Day 1: 06 April: 2019
Depart Folkestone on a Eurotunnel crossing around 8.30am, then a journey of about 90 minutes to Vimy Ridge and its memorial to the famous WW1 Canadian victory there in April 1917. Most historians consider the Canadian victory at Vimy as THE defining moment for Canada's independence, when the country emerged from the shadow of Britain and became a nation in its own right. It was a magnificent victory - however - at a terrible cost, with more than 10,000 Canadians killed and wounded.
The 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge
The Canadian Corps was ordered to seize Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The heavily-fortified seven-kilometre ridge held a commanding view over the Allied lines. Previous French attacks had failed with over 100,000 casualties. Attacking together for the first time, the four Canadian divisions stormed the ridge at 5:30am on 9th April 1917. More than 15,000 Canadian infantry overran the Germans all along the front. Incredible bravery and discipline allowed the infantry to continue moving forward under heavy fire, even when their officers were killed. There were countless acts of sacrifice, as Canadians single-handedly charged machine-gun nests or forced the surrender of Germans in protective dugouts. Hill 145, the highest and most important feature of the Ridge - where the stunning Vimy Monument now stands, was captured in a frontal bayonet charge against extensive machine-gun positions.
Three more days of costly battle delivered final victory. The Canadian operation was an important success, even if the larger British and French offensive became stalled along the Hindenberg Line. But it was victory at a heavy cost: 3,598 Canadians were killed and another 7,000 wounded.
The site is also one of the few places on the former Western Front where a visitor can see the trench lines of a First World War battlefield and the related terrain in a preserved natural state. The total area of the site is around 250 acres, much of which is forested and off limits to visitors to ensure public safety. The site's rough terrain and unearthed unexploded munitions make the task of grass cutting too dangerous. Instead, sheep graze the open meadows.
A packed lunch will be provided at Vimy, and from here we continue our journey to Amiens where we check in to our hotel. There should then be some free time for those unfamiliar with the city to explore something of the centre with its attractive St Leu waterfront and magnificent UNESCO-listed Cathedral.
Meals: L, D
Day 2: 07 April 2019
We begin our day with a visit to the famous WW1 Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, just outside Amiens, scene of bitter fighting in the Spring and Summer of 1918 when the final German offensive was halted on Anzac Day 1918, leading to the Armistice in November. We also will visit the new technological tour de force with the new Sir John Monash Centre at the Villers-Bretonneux AWM and the opportunity to visit the Franco-Australian Museum in the village school, an incredibly moving testimony to the enduring friendship between the two nations of Australia and France.
The Australian WW1 War Memorial in France is located just outside Villers-Bretonneux and in front of it lie the graves of over 770 Australians, as well as those of other British & Commonwealth soldiers involved in the campaign. The school in Villers-Bretonneux was rebuilt using donations from school children of Victoria, Australia (many of whom had relatives perish in the town's liberation), and above every blackboard is the inscription "N'oublions jamais l'Australie" (Let us never forget Australia). The annual Anzac Day ceremony is held at Villers-Bretonneux AWM every Anzac Day. (25 April)
On 24 April 1918, Villers-Bretonneux was the site of the world's first battle between two tank forces: three British Mark IVs against three German A7Vs. The Germans took the town this day, but that night (Anzac Day 1918) and the next day it was recaptured by the 12th and 15th Brigade of the AIF(Australian Imperial Force) at a cost of over 1,200 Australian lives. This night attack was a ferocious 'no holds barred' battle where the battle-hardened Australian 'shock troops' took NO prisoners - with the battle widely recognised as tipping the balance of the war in the Allies favour, leading to an early armistice. The town's mayor spoke of the Australian troops on 14 July 1919 when unveiling a memorial in their honour:
"The first inhabitants of Villers-Bretonneux to re-establish themselves in the ruins of what was once a flourishing little town have, by means of donations, shown a desire to thank the valorous Australian Armies, who with the spontaneous enthusiasm and characteristic dash of their race, in a few hours drove out an enemy ten times their number... They offer a memorial tablet, a gift which is but the least expression of their gratitude, compared with the brilliant feat which was accomplished by the sons of Australia... Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive, and that the burial places of your dead will always be respected and cared for..."
