The Simpson Prize 2019 Western Front tour

01 July 2019 by Lachlan Grant

The Australian War Memorial has a long association supporting the Simpson Prize, the premier history-based essay-writing competition for Australian school students. Named after John Simpson Kirkpatrick, one of the most iconic Australian figures to emerge from the Great War, this year’s prize allowed eight winning students, one from each state and territory, and two winning history teachers, to embark on a tour of First World War battlefields for Anzac Day.

As a historian at the Australian War Memorial it was a great honour to be leading this year’s group of outstanding young scholars and to be sharing in their experiences of visiting the battlefield sites along the Western Front and significant locations in London and Paris. This trip challenged, inspired, and encouraged understanding among a new generation of young historians, and reflected on the wartime experiences and ordeals of the men and women who served on the Western Front more than a century ago.

Group photo

The Simpson Prize winners and runners up, with teacher chaperones Kimberely Vanzetta and Mark Johnston, with Memorial historian Lachlan Grant, 18 March 2019.

The winning students of this year’s prize were: Jett Aplin (ACT), Mari Watkins (New South Wales), Jacinta Saynor (Northern Territory), Shanelle van der Merwe (Queensland), Montana Foster (South Australia), Erin Massey (Tasmania), Benjamin English (Victoria), and Aurelia Thomson (Western Australia). The teachers accompanying the trip were Ms Kimberly Vanzetta (Queensland) and Mr Mark Johnstone (New South Wales).

Read on for the students’ day-by-day reflections on their experience visiting the battlefields of the Western Front:

Day 1: The Somme

Flying in from each state and territory in Australia, the group gathered at Melbourne Airport for the journey to Paris. After two days of sightseeing and acclimatising in the French capital, we caught the train to Amiens. The first day of our battlefield tour was spent visiting the 1916 battlefields of the Somme.

Ben English: Our first stop was the Lochnagar mine crater, the largest manmade mine crater on the Western Front. Its immensity can only be truly appreciated in person, and the power of the explosion is unimaginable. That morning we also visited the First Australian Division Memorial in Pozières. Having written on Pozières in my essay I found it intriguing to finally visit the place in which so many Australians fought over 100 years ago.

We visited the Windmill and Tank Memorials, the former being dedicated to the 6,800 Australians killed during the battle. Dr Lachlan Grant, the Australian War Memorial historian accompanying us on the trip, also gave insightful explanations into the battle, and the subsequent suffering and loss that occurred in Pozières and the area surrounding it.

The 1st Australian Division Memorial at Pozières

The 1st Australian Division Memorial at Pozières

We then drove on to Flers, an area in which the Australians had fought in the final days of the Somme offensive in November 1916, and afterwards enduring the bleak winter of 1916–17. This was an important stop for Montana Foster, whose relative had been killed in February 1917 and was buried in Bulls Road Cemetery.

Montana Foster: The next stop was very special to me. I’d asked to visit the grave of my great–great uncle, Private Roy Holly Larwood, who was buried at Bulls Road Cemetery. As I read his story, I discovered he was killed with three of his mates, who were buried beside him. I became very emotional but everyone was supportive. It was a difficult yet relieving experience, especially as I was able to place poppies on his grave. Roy remains close to my heart, as I did a research project on him at school.

Roy Larwood

Private Roy Holly Larwood.

In the afternoon the group visited the Beaumont–Hamel Newfoundland Memorial and the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

Montana Foster: We travelled to the Beaumont–Hamel memorial. We saw the caribou statue, which overlooked the well-preserved trenches and cemeteries. We were told of the tragedies and mistakes made on that day, but it really helped to see the trenches and put it into perspective … We also visited the Thiepval Memorial, which contains the names of over 72,000 missing British soldiers who fought on the Somme. At the base was a cemetery where British and French soldiers lay side-by-side. I thought this was a nice way of coming together. On the return to Amiens we visited the memorial that marked the battle of Mouquet (or “Moo-cow” as the Australians called it) Farm. At the Pozières town cemetery we heard the harrowing account of “Alec” Raws, who wrote letters home from near that place. We also heard of his brother ”Goldie. Neither survived.

