By Evelyn McKechnie
On the 1st July 2008, on the anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a new museum was inaugurated at Auchonvillers in France and it just keeps getting better and better. This museum is dedicated not only to the history of the Great War but also to the Second World War.
There are two extraordinary people involved in the Andre Coilliot Museum and the Wall of Remembrance. One is Andre Coilliot and the other is Avril Williams, who runs a guest house and tearoom at the village of Auchonvillers on the Somme. Auchonvillers was known by the Tommies during the Great War as ‘Ocean Villas’.
This is their story and how their vision has seen one of the best private collections of wartime memorabilia being given a new home for the wider public to view.
André Coilliot was born in Arras in 1930 in France, and from an early age, he was brought up on his parents’ and grandparents’ stories of the Great War and the Tommies who had been billeted with them, developing a passion for all things to do with the British Army.
His father was a railwayman and he collected badges from the troop trains and his mother had kept a few of the cap badges in a box. Young André brought them out when he saw the first Tommies in Arras in October 1939 and from that time his collection gradually grew until it finally reached more than 10,000 examples of British and Commonwealth badges and insignia.
In May 1940 the Germans arrived in Arras and Andre’s family joined the refugees leaving the city but not before André buried his precious badges in the garden. Many people did this in the Great War too, except it was very difficult finding it again, given many First World War villages were reduced to almost nothing recognisable remaining.
In December 1944 when Arras was liberated by the Allies André dug up his treasure and continued to add to his collection. It was not until 1955 that the collection took on a new impetus when André went to work as a railwayman at Miraumont station. There he met an old railway worker who also collected badges and his enthusiasm was renewed.
In the surrounding area, he visited scrap metal merchants and found badges, buttons, shoulder titles and other souvenirs of the war and hardly a day went by without a find – British, Canadian or German. For rare items, he paid as much as £1.50. André was then persuaded by a fellow collector to start a museum and to extend his field of collecting: helmets, shells, rifles, bullets, vehicles… nothing was refused, nor ever, until now, sold.
The museum started in one room in his house in Beaurains, spread into two, then three, four, five and eventually six rooms and his garden. André originally concentrated on the history of the British and Commonwealth forces on the Somme during WW1 but he later became passionately interested in the 1940 battles around Arras.
His researches led to the publication of four superbly detailed histories of the 1939-44 period in Arras and his home town of Beaurains in 1914-18. He published yet another fine book about Beaurains in 1940. As well as his collection of insignia André amassed an extraordinary collection of books (over 1,500), documents, photos and other ephemera concerning the two world wars.
I recall asking him for any information on an article I was researching on animals during World War Two. He went to one of his many filing cabinets, where neatly organised was document after document on this very subject and generously gave me more than I ever thought possible. It was truly amazing, the dedication and hard work, he put everything in his research and collecting.
His collection consists of uniforms, insignia, WW2 anti-tank gun PAK40, Willis jeep, various types of rum jars, all kinds of artillery shell cases, trench art, and various German, French and British firearms.
André’s genuine feeling for those who lost their lives in Arras and on the Somme led to his long, dedicated and active association with Souvenir Francais. In 1973 he became Secretary of the Arras Branch and then President, a post which he held until 2005. He organised the repair of isolated tombs, monuments and plaques and caused more than 30 memorials to allied forces to be erected and maintained. He and his enthusiastic team of young people were present at hundreds of commemorative ceremonies.
In 1981 André was honoured with the National Medal of the Order of Merit and in 1999 was similarly honoured by the Australians. When he felt it was time to make a concerted effort to find a home for his unique collection André made 17 different attempts to local mayors, councils, veterans’ associations etc. It was at this stage that he began discussions with Avril Williams in Auchonvillers which culminated in the museum being moved to its new location.
Andre said, “To my last breath, I will remain profoundly attached to the British. Don’t ask me why. It’s inborn. That’s all.”
Avril Williams originally came from England to France. At that time, Avril had no interest or knowledge of the Great War. On the 1st July 1992, she saw the potential charm and business possibilities of a rather run-down dwelling at No 10 rue Delattre in Auchonvillers and she bought it.
With determination and concentration on the positives and total disregard for the negatives she gradually started to renovate the property and let her first rooms at Easter 1993.
The Tea Room began in the living room and then moved into the renovated barn attached to the kitchen. Then Avril converted the old milking shed into a first floor flat and the Tea Room moved to the ground floor, since when it and its facilities have continued to expand.
From then the ‘estate’ has grown in sophistication, and Avril’s reputation for hospitality and enterprise has spread with it. Her heartfelt feeling for those who fought and made the ultimate sacrifice on the Somme from 1916 to 1918 led Avril into detailed research of the battlefield and the men who endured there.
This also led to her discovering that her well-preserved cellar had been used as a dressing station, first by the French in 1914 and then in 1916 by the Royal Irish Rifles and other units. She discovered graffiti, personal effects and artefacts. James Crozier who was shot at dawn, was thought to have been kept prisoner in this cellar before he was taken out and executed.
Behind the house, an original trench system was gradually dugout with the enthusiastic help of Andy Robertshaw and his Trench Team, the Durand Group and various Army and RAF volunteers. It is an ongoing project.
With her increasing knowledge of the battlefield, Avril has guided and hosted many historian guests and TV crews and has frequently appeared in their programmes. Her fame grows apace.
But her empire-building ambition never seems to wane, despite many setbacks and financial headaches. In 2004 she bought the derelict farm buildings. Her plans have included a conference centre and student accommodation but in 2006 the ideal purpose emerged after a chat with André. He told her of his many disappointments with finding a home for his collection.
They came to a financial agreement for the sale of many of the items and André donated many others. It took her 18 months to convince her bank to fund the daunting task of conversion. But Avril is never daunted for long.
Tonie and Valmai Holt of Holts Tours finally declared the Andre Coilliot museum opened in 2008 with Martin Middlebrook inaugurating the Wall of Remembrance. This is probably the first private Remembrance Wall ever in the Western Front for both those whom survived or killed in action where you can buy a plaque named to a loved one that served or died in the Great War.
Avril said, ‘Andre has collected all his life, his work should never be forgotten. His collection was the best in the area. I feel the Museum was a stepping stone to make the Wall of Remembrance. As now I am whole in the knowledge that this is what my life has been about ‘Remembering the 1WW Soldier.’
“People search all their lives to find the contentment I now feel in doing this for them. Sounds stupid but this is just how I feel. I haven’t finished yet but now I know this is ‘my life’ to do exactly what I am doing. I want to leave behind a very good centre which will always be here and run just as I intended. My children will continue I feel sure and even make it more or a Remembrance Centre.“
Information on staying at Avril’s or visiting the museum can be found at http://www.avrilwilliams.eu/
Information on the Somme Tourist Board at https://www.visit-somme.com/great-war
Listen to Avril talking about Auchonvillers and James Crozier, Shot at Dawn – http://surlalignedefront.fr/2014/04/02/avril-williams-la-grande-guerre-en-heritage/
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