From here we continue the short distance to Corbie where we join our boat "Natalia" and set off downstream towards Amiens, enjoying lunch on board. After initially flowing through rural scenery east of Amiens, the river approaches the city through the fascinating network of island gardens known as the Hortillonnages. These islands once prospered as commercial market gardens, and although that activity has declined in recent times many of the islands have been taken on as second homes and are emerging as beautiful gardens. If Spring is on time we should be seeing the first greenery and no shortage of early flowers.
We then return to our hotel in Amiens and dinner tonight.
Meals: B, L, D
Day 3: 08 April 2019
We rejoin the boat in moorings in Amiens and continue to follow the river downstream, past Ailly-sur-Somme and the buildings of the former Carmichael jute fibre works, closed in 1975. We now pass along a particularly pleasant stretch of the river, with many quite sharp meanders and good towpath for anyone who would like to make use of the bicycles available on board. After lunch on board we return to the coach and make the short journey back past Amiens to follow the course of the 1916 WW1 front line to first visit the Newfoundland Memorial.
Marked by the statue of a caribou, this memorial marks the terrible losses suffered by the Newfoundland Regiment in attacking the German lines across exposed ground on 1st July 1916. In that one morning much of the manhood of this small Canadian island province was decimated. Like Vimy Ridge, this battlefield site is largely unreconstructed, and from the vantage point offered by the memorial it is possible to see the network of trenches and the many shell craters, now grassed over but still clearly illustrating the immediacy and intensity of fighting on that infamous day.
We then move on just a short way along what was the front line to the Ulster Tower, memorial to the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division. It is located very near to the infamous Schwaben Redoubt (Feste Schwaben) which the Division attacked on July 1st, 1916. The Redoubt was a little to the north-east of where the tower stands, and was a triangle of trenches with a frontage of 300 yards, a fearsome German strongpoint with commanding views.
The front lines were at the edge of Thiepval Wood which lies to the south-west of the road between the Thiepval memorial and the Ulster Tower. Troops of the 109th Brigade crossed about 400 yards of No Man's Land, and kept on going. They entered the Schwaben Redoubt, and advanced on towards Stuff Redoubt, gaining in all around a mile, though not without serious losses. To their left, the 108th Brigade were successful in advancing near Thiepval, but less so nearer the River Ancre further north.
The 107th Brigade supported them, but although the men of the 36th Division held out for the day the Germans mounted counterattacks, and as their stocks of ammunition dwindled many fell back, with small parties remaining in the German front lines. The casualties suffered by the 36th Division on the 1st of July were over 5,000 in total - almost half of their strength.
The tower is a copy of Helen's Tower in County Down, where men of the 36th Division trained. The tower (plus a small cafe adjacent) is staffed by members of the Somme Association which is based in Belfast, and is a friendly and welcoming place to stop on a battlefield tour.
We conclude our day at the enormous and stirring monument to the missing at Thiepval. The monument and its visitor centre make a fitting finale to our own day of remembrance, perhaps best concluded by a visit to the war cemetery beyond the monument where rows of French and Allied graves stand together "in eternal comradeship". We then return to our hotel in Amiens and dinner tonight.
Meals: B, L, D
Day 4: 09 April 2019
We check out this morning for our homeward journey but how nice that we cruise much of it! Re-embarking at Picquigny, we make our way through more secluded river scenery to conclude at the lovely village of Long, occupying the hillside on the north side of the river. Having enjoyed lunch on board we rejoin the coach and head for our return crossing to the UK at around 7pm, and time allowing we will pause at Wimereux to visit the grave of Canada's most famous son: Lt Col. John McCrae: author of the immortal poem 'In Flanders Fields'.
Meals: B, L
(Meals legend:) B=Breakfast Included, L=Lunch Included, D =Dinner Included