Shanelle van der Merwe: My highlight would have to be the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial park. This park – a preserved section of the Somme battlefield – highlighted every step that the soldiers took, from communication trenches to the jump-off zone, from the section of barbed wire that would have been laid up to the dead tree zone, and then from there to where they ran for their lives. I was speechless.

Our final stop for the day was at a 1918 battlefield near Dernancourt.

Ben English: At Dernancourt Dr Grant gave another fascinating explanation of the actions that occurred in the surrounding area, before we were able to roam around the cemetery and truly appreciate the scale of loss, even in such a small area. Every time we visited a cemetery it was moving to simply walk among the rows of headstones and try to imagine what it must have felt like to have been put in these soldiers’ situations, especially since some of them were my age upon being killed.

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

Day 2: Villers-Bretonneux and Le Hamel

The second day of the Simpson Prize battlefield tour began with a visit to the Sir John Monash Centre. This was followed by visits to battlefields at Villers-Bretonneux and Le Hamel.

At the Australian National Memorial, Villers–Bretonneux.

At the Australian National Memorial, Villers–Bretonneux.

Erin Massey: While reading the itinerary before we left for Europe, the place I was most excited for was definitely the Sir John Monash Centre in Villers-Bretonneux. After spending so much time last year researching John Monash for the Simpson Prize, it felt like everything had come full circle when we arrived at the centre and watched the introductory video.

The purpose of the Sir John Monash Centre is to tell the story of the First World War through the eyes of the Australians who were affected by it. It uses letter and diary entries by these Australians to relate this information.

The highlight of the Sir John Monash Centre for me was the video playing in a room in the middle of the museum. It told the story of the Australians in France in 1918 and showed the battles of Villers-Bretonneux and Le Hamel. There were screens on all of the walls and even some on the ceiling. When the film started, it showed hundreds of breathless men running through bushes of dry grass. These first shots alone shocked me – I don’t think I had ever considered the individual footsteps taken by men as they advanced through no man’s land … This movie is probably best described as emotionally exhausting. After watching it for the first time, I felt numb inside. This feeling did not go away after my second and third viewing. It ends on a happier note with the victorious battle of Hamel and the response of the French Prime Minister in recognition of Australia’s success but was still heartbreaking to watch the scenes of war. After doing so much research on the battle of Hamel, I had imagined it to be a quick, neat, and clean battle. Although it was quick and successful, before watching this film I neglected the fact that it was still a battle and soldiers on both sides were still injured and killed.

The Victoria School (L’Ecole Victoria) is a primary school in Villers-Bretonneux. It was named after Victoria in Australia because Victorian schoolchildren helped raise money to help rebuild the French school after First World War. It still bears the iconic “Do Not Forget Australia” sign. This sign, as well as the museum above it, symbolises the ongoing connection between Australia and France, first forged in the war. I loved the amount of Australian objects and symbols that were in the school – there were beautiful carvings of Australian animals, photos of Australian places, and lots of Australian connections in the museum above the school. It was incredible to see the respect that the school still has for Australia and the legacy that the Australian soldiers left behind. 

Ben English: [At Adelaide Cemetery in Villers-Bretonneux] I coincidentally happened to stumble across a grave marked with the last name “English” … Upon further research, I discovered that William Herbert English was a station-hand from the Emerald region of Queensland, and that he received the Military Medal in 1917. Doing research like this really helped put into perspective the scale of individual loss, as there are so many stories behind each one of these soldiers’ lives.

Visiting the Victoria School (L’Ecole Victoria) in Villers-Bretonneux.

Visiting the Victoria School (L’Ecole Victoria) in Villers-Bretonneux.

Jett Aplin reads an account of a soldier at Adelaide Cemetery in Villers-Bretonneux.

Jett Aplin reads an account of a soldier at Adelaide Cemetery in Villers-Bretonneux.

The member of our group from Western Australia, Aurelia Thomson, had a family connection to Private Eldred Stiles, a member of the 45th Battalion who had been temporarily assigned to 24th Machine Gun Battalion at the time it was playing a crucial role in stopping the German advance at Dernancourt in 1918. We had spoken about the battalion’s role at Dernancourt when we visited there the previous evening. At the Australian National Memorial, where Stiles – who was killed in action on 2 May 1918 – has his name commemorated, Aurelia shared his story with the group.

