Wartime issue 58 featured article: Vignacourt
The Somme town was an important behind-the-lines centre for Australian troops during the First World War. By Peter Burness
The large and ancient French city of Amiens on the Somme River, an important communications hub, stood in front of the German invaders in the early days of the First World War. The French troops fell back, many citizens fled, and soon the empty streets echoed to the crunch of German marching boots. The city was an important prize. But the French army was not beaten, and within a couple of weeks the enemy had withdrawn, moving back to take up stronger positions about 25 kilometres to the east. For the moment Amiens was safe. Heavy fighting would rage not far away until, in 1918, the Germans would make a renewed push, placing the city at risk once more.
From the beginning, just a dozen or so kilometres to the north of Amiens, the centuries-old town of Vignacourt had shared the terror of the advancing Germans until the invaders fell back. For the rest of the war the town stood behind the front line, often playing an important role as a base and a rest area for troops from nearby fighting. For four years, French, British, Australian, Chinese, Indian and American troops were among those who would come to the town for a period of recovery. Neighbouring villages provided similar facilities.
Vignacourt was distant enough from the fighting to be beyond artillery range but close enough to be an important billeting place, rail centre, base, and training area for troops within what became the British sector of the front. Its importance would ebb and flow, depending on the closeness of the fighting. At various times it also held headquarters, a signals centre and hospitals, and for a while an airfield operated on its outskirts.
For many troops Vignacourt was a refuge. Many remembered it as a place where they recovered from heavy battle and prepared for the next. Thousands were billeted in houses or slept in the local barns, stables and lofts. The surrounding fields were alive with training grounds and camps. Evenings were often free, with the chance for troops to visit the cafes and estaminets, which filled with rowdy banter and merry laughter over plates of eggs and chips and glasses of beer or wine.
For a couple of months in late 1916, hundreds of Australians struggled down from the Somme winter trenches to Vignacourt. Here baths and laundries were set up and army stores issued fresh clothing. Most important of all, there were homes with women, children and even pets. It was a rare glimpse of the domestic life they had left behind. Young Frenchmen were noticeably few, as most were away serving in the army. Still there were always some around, mostly soldiers on leave visiting their families.
Enterprising locals Louis Thuillier and his wife, who were interested in photography, turned their home into an outdoor studio and advertised for soldiers to have their photographs taken. Thousands passed before their lens. Among them were many who would shortly die in battle. The recovery of the Thuilliers’ glass plate negatives, still held in the attic of their house and containing images of hundreds of diggers, was widely reported in 2011.
The war left permanent impressions at Vignacourt. A street sign carries the name “Allée General Martin”, after an Australian officer, and on the edge of the town stands a large war cemetery with almost 600 soldiers’ graves, more than 400 of which belong to Australians. Most of the burials relate to the period in 1918, just before the British August offensive, when two British casualty clearing stations handled the wounded being evacuated from a stretch of the Somme fighting.
Remarkably, the statue of a French soldier stands in the British war cemetery. This unique tribute was erected by the local people after the war as an acknowledgement that the town had been saved from the Germans’ advance. It bears an inscription in French, meaning: Brothers in arms of the British Army, fallen on the field of honour, sleep in peace; we are watching over you.
Some notable Australians lie in this cemetery. They include Captain Meysey Hammond, one of the colourful heroes of the AIF (see Wartime Issue 12), and Sergeant David Coyne, who was posthumously awarded the gold Albert Medal after he threw himself on an exploding grenade to save the lives of his comrades. There are also several members of No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps here too. The squadron was operating nearby during 1918.
The grave of Lieutenant Reginald Hunter has a poignant link with the Australian War Memorial. Hunter was wounded on 5 June 1918 and died while receiving treatment at Vignacourt. Twenty years later his mother attended the unveiling of the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux and then visited his grave, from where she took some soil. Some years later this sad reminder of personal loss was presented to the Memorial in Canberra in an envelope on which was noted:
French soil from my beloved son’s grave at Vignacourt. Reg. Mother
The first Australians to see Vignacourt had been men of the 1st Division who passed through in July 1916 on their way to the bloody battle of Pozières. Among them were veterans of the landing at ANZAC of the previous year, as well as more recent reinforcements. Months later the Australians were to have a larger, and longer, presence in the town.
For several weeks from mid-1916, Australian divisions fought at Fromelles in Flanders or at Pozières, incurring staggering losses from which the AIF never fully recovered. After these battles the divisions were withdrawn, rebuilt and then sent back to the Somme. The British Somme offensive was coming to an end as the brutally cold winter approached. For the next months, well into 1917, the troops occupied the squalid trenches through rain and snow, standing in deep mud or on ground frozen solid with the cold. It was a period of strain, distress, pain and sickness. For many this was their worst experience of the war.
During this bleak winter, Vignacourt became incorporated in the I ANZAC corps rest area and accepted many units that were brought down from the front line. The history of the 5th Australian Battalion records its move to the town:
The ... regiment was weary, untidy, and muddy to the last degree ... their despondency was noticeable, though not to be wondered at, when one remembers the misery of the preceding days in the mud. The Fifth underwent a rigid course of training at Vignacourt. New clothes were issued, and the men were refitted generally. Five hours daily of hard work soon had its effect, and the Regiment rapidly regained its physical and mental fitness.
The battalion noted that this was the third largest town that it had seen since arriving in France. The 15th Light Trench Mortar Battery recorded that the Vignacourt billets were the most comfortable they had experienced so far.
