ALSACE-LORRAINE 2006 -Weeks 1~2

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WEEKS 1~2 NEWS - the Somme battlefields and Vimy Ridge:

After the heat-wave of early summer, we left UK in chilly, overcast and blustery conditions. The local Calais newspaper, La Voix du Nord, reported on recent floods: un mois de pluie en 24 heures - un mètre d'eau après de violentes pluies. Normally our trips begin with a 5 day drive across the Continent, but this time we started serious exploration from the 2nd morning with visits to the Hundred Year War battlefields of Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415) (Photo 1).
                                                    Click on map for details 
Our base was the delightfully welcoming and straightforward Camping St Lardre in the Hamlet of St Georges near Hesdin. We stood at Agincourt field, where Henry V had roused his exhausted and outnumbered troops with his Shakespearean harangue 'Once more unto the breach". The massed English long-bow archers wrought havoc among the heavily armoured French knights bogged down in the mud, just as German machine guns did on the Somme 500 years later.

Our next stop was the Bird Sanctuary of Marquenterre set amongst the dunes and meres of the Somme Estuary. On 1 afternoon, we saw shelduck, mallard, pochard, tufted ducks and moorhens, Canada and grey-lag geese, coots, crane, egrets, avocets, lapwings, dunlins, cormorants, godwits, white storks, spoonbills and night herons. It was a satisfying afternoon's bird-watching, but the French shooting season had started; we hoped the birdlife would keep a low profile!

Moving inland, we camped at Picquigny for the 20 minute rail journey into Amiens. Municipal and privately-owned campsites are increasingly hyping their earnings by renting out year-round space for static caravans, leaving few pitches for visitors; it's an annoying trend, makings stays noisy and overcrowded. Amiens, setting of Sebastian Faulks' novel Birdsong, was once the centre of a thriving textile industry. The city is dominated by the magnificent Gothic Cathedral; built in just 50 years from 1220, it is one of the largest Gothic structures in France with a remarkable uniformity of style, and a particularly impressive west façade (Photo 2).

We travelled across the rolling chalk downlands of the Somme towards the town of Albert, the same route the Tommies must have marched up to the Front in 1916. After the first months of 1914, the WW1 Western Front became a static line of opposing trenches stretching 750 kms from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border south of Alsace. The Germans occupied highly fortified defensive positions along the ridges above the valleys of the Somme and Ancre, employing all the infernal paraphernalia of modern mechanical warfare. For the next 3 years, the Allies made repeated and costly offensive assaults in futile attempts to break the German line. Whereas the Germans had dug in, determined to defend territories already overrun, in contrast the Allied trenches were regarded as temporary positions from which to launch offensives to drive back the invaders. Added to this, the British high-command anachronistically clung to the military mind-set of the mid-19th century, seeing the only solution to any problem both tactical or strategic as hurling massed infantry against the barbed wire, machine guns and artillery of the German defences. The town of Albert lay 6 kms back from the front line and was utterly destroyed by artillery shelling during WW1 (see left). From across the open Somme landscape, the most prominent feature was the gilded statue of the Virgin atop the town's Basilica. The statue was hit by shell-fire in 1915, and the 'Leaning Virgin' prompted the superstition among the troops that when it finally fell, the war would end. In the 1920s reconstruction of war damaged towns and villages, the Basilica was rebuilt and the Golden Virgin again stands out as a landmark over the town (see right). The very worthwhile Musée des Abris in Albert gives a gruesomely realistic impression of the appalling conditions which men had to survive in the trenches.

In 1916, the British and French launched the Somme offensive to relieve pressure on the French army defending Verdun further south. This windy open terrain had no intrinsic strategic value; it was simply where the 2 sides stood locked in static trench warfare. For 8 days, British artillery pounded the German defences, but the Germans took shelter, well-protected in their dug-outs. At 7-30 am on 1 July, the Tommies went over the top and advanced across the still intact barbed wire of No Man's Land, up the ridges into the murderous machine gun fire: on this 1st day, the British suffered 60,000 casualties with 20,000 killed. It was the costliest defeat ever suffered, and the futile slaughter went on until November with scarcely any ground gained. Simply throw more infantry at the problem was the only answer the British generals knew.

In this area of the Somme, there are endless war cemeteries, all beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). If you want to locate a relative killed in war, visit the CWGC web site on www.cwgc.org    We knew of a Great Uncle killed on the Somme in 1916, and from the CWGC web site, located the cemetery where he was buried. 'Battlefield tourism' has become big business in this the 90th Anniversary year of the Somme Battle; we were glad to have personal reasons for being here. Paul was very fond of his Great Aunt Lucy; she never talked of her husband who was killed in action on 18 July 1916 on the Somme, leaving his widow to bring up their baby son, Reginald. Our researches showed that her husband had been Private William Arthur Marriott of the 1st Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment who was buried in the CWGC Cemetery at Contalmaison near Albert. We found his grave which stands alongside several of his fellow Northants, all killed on the same day trying to take the village. To pay our respects, but unable to restrain our tears, we planted a rose at his grave (Photo 3), and recorded an entry in the cemetery visitor book: 'To Private Marriott, 90 years after your death, on behalf of your late wife (my Aunt Lucy), and of Reginald, the son you never saw'. Our week on the Somme had been plagued with the same constant rain which in 1916 turned the trenches and battlefield into a sea of mud. Even so, we have visited so many cemeteries and memorials, and tearfully walked along row after neat row of white headstones, most bearing a regimental badge and a man's name and rank: myriads of young men who died to protect our freedom, far from families in Britain, France, and Commonwealth countries - Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Newfoundland. And saddest of all were those graves simply marked ' A soldier of the Great War, known unto God'

During our time in the Somme, we stayed at a small campsite in Authuille, a village which would have been right on the front lines in 1916, and like so many in the region, was totally devastated by shelling. All of the village churches date from the 1920s post-war reconstruction period (see left). It is simply unimaginable to consider the fate of villagers in these farming communities; French civilian casualties in WW1 are estimated at 250,000.

One of our most poignant visits was to the Newfoundlanders Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel. The area has been preserved in its post-battle state to show the topography of the 1916 battlefield, with opposing lines of trenches separated by 250 yards of No Man's Land, still pock-marked with shell holes (Photo 4). On 1 July 1916 at the start of the Somme offensive, 820 volunteers from the British colony of Newfoundland went over the top from the British front line trenches, silhouetted against the skyline, into the murderous hail of machine gun fire. They made it only 50 yards as far as a surviving tree, and in half-hour, only 68 of the 820 remained alive. 90 years later, we followed in their footsteps, climbing out of the British trenches and walking across No Man's Land as far as the German frontline. Nothing more unpleasant than driving rain marred our progress, the same rain which in 1916 had turned this ground into a morass of blood-soaked mud, and which today further enhanced our empathy with the young men whose lives were so carelessly sacrificed by incompetent leadership.

Later that day, we visited the monumental Memorial to the British Missing, designed by Edwin Lutyens and built in 1932 on the Thiepval Ridge, where so many died. It commemorates the 73,000 British dead whose bodies have never been found (Photo 5). You truly do need to walk the ground, up that slope towards the Thiepval Ridge, to have some understanding of the terror in the hearts of those poor young men as they clawed their way over the barbed wire into the sweeping machine gun fire. Further south were the memorials and cemetery at High Wood, the scene of Johnstone's inspired prediction of battlefield tourism in his poem High Wood (click here to read)  This ridge-line was bitterly fought over with many 1000s of lives lost, some of whom are buried in the cemetery at High Wood (Photo 6). Nearby in Mametz Wood, we found the memorial to Lance Corporal Harry Fellows who survived until 1987 (Photo 7). His poem Mametz Wood 1914 and 1984 recalls the fighting in Mametz Wood, destructive of human life and the beauty of nature:

Shattered trees and tortured earth
The acrid stench of decay
Of mangled bodies lying around
The battle not far away
This man-made devastation
Does man have no regrets
Does he pause to ask the question
Will the birds ever sing again in Mametz?

And the final 2 lines capture so poignantly the unimaginable contrast between the hellish destruction of 1916 and the peacefulness of the woods today:

Where once there was war
Now peace reigns supreme
And the birds sing again in Mametz

These final 2 lines are recorded on his memorial. Second to our visit to Great Uncle William's grave, this was the most moving moment of our time on the Somme, able to focus our pent-up emotions on the fate on this one man, commemorated here in the peace of Mametz Wood where, thank God, the birds do now sing again. And along the roadside, the poppies still bloom.

Our final visit was to the Canadian Memorial Park at Vimy Ridge, scene of some of the most ghastly trench warfare of WW1: almost 2 years of battle, culminating in the successful but costly re-capture of the high ground in April 1917 by Canadian troops. Again the terrain has been preserved exactly as it was after the conflict, the ground pock-marked with shell holes, and huge mine craters, and lines of trenches snaking across the grass. The ground is still littered with the debris of war - unexploded munitions - and red signs warn of the dangers of straying from the paths. Canadian students conduct visitors through tunnels cut in the chalk through which men and materials were ferried up to the front line to launch the assault. Nearby we were able to experience the feeling of walking through the preserved trenches (Photo 8), with the opposing German trenches just yards away across No Man's Land which was cratered by mine explosions: kitschy yes, but rather better than 9 April 1917!

Bemused by the countless numbers of cemeteries and graves we had visited over the week, we took our leave to continue our travels south. So what feeling does all this leave us with? Of course overwhelming sorrow, and perhaps some relief to leave behind the suffering, as we contemplated the sacrifice of the millions of young lives of that generation who remained in France, buried where they fought and died, so far from their families and denied the joys of life which today we are privileged to enjoy. Most of all however, we felt anger - no, blind bloody rage - at the incompetent and unfeeling generalship of Haig and his kind, who were responsible for Great Uncle William Marriott's untimely death and the widowing of Aunt Lucy, left alone to bring up the baby son whom his father never saw. These feelings will stay with us as we now head south towards Reims and Champagne country

Sheila and Paul                                                                         Published: Monday 28 August 2006

Music this week: WW I song Tipperary


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