The West

The Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. Picture: Supplied

The beautiful city of Amiens, about 120km north of Paris, has become one of the main centres for pilgrimages to the battlefields of World War I.

People from around the world are already visiting the area to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the 1914-18 war, and particularly the bravery and sacrifices on the Somme.

There are about 1000 Commonwealth war cemeteries on the Western Front in France and Belgium, and Australian soldiers are remembered fondly, no more so than at the simple but impressive Australian National Memorial just outside the village of Villers- Bretonneux, 16km from Amiens.

The walls of the memorial are engraved with the names of 10,765 Australians who died in France during World War I and have no known grave. The names are listed in order of battalion, then alphabetically under rank.

Battles in the Somme area went back and forth as villages and territory changed hands frequently during the years of the war. But April 25, 1918, was a major turning point.

Strengthened by troops freed up from the Eastern Front by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Bolsheviks, German Gen. Paul von Hindenburg and his chief of staff Erich Ludendorff decided to launch a new offensive.

Half a million men attacked on March 21 on a 90km arc from Arras to La Frere and began to force back the undermanned French and other Allied troops. The push to take Amiens was thwarted when Australian troops diverted from Belgium filled a weakening pocket near the city and pushed the Germans back at Villers-Bretonneux.

That retreat saved the strategic city and paved the way for further successes by the Allies on the road to the Armistice. The final battle for Amiens in August 1918 was seen, even by some in the German military, as the beginning of the end.

Next year, many tour companies have trips to the area, a number planned to coincide with the April 25 Anzac Day ceremony held every year at Villers-Bretonneux.

As 2015 is the 100th anniversary of Anzac Day and the 97th anniversary of the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, more than 8000 are expected to attend.

The event is seen more and more as the place for Australians in Europe, or those planning a pilgrimage, to pay their respects to the fallen. So operators are scrambling to have the best tours ready for 2015.

Amiens itself is interesting historically and the centre for tourism in Picardy.

Its cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1981, is an amazing, truly original Gothic construction that could fit two Paris Notre Dames inside. Unlike its Paris namesake, it is easy to access and there's no 40-minute wait in a queue.

Construction on the cathedral began in 1220, and it has survived all the internecine strife, invasions and occupations since. Its awe- inspiring height and double- towered facade dominate the city. As you approach, there are three deep-set arched portals with rich carvings of the saints below a 13m diameter rose window.

Inside you can hear the gasps of incredulity from school parties and tourists walking slowly with necks craning to gaze at the soaring knave more than 42m above their heads.

It is one of those "how did they get all that up there" moments as you look at the sophisticated cantilevering that emphasises the elegance, and elaborate statues and carvings that adorn the walls, arches and flanking arcades.

The intricacy of the Biblical stories in the three-dimensional friezes simply enhance that detail.

Most of the adoration is hushed by the soft glow from the stained-glass windows reaching upwards for what was the spring sunlight on our visit. It's all the more wondrous considering the building was completed about 1270.

And there, on a pillar, is a plaque to Australian soldiers: " . . . who valiantly participated in the victorious defence of Amiens from March to August 1918 and gave their lives for the cause of justice, liberty and humanity . . ."

I'm not usually a poppy person but I was glad my wife and I were wearing the poppy buttons she had bought in England with the dates 1914-2014 printed on them.

Getting there

There are so many options for travelling to Amiens and the World War I battlefields. Even a quick Google search reveals various organised group tours, small-group tours, do-it-yourself tours, advice on roads, clothing, temperatures, whether you plan to travel from London, Paris or Perth.

One of the best DIY sites is the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Whoever put this site together must surely be head- hunted by the travel industry.

There is so much detail; it covers every aspect of being there on the most important day, Anzac Day, April 25, 2015. Access, information tent, seating, rubbish, media, lighting, weather, first aid, traffic arrangements, parking, transport services, assisted seating, security, local accommodation . . . and so on with a military efficiency that leaves you in no doubt this is a serious undertaking.

