Albert is a small town in the Province of Picardy. It found itself in the heart of some of the hottest action on the Western Front throughout the Great War. Albert had one target that towered over the village making it an excellent observation post for whomever occupied it and an irresistible target for opposing gunners. Earlier town fathers, attempting to turn the community into a destination for Christian pilgrims, had built an impressive Romanesque Basilica crowned with a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary holding up her baby son to God.

During the early days of the war German artillery had shelled the Basilica, trying to knock it down and prevent the French artillery spotters from using it. They had only succeeded in dislodging the statue of Mary, which by 1916 hung at a precarious angle just below the horizontal.

Several myths had developed among the soldiers of both sides, one being that the side that brought the Virgin Mary down would lose the war, or alternatively win the war. The other myth that was circulating was that the war would end when the statue of the Virgin finally fell.

The statue hung there until 1918 when it was brought down by artillery fire from the British 8 inch Corps. The man most responsible for its final destruction was a Captain F.G. Petch MC, who was on the staff of the 5th Corps, Heavy Artillery. At that time an Army Order had been issued that no more buildings were to be demolished by gunfire - Captain Petch tells the story:-
"One early morning we had a telephone message from the Infantry Colonel of the Battalion holding the line quite near to the Cathedral to the effect that he was suffering heavy loss from machine gun-fire from the Cathedral. Tower, and he asked that we should blow the place to blazes. My General was out on reconnaissance work, and my Brigade Major was absent at the time so I (quite a young Captain) was in charge. Realizing the Army Order and knowing that I should get no satisfaction from Army H.W., I chose one of the 8-in. Batteries in the Corps, worked out some imaginary trenches well beyond the Cathedral, and then ordered the Major of this Battery to fire a couple of hundred rounds at these imaginary trenches, knowing full well that the line of fire would go clean through the Cathedral!

The Major was thrilled with this order and it was duly carried out and the Cathedral Tower and most of the surrounding Cathedral was blown to hell, thus probably saving the lives of many of our Infantry".
Albert in 1916. The Virgin Mary restored to her rightful position on top of the rebuilt Basilica.
Pictures of the Basilica and Albert as it is today  
There is an excellent First World War museum, "Museum Somme 1916", its entrance is to the side of the basilica and it runs in tunnels under the church and town. The museum contains items recovered from the surrounding battlefields and features depictions of trench life for both the Allies and the Germans. We had limited time available on our visit to Albert and weren't able to spend as much time as we would have liked and is necessary to see and appreciate all the exhibits. If you ever find yourself in Albert with an hour or so spare, I would strongly recommend you visit the Somme Museum - if only to experience the museum's exit !     
These photographs were taken on the 11th November 2008.