Aurelia Thomson: On the wall of Villers-Bretonneux, Eldred Stiles has his name, and I laid a poppy next to it. I also read a speech about his life and the battles he had fought in on the Western Front.

Teacher chaperone Mark Johnstone reads an account of a relative, Edward Radford, beside Radford’s grave at Villers–Bretonneux.

Teacher chaperone Mark Johnstone reads an account of a relative, Edward Radford, beside Radford’s grave at Villers–Bretonneux.

The Australian Corps Memorial at Le Hamel.

The Australian Corps Memorial at Le Hamel.

Day 3: Bullecourt and Arras

Departing Amiens, we travelled north toward Belgium, where we would be based in the town of Ieper (Ypres). En route we stopped at Heath Cemetery, the Australian 2nd Divisional Memorial at Mont St Quentin, and then at Bullecourt and Arras. We also visited the Canadian national memorial at Vimy Ridge, the Neuville-Saint-Vaast German Cemetery, and Notre Dame de Lorette:

Montana Foster: We visited Heath Cemetery where we visited the graves of two Aboriginal soldiers: William Reginald Rawlings and Harry Thorpe. We discussed why so many Aboriginal soldiers ended up in the army despite it being against the rules … It was also sad how Indigenous soldiers, upon returning home, did not receive equality despite fighting for Australia.

Later at Bullecourt the group walked along an old railway line that Australian soldiers had crossed onto the battlefield in 1917. We found pieces of grenade along the way, which showed that the war was still affecting the land today. Looking across the fields we imagined the battlefield that the Australians crossed toward the German lines.

Ben English: After a scenic walk along the rail trail at Bullecourt, Dr Grant explained the events that occurred in May 1917, making it easier to visualise the scenes that were occurring there over 100 years ago. One event that astounded me was when we found a Mills Grenade in superb condition right next to the track, as well as an unexploded shell. It created a much more intimate connection to the action for me, and it helped link what was in front of me to the historical accounts much more clearly – a direct reminder of the fighting.

Aurelia Thomson: We then headed off to the Wellington Tunnels, a network of tunnels located 20 metres below the ground. We walked through and saw the original drawings and marks left on the wall, and saw the cold, cramped conditions the soldiers experienced. In the afternoon, we went to Neuville-Saint-Vaast German Cemetery, the largest German military cemetery in France. It gave me an appreciation for the losses suffered by every country … [as did] the Ring of Remembrance at the Notre Dame de Lorette Memorial, which contains the names of all the men who died in Northern France, regardless of which country they came from.

Ben English: The Neuville-Saint-Vaast German cemetery was like none other we had been to, simply due to the sheer scale of the loss that was on display. The rows of crosses seemed to stretch as far as I could see, and to make it even more harrowing there were four names on each of them. In total, 44,833 German causalities are buried there. Visiting a German cemetery was very important for me in realising the true scale of loss on both sides. In Australia we hardly look at the real human impacts of the war on Germany, and at a cemetery it really becomes apparent that the only thing truly differentiating a German soldier from an Australian one was their uniform – both sides feel the same grief and suffering.

The memorial to the 1st Australian Tunneling Company at Hill 60, near Ieper.

The memorial to the 1st Australian Tunneling Company at Hill 60, near Ieper.

Day 4: Fromelles and Messines

On day four of our battlefield tour we headed south from Ieper and returned across the border to visit Fromelles, where the Australian 5th Division had fought on the evening of 19 July 1916. We first stopped at VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial and the “Cobbers” sculpture at the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles. We then visited the museum and the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery, before returning to Belgium and visiting the battlefields around Messines, where the Australian 3rd Division had fought in June 1917. That evening we attended the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ieper: 

Montana Foster: At VC Corner we imagined the battlefield and pointed out the allied and German lines – including the “Sugarloaf” salient. We walked down the road to observe a memorial; it was the statue of Sergeant Simon Fraser carrying a wounded soldier through enemy fire. Titled “Don’t forget me, Cobber”, it was very detailed and captured the selflessness and comradeship of the moment.

