After a quick google search for accommodation near Pozieres we were encouraged to find a wonderful Bed and Breakfast, Number 56 at La Boisselle France, a village up the road from Pozieres. Even more fortunate was the realisation that the hosts were war historians and able to organise personalised tours of the region. With the aim of seeing where Eric’s grandfather had served in WWI, this was a blessing. George Gossage lied about his age so he could enlist in 1917. Like so many returned soldiers, he never spoke to his family about his experience so there was very little information to go on.
The house was situated on the side of the road which was once the German front line and overlooked Mash Valley. From our window, Thiepval could be seen in the distance with its respectful glow at night. Side note – Eric did manage to stand in front of a header harvesting the thick barley crop on Mash Valley and was ecstatic to be picked up by the French farmer whose wife immediately invited us to dinner on the realisation that his grandfather had fought in the war. We were warmed and humbled by this beautiful gesture and although unable to attend, we received lovely gifts the next day. Our hosts explained that this was a typical reaction to Australian visitors. Whilst Eric’s limited French (Merci) didn’t make for great conversation with the farmer, he was pleased to be introduced to the son, home helping for harvest, who spoke excellent English. We will probably stay in touch with this lovely family for the rest of our lives.
The Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux was excellent and we spent many hours there. Housed discreetly underneath the majestic Australian War Memorial, the Sir John Monash Centre museum is an interactive experience and one of the best we have ever attended. We were able to stay an extra day and attend a commemoration service at Pozieres where we met the local Mayor and the Director of the Sir John Monash Centre. It staggered us how much respect was given to Australians and that this service was typical for the region.
Apparently, it is known that it is far easier to research someone who served and died in service, than someone who very fortunately returned home. George was enlisted in the 43rd Battalion as a reinforcement. As such, this young lad didn’t even have the luxury of being with fellow West Australians as this was a South Australian battalion.
A visit to Le Hamel where there was an extremely bloody battle and many fatalities for the 43rd made us more aware of the battalions experience. Many years were spent barely moving the front line in this region and it was staggering to actually see the metres fought over and hear of the harsh conditions soldiers were exposed to. We saw the sites in lovely summer weather, but this obviously wasn’t the case for those involved and our hosts encourage visitors to see the area during the depths of winter to get a small taste of the reality soldiers faced.
Lochnagar Crater was just a stroll away and it is visited dawn, noon and night. It draws one in. The site of the demise of the infamous Red Baron was pointed out and many memorials and grounds visited, including an animal memorial.
It was sad to leave the region and our new friends. In the midst of a heatwave that shut down Paris, we headed north to Ypres, Belgium to attend the playing of the Last Post which is played every evening despite the weather. Hearing the buglers play at Menin Gate was a very moving experience. As one does on holidays, Eric had bumped into one of the buglers whilst asking directions on the way from the train station and chatted to him after the service.
Being able to research fellow 43rd Battalion recruits from WA, we found two of similar age whose names were sadly on Menin Gate. We left red poppies by their names and this still brings a tear to our eyes.
The research division at In Flanders Fields museum, Ypres, was an excellent resource and we were able to ascertain where the 43rd Battalion fought prior to France. We managed a personalised tour of the Ypres Salient and the area of the Third Wave at Passchendaele where George’s battalion was involved and where he may have received his gunshot wound.
Whilst the museum itself was interesting, the To End All Wars? An Assessment of the First World War temporary exhibition was well worth a visit and gave an insight into the deals made pre-war and the carving up of the countries post war. This display led to far more understanding of how and why the Second World War eventuated.
We would highly recommend a visit to the region if you ever find it possible. Alternatively, there is a wealth of information available online and wonderful resources available to assist in researching your loved one. LEST WE FORGET.
Article by Eric and Davina Gossage