Like a lot of people I was taught about World War One at school. In my young mind it grew to be a nightmarish landscape of torn trees and bodies, mud and blood, all for the futility of gaining a few metres in something called trench warfare.
So you can imagine my surprise when I recently visited the Somme, a district just north of Paris, and found that it is plain, ordinary farmland! No important buildings or valuable factories. Not even wondrous, rich, brown loam, but soil that is dry and chalky! Suitable for growing only wheat and canola, just like familiar farming areas in Australia.
My sense of confusion was profound. Yes, I understood that over 100 years ago this had been a vicious battleground. But what was it all over, some farmland?
The causes of World War One (WW1) are so complicated that historians are still mulling it over. I was always taught simply that Germany started WW1 by invading France, full stop. In fact, this invasion occurred after a string of prior events that started when the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, in Serbia.
Austria was pretty unhappy about this. Ferdinand had been the heir to their throne. They gave Serbia some ultimatums, all of which Serbia declined to answer. As a result, Austria declared war on Serbia. Russia weighed into the debate and declared war on Austria because they had an alliance with Serbia. Germany declared war on Russia, because they had an alliance with their mate, Austria. In response, Russia got their mates France, with whom they had an alliance, to mobilise troops along the wildly contested French-German border. Germany did not appreciate this and as a result declared war on France. Everybody else in the area came out saying they were neutral. What a mess!
To make matters worse, Germany decided the best way to take a swipe at France was to go through Belgium, since France already had active troops along the French-German border. Britain took exception to this since Belgium had, quite wisely, said they wanted to stay out of it. So Britain declared war on Germany because of this, but also because Britain had an alliance with Russia and France.
Now Britain may be a medium sized island, but it had lots of colonies, so Britain said they would bring their colonial mates along with them. Thanks Britain. That’s how WW1 started and why Australia was involved. Why all these alliances were made in the first place is another complicated story and historians say that leading up to WW1, Europe was a tinderbox just waiting for a spark.
The end result of all this was that the German invasion of France was met with fierce resistance and eventually came to a standstill, bar a metre here or there, on a strip of land dubbed The Western Front. The scars of that front are still visible 100 years later, embedded in the chalky Somme farmland.
This has to be the unluckiest farmland in the world. The Somme had the misfortune to simply be in the way of German forces on their way to capture the capital of France, or so the Germans thought. Because of this, Somme churches, towns and people were bombed to extinction, mainly by artillery.
Can you imagine my surprise then, when viewing the various Somme monuments and buildings to see that some of them showed scars from WW2? Yes, this run-of-the-mill farming area just north of Paris has survived damage from two world wars. How unlucky can you get?
The truly miraculous thing I took away from all of this is that despite their extreme bad luck, the people who still live in the Somme continue to this day to show a remarkable generosity of spirit to the thousands of Australians such as myself who continually return to mourn their dead. Thank you, people of the Somme, for your kindness and hospitality.