Jacinta Saynor: Just outside of Messines there are several cemeteries within close proximity to each other. After getting off the bus we passed an old German bunker and reconstructed trench. We passed Mud Corner Cemetery, an Anzac cemetery … After a short walk in a beautiful wood, we arrived at Toronto Avenue Cemetery, a small, little-visited cemetery. It is the only fully Australian cemetery on the Western Front. We left poppies. I chose F.J. Piggott, who probably would have had an incredible career had he not died in the war.

Toronto Avenue Cemetery, Belgium.

Toronto Avenue Cemetery, Belgium.

The group lays a wreath during the Last Post Ceremony at Ieper’s Menin Gate.

The group lays a wreath during the Last Post Ceremony at Ieper’s Menin Gate.

Day 5: Passchendaele and the battlefields of the Third Battle of Ypres

Today our focus was the events of the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. Our day commenced with a visit to the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, at Zonnebeke. The group then walked from the town along a rail trail to the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest cemetery for British and Commonwealth forces in the world, with almost 12,000 graves. Our route to Tyne Cot followed in part the line of advance taken by the Australians during the battle of Broodseinde on 4 October 1917.

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ieper lists the names of 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave.

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ieper lists the names of 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave.

Jacinta Saynor: The route we took was very similar to the one the Australian 40th Battalion actually followed on 4 October 1917. We were also each given a story of soldier. I received the story of Second Lieutenant M. Hart, who was killed on 4 October 1917, and whose name can be found on the Menin Gate memorial to the missing in Ieper, as he has no known grave.

Erin Massey: Tyne Cot Cemetery is the biggest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world. There was such a vast amount of graves that it became even more important to see them as individuals and not numbers. Something that I did to make sure I remembered their individuality was to read the epitaphs one their headstones. There was one epitaph that I read at Tyne Cot Cemetery that has stuck with me since: “We thank the lord for every memory we have of our son.” It was heartbreaking to consider the emptiness that the families felt when thinking of their loved one. I tried to read as many of the epitaphs as possible instead of simply looking at the names and dates …

The group participates in the “Day as a Digger” program at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, in Zonnebeke.

The group participates in the “Day as a Digger” program at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, in Zonnebeke.

Day 6: Anzac Day

On Anzac Day the group attended the Dawn Service at the Buttes New British Cemetery in Polygon Wood. The battle of Polygon Wood took place between 26 September and 3 October 1917, the second phase of the Third Battle of Ypres. Today, Buttes New Cemetery contains the graves of more than 2,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian soldiers, many of them unknown.

The Anzac Day Dawn Service, Polygon Wood, Belgium.

The Anzac Day Dawn Service, Polygon Wood, Belgium.

Montana Foster: It was still dark when we arrived at the edge of Polygon Wood. Little fires in bowls had been lined up along the pathway and graves to light the way. It was a simple and yet beautiful set-up … As the sun rose in the background we listed to the speeches of different representatives from different countries, as well as hymns and the Last Post. My favorite part was watching the soldiers’ silhouettes on the hill next to the Australian 5th Division Memorial, with the pink sunrise. In my mind, they looked like Australian diggers, or they reminded me of them. The ceremony was simple and short; not upstaged by fancy technology or anything. It was perfect (just a little cold!).

Erin Massey: After spending almost a week on the battlefields, our group started to have a sense of the experience of the Australians and the legacy that they left behind on the Western Front. This knowledge that I had gained made the Polygon Wood Dawn Service on Anzac Day completely different than any ceremony I had been to before.

When we arrived it was very dark and very cold. We were getting wet from the intermittent rain, but we were happy to be there. Because we arrived early, those of us who were not laying a wreath were shown some of the significant graves in the cemetery by our guides. Being shown the individuality of the Australians who were laid there meant that I could appreciate their sacrifice better during the ceremony. About an hour before it was due to start, we found our spots and waited in the freezing cold.

