Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Heroes J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood – Peronne

In my last blog I wrote about our experience at Mont St Quentin, while on a tour of the Australian World War I Battlefields.

After St Quentin we drove on to Peronne, where we had lunch and visited the ‘Historial De La Grande Guerre 14-18’ or the Museum of the War of 1914-18, which was housed in the old medieval castle. It was well worth visiting, as it showed the story of the soldiers, of the many nations, who took part in the war.

After lunch we boarded the bus and drove to the Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension.

The Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension was begun in March 1917 after the Germans had abandoned the town the first time. The Germans continued to use this cemetery when they took the town back in early 1918.

The Australian 2nd Division became the final group to use it, until after the end of the war when the Commonwealth Graves Commission brought in all those soldiers in isolated graves and small cemeteries. There are 517 Australians here, nearly all lost their lives on the attack on Mont St Quentin in late August and early September 1918.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has its own website at http://www.cwgc.org/. It is worth visiting not only for the history and continued work of the Commission, but the symbolism which goes with the cemeteries, such as the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ and the ‘Stone of Remembrance’.

This was the first of many cemeteries we visited over the next few days, and our tour guide did a wonderful job in educating our group on these features, as well as many more concerning the general nature of these cemeteries.

We have two family heroes in this cemetery, Private Robert Edward Sherwood and Corporal James Joseph Stapleton.

Before we left home in June I had printed out from the above mentioned website, the map of this cemetery and marked the position of their graves.

We were able to alight from the bus at the cemetery gate.

The sky was grey and cheerless, never the less the cemetery was beautiful with the gleaming white headstones, lush green grass, and coloured flowers in full bloom decorating the graves themselves. The whole was shrouded in a peaceful silence.

We were the only members of the group to have soldiers buried here, and with the assistance of Pete and our fellow tour companions we were quickly able to find their graves.

For the second time that day we were in for a surprise, although perhaps we should not have been. Corporal J J Stapleton was buried between his two mates, who were carrying him to the field medical station when they were killed by shrapnel from an exploding ‘whiz-bang’ mortar shell.

This gave us a strange comforting feeling knowing that even though he had died so far away from home and family, he was not alone, but resting in peace beside his mates.(Below)

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We were able to take photos with the back -drop of the Australian flag. One of the members of our group had previously made many tours of the Western Front Battlefields, and generously shared with us all an Australian flag he had brought with him. We all appreciated this kind gesture, as it gave an added depth to all our photos.

My grandmother’s, cousin, Robert Edward Sherwood was also buried in another section of the cemetery. We  took photos of his grave with the Australian flag too.(Below)

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After reboarding the bus, we headed for the town of Iepers, where we were to stay the night.

Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Heroes J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood – Mont St Quentin

In former blogs I have mentioned we planned to visit the Australian Battlefields of World War I in France and Belgium this year, to honour our relatives, who fought there. Now we have done this, I will share with you some of our experiences.

Our tour was arranged with an Australian company and was fitted around other tours we planned, as we made the best of the opportunity of being in Britain and Europe in the summer.

We took the Eurostar from London to Paris, where we were joined by several other Australians booked on the Australian Battlefields Tour.

Our Tour Guide, Pete Smith, a former British serviceman, who now lives in France, knows the landscape and history intimately. Everyone on the tour had lost family members on these battlefields and Pete made a special effort to visit as many War Graves Cemeteries as possible, and locate the graves of the fallen soldiers belonging to the families. He also described all the battles and conditions in detail, so we could understand, and felt a connection to the places.

We all had a copy of an excellently researched and written book, Walking with the Anzacs- A Guide to the Australian Battlefields on the Western Front’ by Mat McLachlan. This was very helpful in not only giving background to the battles, but maps and other useful information of what was going on around the area, during the war. This helped us understand better what Pete was showing us.

The bus left Paris about 9 am and we headed northwards to the Belgium border. The sky was over-caste and the showers followed us throughout the morning, as we wove in and out of the heavy traffic.

Our first stop was on the edge of the Somme at Mont St Quentin. Here is a quote from the above mentioned book, “The attack on Mont St Quentin was considered by many to be the Australian’s greatest action in World War I. In three days, between 31 August and 2 September 1918, a handful of desperately under strength battalions captured one of the most formidable German defensive positions on the Western Front and took over 2600 prisoners.”

It was here that J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood lost their lives on the 1st and 2nd September 1918. I have written about these men in former blogs, however, to stand on the edge of the ‘Mont’ and have a clear view over looking the fields, that the Australians fought across in the half light of the morning of the 31st August 1918, was very moving. Directly behind us on the ‘Mont’ were the German trenches, still visible but half hidden in the wooded undergrowth.

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A short distance away was the remnant of a defensive stone wall with an Australian mortar shell still embedded in it.

We were shocked how exposed and flat the terrain was, and still find it hard to believe what those brave Australians accomplished in those few days.

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On the back of this hill is the village of St Quentin. Here the striking 2nd Division Memorial stands. This original memorial was unveiled on 30 August 1925, the seventh anniversary of the battle. The memorial now depicts a larger than life Australian soldier in full military kit standing astride, on a stone plinth. The Digger faces north-east, the direction of the Australian advance. This Digger figure is unique amongst the Australian Divisional Memorials, as the other four are identical stone obelisks. These we later visited on our tour. This was not the original sculpture. The first one, unveiled in 1925, was an Australian soldier bayoneting a German Eagle sprawled at his feet. German soldiers who occupied this area during World War II destroyed the sculpture leaving only the plinth. The present Digger sculpture was erected in 1971.

The memorial is surrounded by houses, but the adjacent tree-lined roadway is called the ‘Avenue des Australiens’.

There are a number of ‘story boards’ with photographs adjacent to the memorial. One struck a deep chord with us. It was of two soldiers carrying a stretcher with a wounded soldier across the open battlefield, accompanied by a fourth man waving a white red cross flag, above his head on the end of a stick. The reason it effected us so much, was that it was taken the exact day James Joseph Stapleton was injured and was stretchered by two mates towards the field dressing station. However, the three of them were killed by shrapnel, when a ‘whiz-bang’ shell exploded in the air above them.

We will never know who the soldiers in this photo were, but it did give us a small window into the lives of the men on the battlefield.

We know the three soldiers who were killed, were buried in a shell hole close by where they fell, and crosses were erected soon afterwards.

There is a photograph of the original grave of J J Stapleton, which was sent to his mother, by the original Imperial War Graves Commission. It is in the possession another Stapleton descendant.

We also know from military records that their bodies were retrieved some two years later by the War Graves Commission, and were reburied in the Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension.