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France 1918: Defence of Amiens
Rue d’Australie – Dernancourt
Once in Dernancourt a left turn leads to the village square where the street signs commemorate some French experiences in World War I. Here is the ‘Rue de Verdun’, named for the terrible battle in eastern France in early 1916 in which the German chief of the general staff, Field Marshall Erich von Falkenhayn, fought a battle of attrition against the French. His aim, he said, was to create a situation where France ‘will bleed to death’.
Falkenhayn believed that the French would throw in every man they had to defend Verdun because the French had lost heavily there to the Prussian army in the Franco–Prussian War of 1870, and the forts in the area seemed to symbolise the nation’s resistance to Germany.
And indeed the French did suffer terrible losses, but so did the Germans. Led eventually by General (later Field Marshall) Henri Phillipe Pétain, the French held off the Germans. Petain’s stance at Verdun was expressed in his famous response on taking over the defence of the area – ‘Ils ne passeront pas’ (‘They shall not pass’). Not surprisingly, Dernancourt also has a street named ‘Rue de Mal (Maréchal) Pétain, Vainqueur de Verdun’ (‘Marshal Petain Street, Victor of Verdun’).
Another remembered at Dernancourt is Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France during the final years of World War I and during the negotiations of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Like Billy Hughes, the Australian Prime Minister who through his support of the men of the AIF on the Western Front became the ‘Little Digger’, Clemenceau was also popular with the ordinary French soldiers, the ‘poilus’, who christened him ‘Le Père de la Victoire’(the Father of Victory).
Clemenceau’s aggressive policy of waging war – ‘la guerre jusqu'au bout’ (war to the end) – endeared him to similarly aggressive leaders such as Hughes and the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. At the Peace Conference in 1919 Clemenceau, who spoke English, paid a tribute to Hughes’ tough negotiating style – ‘They tell me, Mr ‘Ughes, that you have been a cannibal!’
Dernancourt’s association with Australia is evident in the street name ‘Rue d’Australie’ and the school hall, the ‘Pavillon Adelaide’. In the aftermath of World War I many regions of France where war damage had been extensive, the so–called ‘devastated regions’, were ‘adopted’ by places in the United Kingdom and the local people, who had become refugees, were given assistance to re–establish their lives and homes. Dernancourt was treated in a similar way by the people of South Australia.
In countries like Britain, the United States and Australia it was recognised that France and Belgium, much of whose territory had been under German occupation and where the major battles of the war had been fought, had suffered in a manner quite unlike the other allied nations. Popular magazines, like the British The War Illustrated,ran articles and photographs throughout the war showing and describing the ‘devastated regions’:
Many of the villages are mere heaps of loose brick and rubble. In some there are still a few roofless houses standing. But in some there is not even that, or anything at all to speak of human habitation. They have been simply obliterated; there are no houses, no churches or barns, no buildings of any kind; nothing but some mounds, strewn over with slates and shards, to show that this was once a home of men and women
For most of the war, Dernancourt had been behind allied lines and had become a village well known to many Australian units during their stay on the Somme between July 1916 and March 1917. In 1920, the Mayor of Dernancourt, writing to a committee in Adelaide, South Australia, recalled the Australian presence in his village:
Dernancourt became a rest camp for the troops. The Australian military authorities offered their help to the farmers who had so little manpower, and the unforgettable spectacle was seen of soldiers, yesterday in the trenches, helping in the work in the fields, carting, sowing, planting and reaping with warm enjoyment. It seemed as if these soldiers were working for themselves.
Mayor of Dernancourt, quoted in Geoffrey H. Manning, ‘Alms Across the Sea – A Tale of Two Towns’, Part 1V – Tales of Adelaide, Essay No. 15, Occasional Essays on South Australian History,
However, in March–April 1918, as the Germans pushed in their great offensive back across the Somme area, Dernancourt became the new front line. The village was destroyed by shellfire and its inhabitants forced to flee. In 1920 Dernancourt was adopted as ‘South Australia’s godchild’ and much practical help was given to the local people by South australians raising money and sending clothes. In 1921, a fete was held in the village to thank South Australia and the Rue Clemenceau was decorated with a triumphal arch bearing the words ‘Adelaide Merci’.
The centrepiece of the fete was a procession through the village, out under the railway bridge, to the British military cemetery – the Dernancourt Communal Cemetery and Extension. The British field ambulance units had begun burying in the Communal Cemetery in 1915 and, in August 1916, a British Main Dressing Station, dealing with the deluge of casualties from the Battle of the Somme, had begun the extension to the cemetery. After the war other isolated burials were brought in and today Dernancourt is one of the larger Commonwealth War Cemeteries on the Somme. In 1921 the people of Dernancourt had come to honour one grave in particular in the Communal Cemetery, that of Lieutenant Colonel Albert Leane in Row A, Grave 5. Leane, a member of a prominent South Australian family that had distinguished itself in the war, died of wounds from a shell burst on 4 January 1917. On its return to Dernancourt the procession passed down the ‘Rue de Mal (Maréchal) Pétain, Vainqueur de Verdun’ underneath an arch inscribed ‘Australia For Ever’.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010