After leaving the military camp in Étaples Charles Palmer arrived in Albert on 4 April 1917 – another step closer to the Western Front. At this early point in his deployment Charles’ diary entries are brief. He merely records his comings and goings, leaving us to try to determine through other means some of what he may have seen and experienced.
Albert was in Allied hands in 1917 and played an important role for the British in re-stocking the Divisions as it was behind, but still close to, the front line. Many British and Allied troops passed through Albert on their way to the Front – Charles among them.
Troops marching through town would usually see the famous sight of the leaning statue atop the 70m spire of the Basilica Notre Dame de Brebières. This golden Virgin with the infant Jesus was hit by a German shell in 1915 and hung horizontally over the square. Many Australian troops reported seeing her and I’m sure Charles would have too.
When we visited Albert I really wanted to photograph the golden Virgin statue atop the church of Notre Dame de Brebières to show how she looks now as opposed to the horizontal view Charles would have seen. Unfortunately, there was a very thick fog the day we visited and even though it cleared a little my Virgin is still shrouded in mist. Hopefully the comparison will still be obvious.
We walked around Albert and visited the train station. From the reading I’ve done, it seems reasonable to assume that Charles probably covered much of the 127km from Étaples to Albert by train. As Albert was almost entirely ruined later in the war we know that the buildings are not the same as those that Charles may have seen. Most buildings were reconstructed after the war, but it still evoked strong feelings to know we were walking in another town where Charles had walked.
Albert Train Station as it is now.
Another attraction in Albert is the Musée Somme 1916. The Museum itself was informative, but it was the location that gave it special appeal. The exhibits are housed in 10m deep, 250m long 13th century tunnels under the Bascilica.
Entrance into the tunnels housing the Musée Somme 1916.
On Good Friday 6 April 1917, after two nights in Albert, Charles left for Bapaume, just 19km away. It would have been a ruined town that confronted Charles and his fellow soldiers when they marched into Bapaume. The town had only been in British hands since 17 March when the Germans had withdrawn back to the Hindenburg Line, destroying and burning buildings as they left. The British forces had been battling for eight and a half months to gain those 19 kms of ground from Albert to Bapaume. Charles would have seen the ruins of the Town Hall that had claimed the lives of 24 Australians on the night of 26 March when a time-delayed mine left by the Germans detonated.
The devastation of war was now evident for Charles as he left Bapaume on the 7 April for the line.
Bapaume, including the Town Hall were rebuilt after the war. The Town Hall is an impressive structure. On the wall there is a memorial plaque commemorating the lives of those that died in the booby-trapped explosion and there is also a list of those killed. Although 1000s died on the battlefield these deaths seem particularly sad, all the more perhaps because those that died thought they were in a safe place where they could enjoy a brief respite from the action.
Bapaume Town Hall.
Plaques commemorating those who died in the time-delayed bomb at the Town Hall.
Musée Somme 1916
Rail routes in France and Flanders.
Albert’s leaning statue.
-All photos taken 26 October 2016 –