The small town of Péronne, located 126 kilometres from Paris, is not unaccustomed to the devastations of war. Since the Vikings, the small town has been subject to many sieges and wars, and has been nearly destroyed and re-built many times.
Péronne was again near destroyed during the First World War. The Germans held Péronne from late 1914, so the town was virtually razed by Allied shelling. In remembrance of its wartime tribulations, every day in Péronne the town hall bells play ‘La Madelon’ a patriotic French song of the First World War, whose lyrics tell the tale of French soldiers flirting in a tavern with a waitress.
In the autumn of 1918, Australian forces took part in a series of decisive victories along the Somme River, moving east from Amiens. Péronne and Le Mont Saint-Quentin were heavily defended, but they fell in a determined Australian attack over four days, from 29 August to 2 September.
The cost was heavy- 3,000 Australian casualties – but individual acts of gallantry were many. Eight Australians won the Victoria Cross, more than on any other Australian field of battle of the First World War.
‘You have altered the whole course of the war,’ the British General Sir Henry Rawlinson is said to have told Monash.
At Péronne’s centre, a large mediaeval fortress houses one of the finest war museums on the Western Front. L’Historial de la Grande Guerre displays 70,000 objects from all sides, in clever and thoughtful displays. The collection includes many important artworks – particularly those by the German artist Otto Dix, who fought in the war. Two new galleries opened in 2015, one depicting the Australian role in the nearby battles.
Péronne is a good base for travel along the Australian Remembrance Trail if you would like to stay somewhere smaller than Amiens or Arras. The river offers lots of scope for non-military tourism and the bicycle paths to the west run for 160 km to the sea. Péronne sits at the junction of the Somme and the Cologne rivers, and appears surrounded by water, making it one of the loveliest towns in this region.
The Somme River divides here into many idyllic ponds, which can be explored on foot, car or boat. The city has some fine hotels and restaurants and a fast train links the nearby station at Haute-Picardie with Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris.
Le Mont Saint-Quentin is about 1.5 km north of Péronne. The 2nd Division Memorial, on the site of one of their greatest victories, is on Avenue des Australiens, near the top of the hill. The statue of a digger in slouch hat, head cast downward in reflection, is the second on this site. The first, an Australian soldier symbolically bayonetting a German eagle, was removed by German forces in the Second World War.
New signage and a walking path help to explain the Australian actions here. The signs begin outside the church on rue de L’Abbaye, a good place to park. If you go first to the Historial Museum or the tourist office opposite the château, pick up a brochure about the new walking tour: The Battle of Mont Saint-Quentin.