The Somme – An Afternoon in Péronne

Here we are in Péronne on a beautiful spring afternoon with, what’s more, just enough time to show you a few things of interest in the town. 

The River Somme flows in a great southern arc from its source at Fonsommes, to the east of St. Quentin, prior to making a sweeping bend to the west (above), after which it meanders its way to Amiens and eventually the English Channel.  The Romans saw the strategic sense in creating a fortified settlement on the high ground on the eastern side of this bend, protected as it was by the river and the marshland alongside, and the ridges to the east and to the north.  Péronne and its defences would be strengthened over the ensuing centuries – Vauban’s late seventeenth century additions are clear to see on this trench map from January 1917 (German trenches in red, the British front line marked as a blue dotted line) immediately beneath and to the right of the town’s title.  Péronne’s original ramparts had been constructed during the Middle Ages, and with good reason.  Few other French towns have been so often laid waste; burned during Norman times, sacked in the 1600s during the years of Spanish Occupation, left in ruins by the Germans in both 1870 & 1917, and burned once more in 1940 under the bombs of Hitler’s Luftwaffe.

This map from December 1916 puts the first map into some sort of perspective.  The River Somme flows across the bottom of the map, Péronne is marked in the bottom right corner in mauve, and you’ll find the Albert, La Boiselle, Pozières, Bapaume road diagonally bisecting the top left quarter.  The German trenches are again marked in red, but this time the blue dotted lines that cross the map show the progress of the Battle of the Somme between 1st July & 30th November 1916.  The red line, about seven miles from Péronne, shows the approximate division between the British (north of the line) and French (south) armies prior to the start of the battle.  And the orange dot above Péronne is the site of the village of Mont St. Quentin, about which a little more later.

The town square is named after a former mayor whom we shall also encounter again later, and at the north eastern end,…

…stands the mairie (town hall), once the Hotel de Ville, and once the subject of truly iconic Great War photograph.

The Germans arrived in Péronne in August 1914 and the town, despite being an objective of the French Army during the Battle of the Somme, would remain in their hands until their strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in early 1917.  The British troops who then entered the deserted town were confronted by utter destruction, not a single building left inhabitable, and affixed to the front of the shattered hotel, a sign saying simply, ‘Nicht ärgern, nur wundern’ – ‘don’t be angry, just be amazed’.  The Germans had destroyed everything as they withdrew to the defences of the Hindenburg Line.

The inset shows the building in 1920, only two archways now standing, wooden buttresses preventing them too from collapsing.

And the rebuilt building today, although sporting just three archways.  Inside, the Alfred Danicourt Museum, founded in 1877, was the only museum on the Somme that the Germans looted during the Great War; almost all of its collection was lost, apart from items hidden before the Germans came in 1914.

The building still bears a few scars from a later conflict.

During their Spring Offensive in 1918 the Germans retook Péronne before sweeping across the old Somme battlefields to the west, and it would be the Australians (see photo on the above information board) who would eventually liberate the town in September 1918.  In 1998 a road in the town was renamed ‘Roo de Kanga’* in remembrance of their Australian liberators.

*who says the French don’t have a sense of humour?  Not me.

A few minutes walk from the town square we find the ‘Monument to the Dead’, as Péronne’s war memorial is called.

It’s an impressive construction designed by the architect Louis Faille,…

…and in front of it…

…a stone obelisk remembers Louis Daudré, the mayor I mentioned earlier, after whom the town square is named.  The Germans entered Péronne once more on 18th May 1940; one week later, on 25th May, Daudré, who was also commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 51st Infantry Regiment, was killed in action in the Ardennes.

The memorial shows a Picardy woman with clenched fist raised above the body of her dead soldier husband…

…or son.

There are bronzes on either side of the memorial,…

…the one on the left…

…showing a certain Catherine de Poix, known locally as ‘Marie Fouré’, who, during the siege of Péronne by the troops of Charles V in 1536, encountered a Spaniard carrying the Spanish standard to mark the capture of the city.  Seizing the standard and despatching the enemy soldier, she then took the banner to the heart of the city, rallying the defenders, and the city was saved.

And then, of course, the names……

The bronze on the right of the memorial…

…shows Poilus in the trenches (details below).

The architect’s mark.

On either side of the plinth…

…are what I presume to be the town’s Second World War victims,…

…civilians on this side.

There is, however, something not quite right about the face of the memorial plinth.

One does wonder whether there was once a third bronze panel here on the face of the memorial which has long since disappeared, although I can find no confirmation of this.  But why else is much of the lower face of the memorial indented?

On this side,…

…the Second World War military casualties, including Louis Daudré.

As we take a spin around the figure on the top of the memorial,…

…here’s a little piece about undoubtedly the most famous action to take place in the Péronne area during the Great War.

Because we didn’t get the chance to visit Mont St. Quentin on this visit I do not intend to tell the whole story, but here, in case I never get the chance to return, are the bare bones.