About this time the famous British war correspondent Philip Gibbs saw Australians coming down to Amiens from places like Vignacourt:
I liked the look of them, dusty up to the eyes in summer, muddy up to their ears in winter. They were as hard as steel, and finely tempered. Among them were boys of a more delicate fibre, and sensitive, if one might judge by their clear-cut features and wistful eyes.
Photographs taken by the Thuillers show such men.
During early 1917 the fighting shifted further away and soon the Australian battalions were gone. But they were back in 1918 when the Germans commenced a fresh offensive in March. With the enemy once again advancing towards Amiens, many of the civilians in the region were evacuated. In one such instance Charles Bean, the Australian official war historian, took the opportunity to collect an infirm old woman with whom he had been billeted in Heilly more than a year earlier, and drove her and her sister to Vignacourt to catch the train to Paris.
As the fighting approached, Vignacourt was selected as a signals centre in case the situation worsened. The post office was taken over and an Australian Corps signals exchange was set up. Australian despatch riders on motorcycles were among the signallers to be seen in the town. By late April the enemy advance had been halted, in which the Australians played a major role. In the next months, with the British launching their own big offensive, and with ongoing advances, the war again moved away from Vignacourt.
The Australians did return as the war was drawing to a close. The diggers had been fighting hard for months, often driving the enemy before them. But now their numbers were low through losses and the troops were approaching exhaustion. It was vital that they be rested before the onset of another winter. One by one the divisions were taken out of the line to rest, recover and rebuild. Following the capture of Montbrehain on 5 October 1918, all five Australian divisions were out of the line.
The 2nd Australian Division was the last to be relieved. It had been the first to arrive in France in 1916 and it had been the most recent still in action. It moved into the Vignacourt area and its 5th Brigade, under Brigadier General Edward Martin (after whom the street would be named) was billeted in the town. Once more the troops had the welcome luxury of baths, their uniforms were de-loused and new equipment issued. Training was resumed, and now once more there was the chance to put on concerts, hold sports and to mix with the locals. The one low point was the disbandment of the 19th Battalion, with men redistributed among the brigade, because to its low numbers.
At Vignacourt we faced an era of peace. We did not know it but we were destined never to go back to that hell of mud and steel in the north. There followed pleasant days of rustic joy, wine-drinking with an old couple with whom we were billeted.
Significantly, it was at Vignacourt on 11 November 1918 that news was received that the fighting had ended. Celebrations, both solemn and joyous, were quickly arranged. Photographs taken at the time form a unique record of the troops’ response to the announcement of an armistice. The remarkable bond between soldiers and civilians was never stronger than at this historic moment.
Joe Maxwell was about to go on leave when the announcement came. “Every one in Vignacourt went mad with joy,” he wrote. “The battalion was lined up in the main square. Surging wildly into the square came the whole civil population dancing and singing. The villagers opened their cellars and wine flowed among the troops ... we dashed off for Paris.”
For the formal celebrations the diggers were formed up in the town square in front of the church, from whose steeple the Australian and French flags were hung. Bands from the 18th and 20th Battalions played the anthems and the general salute, and speeches were read. Then there followed a solemn march to the war cemetery where flowers were placed on the soldiers’ graves. The mayor gave a speech expressing the town’s gratitude, and later called on the local children to tend the graves “as a sacred trust”. Next day there was a thanksgiving service in the church, followed by a brigade sports meeting.
Peace had come quite suddenly. For the Australians there was the anticipation of going home, while for the locals there was to be the excitement of their own young men returning, together with the hope that the town could return to its quiet pre-war rural pace. Meanwhile, for a few weeks soldiers and civilians continued to intermingle. The closeness of the association produced a few marriages, and at least one Australian officer chose to stay to live in France with his Vignacourt bride.
That generation of French men and women who knew the Australians well has gone, but the memory of the war years, though growing dim with the passing of time, has remained in Vignacourt. The discovery of Louis Thuillier’s photographs is a further reminder to Australians that this was once a town well known to many of the diggers.
A fragile legacy
Louis and Antoinette Thuillier, a local farmer and his wife, set up a photographic studio in the town of Vignacourt, France. During the First World War they took thousands of photographs of allied troops as they passed through the village on their way to and from the front line.
Nearly 100 years later, these photos were discovered, still sitting in the attic of the Thuillier’s farmhouse. In 2011 the Sunday Night program (Seven TV Network) travelled to France, with Memorial historian Peter Burness, to unearth the collection. It consisted of several thousand glass-plate negatives of Australian, British, Canadian and French troops, as well as Chinese labour corps and French civilians. The collection was purchased from relatives of the photographers by Mr Kerry Stokes AC, who has generously donated it to the Australian War Memorial.
The response to this discovery has been staggering. The Australian public, and relatives of those who are shown in the photographs, in collaboration with Sunday Night, have contributed to the identification of some of the men in the photographs. Many still remain unnamed.
The Australian War Memorial will undertake the long-term care and storage of the collection, ensuring access for the public into the future. An exhibition of a selection of the photographs, which will be hand printed by the Memorial’s skilled team of photographic technicians, is planned for November 2012 at the Memorial, and will then tour the country at various state and regional venues.
Peter Burness is a Memorial historian and a regular contributor to Wartime.
The Memorial's exhibition, Remember me: the lost diggers of Vignacourt, is on display at the Memorial from 2 November 2012 until 31 December 2013. The exhibition features 74 prints of photographs selected from the over 800 glass-plate negatives generously donated to the Memorial by Mr Kerry Stokes AC in August 2012.