The ceremony itself was much like other ceremonies I had been to before, but the fact that we were surrounded by the graves of the Anzac soldiers we had gathered to commemorate, as well as the knowledge I had gained over the last week, made the experience completely different. It was so moving to listen to the dedication, as well as to watch wreaths being laid in front of the memorial, lit up by the stunning sunrise. It was humbling to be in the company of the Anzac soldiers’ graves, and to think that we were standing on the same ground that our fellow Australians stood on a century ago was something between heartbreaking and magical.

Jacinta Saynor: I was one of the extremely lucky three who were picked to lay a wreath, along with Mari and Jett. We stood in a special area where we had an amazing view of the proceedings. The ceremony was beautiful. The national anthems of Australia, New Zealand, and Belgium were all sung. Wreaths were laid to commemorate all of the lives lost during the war. Even though it was extremely cold and slightly drizzly, this was one of the best experiences of my life.

When we arrived at Polygon Wood … the sunrise shone pink and orange behind the Belgian soldiers and the Australian 5th Division Memorial on the butte overlooking the ceremony. These little details and the way the ceremony was run made it an amazing way to commemorate, respect, and honour the sacrifices made for the world we live in today. I felt extremely honoured to have been able to take part in such an event.

Shanelle Van der Merwe: The way the sun rose and turned to pink behind the 5th Australian Divisional Memorial, was … wow! The silhouettes of the soldiers were beautiful against the pink background of the sky. The music played was so extraordinary. It was really emotional.

Ben English: As we walked through the forest, lit only by the occasional candle on the side of the winding path, it was a great time to reminisce about what we had seen and learnt over the past days … We soon took our places near the front of the standing area, and watched the sun slowly start to rise. A modest crowd gathered, and the ceremony was under way before we knew it. After a few pieces were played by a school band, there were some touching speeches from representatives of Australia and New Zealand.

The Last Post is always a moving experience, but the setting of this service and what we had been learning over the past few days made this rendition the most memorable I have experienced. The buglers were silhouetted against the glowing pink sunrise and were interrupted by nothing but the sound of the wind in the trees. Jacinta, Mari, and Jett laid a wreath on behalf of the group, and the service ended after little more than an hour. The lead-up to and the actual service were certainly one of the key highlights of the trip, and a morning I will remember forever.

A group photo a Polygon Wood following the Anzac Day Dawn Service.

A group photo a Polygon Wood following the Anzac Day Dawn Service.

Aurelia Thomson: I really enjoyed the service even though it was a cold, early morning. Many officials spoke at the ceremony, including the Honourable Scott Ryan, President of the Senate in Australia. This service provided a good opportunity to reflect on the sacrifice given for our country. We then visited Bayernwald Trenches, where mineshafts have become full of water. Sections of the German trenches from 1916 have also been restored, and we were able to walk through and see from above. In Ieper, we visited St George’s Memorial Church, which has been dedicated to soldiers who died in the war. We headed to Perth Cemetery (China Wall) to see the grave of Private Daniel Cooper, and read a poem that was written by his aunt. Finally, we went to the In Flanders Fields Museum, which had exhibits of the First World War on display, and we were also able to see a view of the whole city from the top of the Cloth Hall tower. Our last day on the Western Front was very special, as we were able to finish our time there with a reflection on all the places we had been, all the experiences we’d had, and what they meant. 

Shanelle Van der Merwe: The Simpson Prize trip was the best experience of my lifetime. An unforgettable one, that’s for sure.

Ben English: Coming into this trip I certainly had no idea how much of an impact it was going to have on me, and how amazing it was going to be. Overall, it was an amazing experience that will stay with me forever.

Montana Foster: I find it really hard to find words to describe the Simpson Prize. It was such a big experience for me, especially being from the country. I learnt so much, not just about the First World War but also about travelling, navigating, and time management. It has inspired me to continue learning about the First World War and to push myself. Best of all, I’ve made some great friends and connections.

Battlefield guide Koenraad Dumolin discusses life in the trenches at Bayernwald Trenches, near Messines.

Battlefield guide Koenraad Dumoulin discusses life in the trenches at Bayernwald Trenches, near Messines.