One of the most convenient tours on offer locally is a 12-day Perth-to-Perth itinerary, $7999 per person twin share, from Holiday Planet. It starts with arrival in Paris by plane from Perth on April 19 for two days. Then it's on to Amiens for six days from April 22.

There are comprehensive tours of the 1916 and 1917 Somme battlefields on April 23 and 24, then an early start on April 25 for the 100th anniversary Anzac Day ceremony at Villers-Bretonneux, followed by similar ceremonies in nearby Bullecourt.

The following day is a return to see the Anzac museum at Villers-Bretonneux before returning to other Somme battlefields - the Le Hamel Australian Memorial, the Richthofen (Red Baron) crash site and the 3rd Australian Division Memorial - before lunch at Peronne, another village that bore the brunt of many battles. The evening meal is back at Amiens on the Somme waterfront.

On April 27, the tour leaves Amiens, stopping at Fromelles museum, the Cobber Memorial, VC Corner and the new Pheasant Wood cemetery. It then travels via Armentieres and Messines' preserved trenches at Bayernwald to the ancient town of Ypres

The Australian troops' experiences in the third battle of Ypres takes the tour group on the next day to Hill 60, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, where the 5th Division memorial stands, Zonnebeke, Broodseinde, Tyne Cot cemetery and Passchendaele village. There is dinner in the town square before a moving Last Post and wreath-laying ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial.

April 29 takes the party to Bruges before a return to Paris, via Vimy Ridge and dinner on the Seine the following night. The return flight to Perth is on May 1.

See or 1300 789 348.

Back-Roads Touring specialises in small-group travelling (no more than 18 people). It has four-day, three-night visits to the Western Front throughout the season at $1395 per person.

Its April special is five days to take in the Dawn Ceremony at Villers-Bretonneux and costs $1895 per person.

It is a Lille-to-Lille tour taking in Ypres, Amiens, the Somme, Villers-Bretonneux and back to Lille.

One highlight of the Villers- Bretonneux stop is the Franco- Australian Museum, housed in the Victoria School, where the words "Never Forget Australia" are displayed proudly over the schoolyard.

See or 1300 100 410.

Accommodation - again, it is best to look online if you are not part of an organised tour.

There are many hotels in the city but be quick. The Accor group is French and has hotels worldwide.

Its standards and prices vary. Take your pick from Ibis, Ibis Styles, Mercure, Novotel and hotelF1. The Ibis at 4 Rue du Marechal de Lattre de Tassigny was adequate for about $102 a night. Parking is available. It is easy to book online.

Modern Amiens

If you have time to relax after an intense tour of the Somme battlefields, then Amiens has so much to offer. It has suffered over the centuries through different battles of Amiens.

There was the Siege of Amiens (1597) during the Franco-Spanish War (1595-1598), the Battle of Amiens 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, and the Battle of Amiens 1918 during World War I.

Then in World War II the city and surrounds were pummelled by the Allies in the campaigns to end the German occupation, which began on May 20, 1940.

Before the Normandy landings in 1944, the Allies concentrated on disabling communications and the railway junction at Longeau, south-east of Amiens, was attacked by 200 RAF bombers on June 12 and 13. The city suffered even more damage until it was liberated on August 31, 1944.

Post war it was slow to recover, mainly through lack of money directed to the region. But it was finally rebuilt with a focus on wide streets and cultural and architectural development during the 1960s to the 80s.

The 1990s saw a rebirth in the city and you can feel the benefits of that foresight in sectors like Saint Leu.

The once-rundown quarter on the Somme has been renovated into a quaint and colourful precinct set around the river and many canals. So much so that it is nicknamed the Little Venice of the North. It now has craft shops, antique dealers and second-hand dealers, clubs, cafes, pubs and restaurants.

As the sun begins to set there is no better place to be than Quai Belu, where eating houses sit cheek by jowl offering varied and fantastic cuisines, served alfresco right alongside the Somme, just a meandering downward stroll from the towering cathedral.


For more information on visiting the Somme and Amiens, go to and

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save