On the night of 31st August 1918, Lieutenant General Sir John Monash sent 2nd Australian Division across the Somme to attack the German stronghold of Mont St. Quentin, the strategically important high ground to the north of Péronne overlooking both the river and the town (the orange dot on the second trench map).

Monash decided upon a risky frontal assault which initially required his troops to cross what proved to be impassable marshland, but by quickly and skillfully manoeuvering his divisions, without the support of tanks, for obvious reasons, but also without a creeping barrage, he managed to capture the summit of Mont St. Quentin (all of 330 feet of it – above) and drive the best part of five German divisions from a key position in their defenses.

Although German counterattacks which saw vicious hand-to-hand fighting briefly forced the Australians off the top of the hill, by the next morning they were once more in control and this time would remain so.

Later on 1st September Australian troops fought their way into Péronne, the whole town falling to them the following day.

The operation to take Mont St. Quentin & Péronne cost the Australians some 3,000 casualties but succeeded in dealing a huge blow to the Germans, 2,600 of whom were made prisoner, by removing them from the most important piece of high land between the River Somme and the Hindenburg Line away to the east.

General Henry Rawlinson, commander of Fourth Army, and Monash’s superior, considered the Australian advance between 31st August & 4th September as the greatest military achievement of the war.

Monash, who had told his troops to ‘scream like bushrangers’ as they stormed up the hill, put it down to the heroism of his men, and the speed and sheer audacity of the attempt,…

…but there is no doubt that he and his staff officers showed equal skill in directing a battle with such versatility and verve.

The text on the reverse of the memorial to Louis Daudré can be roughly translated as ‘the city is grateful to its mayor, the veterans to their comrade’.  With which we leave the memorial…

…and return to the town square.  The inset, a post-war shot looking the other way, towards the hotel, shows the building still with four archways; one wonders whether the two arches on the left later collapsed or were torn down, as we’ve already seen a shot earlier with only two arches standing.  At the far end of the square on the left in the main photo, just out of shot,…

…is the church of St. John the Baptist, totally destroyed during the Great War, rebuilt, and again damaged during the Second World War, in front of which stands a statue of Marie Fouré.  There was an earlier statue of her, made from a bronze cannon donated by the Ministry of War, that was inaugurated in 1897 and survived for twenty years until the city’s German occupiers decided that the bronze could be put to better use.  This one has stood here since 1996.

The Château de Péronne may look fine from this angle…

…but it’s pretty clear…

…that there has been much restoration to the castle’s facade,…

,,,and indeed within, which I’d show you if the gates weren’t shut.

I’d also be able to show you the excellent, I’m told, museum, housed in Henri Ciriani’s curious and eye-catching 1993 construction that overlooks the River Somme as it flows past the rear of the château.

But I can’t, so I shall show you a gun barrel instead.

I don’t know much about guns, although this looks like a naval one, which may prove my previous comment,…

…but I do know that this isn’t supposed to happen.

There’s also a bronze relief map of the Péronne area unveiled in 1993 by Australian M.P. John Faulkner (later, briefly, Father of the Australian Senate).

It enlarges – of course it does – for your reading pleasure.

Our hotel (note the dates).

Army tales……and I believe every one of ’em.

No, really, I do!  As our two resident men of the cloth (far left) arrive post-haste for a pick-me-up (or two), I spotted something else of interest through the camera lens.  Look carefully in the window of Le Pub and you might spot…

…a little piece of Vichy legislation, still in force in 21st Century France.

Night night Péronne.

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8 Responses to The Somme – An Afternoon in Péronne

  1. peter cooper says:

    from what I understand all class 4 alcohol licences (Sprit’s) were issued around this time and none since.

  2. Nick kilner says:

    A very interesting and enjoyable read, as always. Looks well worth a visit!

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you Nick. I too know a bit more about the town now than when I was there – this was one of those rare ‘photograph everything and find out what it all is later’ days. I will admit that I hadn’t linked the ‘Nicht ärgern, nur wundern’ sign with Peronne until I got home – thank heavens I took enough pics of the mairie.

  3. Sid from Down Under says:

    Excellent photos and narrative thank you MJS – did you happen upon the Australian 2nd Division Memorial? It has an interesting history. According to the DVA it’s on the Avenue Des Australiens near the Rue D’Allaines intersection and can be seen from the road. The original Memorial, a statue of a digger killing an eagle with his bayonet, was destroyed by the Germans in World War II. In 1971, it was replaced by this figure of a digger in his slouch hat.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you Sid. Unfortunately the Australian memorial is outside the town on the Mont St. Quentin road so we had no chance of visiting it.

  4. Margaret says:

    Nice post M so that’s what you were doing in Peronne. Gave me some of the history. Have been to the museum but not one of my favourites. To many uniforms that I recall

    • Magicfingers says:

      And you could have been there too!! It’s a nice place, smaller than I thought. As you may have gathered I am not a great one for museums unless the weather outside is too inclement (and it has to be seriously bad for Baldrick and I not to venture out), in which case they are the perfect way to spend an afternoon, so I wasn’t too bothered. Having said all that, there are two museum posts coming up in the next few months. But not Peronne.

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