaumont
Cemetery with 16,142 headstones and the Douaumont Ossuary with the bones of over
130,000 unknown soldiers.
The village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont is one of a long list of villages that disappeared,
but exists in name and memory. A small chapel sits surrounded by silence and nature. It
has a mayor, just no structures and no inhabitants. On closer inspection as one walks
along wandering tracks it unveils street names and craters. Among the green slopes,
vibrantly coloured flowers and busy bumbling bees.
The Trenches of the Bayonets houses a most remarkable story. Under the ugly concrete
protection and among the gravel-like bedding, one’s eyes begin to capture the presence
of the tips of bayonets and rifles. Along some 50 metres these rusting projections tell the
story of a French unit buried alive by artillery explosions moments before they were to
advance over the top.
A final visit to the Citadel upon my return to Verdun gave me a great insight into the
French desperation to keep Verdun free. In tunnels 4.5 metres wide and 330 metres long,
the war effort was strategically planned, relatively safe inside while ‘all hell’ exploded
outside. In Verdun, one is greeted by colour, a passion for living and a town of great
beauty. The French catch-cry and inscription at the gate to the town ‘they did not pass’
fully explains the French’s desperate need to make their stand here.
Its main gate bore the legend ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’—Labour Brings Liberty. Actually
labour, all done at double time, brought torment, and the only motto fit for this hell on
earth was ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.’ For at Dachau men like Rudolf Hoess,
who was to be Commandant of Auschwitz, and Adolf Eichmann, who later ‘boasted of
five million murders,’ served their apprenticeship. Here the soul of Nazism was first made
- Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley, A Panorama of the 1930s
The border between France and Germany marked the change in my itinerary. I was to
embark on a whirlwind study of aspects of Nazi Germany.
Built on the original Albert Speer-designed Nazi Party Rally Grounds, the
Documentation: Fascination & Terror Museum highlights the Nazi years. Rather than
glorifying or crucifying the reign and achievements of Hitler and his brutal regime, the
museum gives a matter-of-fact experience, chronicling the means through which the
Nazis seduced an intelligent German population into elevating them into power before
unleashing their fascist programs with such devastating results. I was keen to gain
information on the career and personalities of Albert Speer and Leni Riefenshal.
In its haste to not be seen as glorifying the Nazi regime this museum provided an uneasy
experience. The museums throughout Europe simply represent the history their area
lived. I guessed the Nazi regime still haunts the good people of Germany.
Moving south I had planned to relive my earlier experience at Dachau Concentration
Camp. This time with camera in hand I was able to capture images of that ghostly place;
images that words could not explain. Dachau was Hitler’s first camp. Designed to house
political prisoners, the camp became notorious for its cruelty. It was so successful it
became the blueprint for all other work camps. It had been fully converted during the
war to use as gas chambers, part of Hitler’s final solution, but fortunately they were never
Thousand perished nonetheless between 1932 and 1945, and the camps motto arbeit
macht frei (labour brings liberty) is an ironic reminder of the inhuman programs initiated
in those years. Only when one had died through harsh labour was one truly free!
Although there would have been 2000 visitors the day I visited, the silence of the place
Japanese occupation of Hong Kong
During the afternoon the male captives were taken out, two or three at a time, and were
dismembered limb from limb. They chopped off fingers, sliced off ears, cut out tongues, and
stabbed out eyes before they killed them, some were allowed to escape in order to tell the
Fort Stanley defenders what was happening. In the other room the nurses were screaming,
they were tied down on beds of corpses on which they were raped.
—George H. Calvert, Ex. Royal Hong Kong Regiment
My final destination was planned to supplement my HSC teaching of Conflict in the
Pacific. . This section of the HSC was the one with which I had the least confidence and
I wanted to find something special with which to work with my students. I had
investigated museums across South-East Asia through the internet, looking for
something special about the Japanese occupation and the effect on local and indigenous
communities. A previous visit to Singapore had been interesting but all too ‘British’ in
slant. I longed for information with a very ‘local’ flavour. At the Hong Kong Museum of
History I found a newly opened display that highlighted Hong Kong’s punishing years
under Japanese rule.
The Japanese attacked Hong Kong the day after Pearl Harbour, this time informing
British authorities prior to the attack. They swept into Hong Kong with the ease that was
to be repeated throughout South-East Asia. They were well prepared and well equipped.
However, unlike in Singapore, the Japanese didn’t empty the city and destroy its
economic viability. Sensing the importance of Hong Kong, the Japanese maintained the
economy, replacing British/Hong Kong currency with their own Japanese military yen,
and as a result Hong Kong was spared the physical destruction that befell Singapore.
The inhabitants of Hong Kong did suffer greatly, however. The Japanese were
particularly cruel to those they considered inferior, and they considered the Chinese
inferior. During the occupation over 1,000,000 inhabitants were repatriated into China,
their fate unknown. Day-to-day living was very harsh; food was scarce as the Japanese
bled the economy for its own benefits. Guerrilla groups such as the East River Column,
comprising both Chinese and British, proved an annoying disruption, but with the
Japanese in firm control, little changed. The three years and eight months under Japanese
occupation spawned an anti-Japanese sentiment that prevails even to today.
A visit to the Maritime Museum presented me with a final museum challenge. Tucked
away at the far end of Hong Kong Island, the museum chronicled Hong Kong’s reliance
on the sea. Actually it was Britain’s reliance on the sea that made both Hong Kong and
Singapore so impregnable from advances from the sea, but pathetically vulnerable to any
attack from land. Nippon had certainly done its homework.
I am forever indebted to my sponsor Westfield and the Premier’s Department, and I
thank you for this most valuable and amazing experience.