I have just returned from an extended trip abroad. One of the things I wanted to do while in France was to visit WWI battle sites, and Memorials to try and get some sense of the scale of things.
I don’t know much about either War really. When I was at School it wasn’t part of the History I did. To a certain extent in the 60s and early 70s I guess it was still being worked on and history was being researched and written certainly for World War II. After all, when I was born in 1960 that War had only been over for 15 years, a blink really. Our elderly next door neighbour had lost her love in WWI and been a spinster all her life. A whole generation of men wiped out. I have picked up bits and pieces from the TV, from books, even from Remembrance Day programming.
I don’t know if any of my relatives were lost in either War to my shame. I ought to rectify that.
The Cemetaries bear the bodies that were found, the Memorials bear the names of the missing, as Field Marshall Lord Plumer said at the inauguration of the Menin Gate Memorial – “He is not missing, he is here”. It is soul destroying, numbing, all this, yet it is important. Everywhere I looked I could see Poppies, and Cornflowers (the French symbol of memory and solidarity for veterans and victims of war) and it seemed as if they represented the souls of those soldiers who fought and died. I have extracted some relevant information and thoughts from my letters home to friends, on WWI for this blog post as tomorrow is the Centennial Commemoration of the start of The Battle of The Somme.
Arriving in Albert, the first thing you can see is the Basilica, and flags of all the Allies hanging from the buildings, here we found somewhere to park the MH in a side street and walked back to the Musee of the Somme, paid our 6.50 ea to get in and we watch the video (in English and 3D) which gave an idea of what could be seen in the surrounding area. The Museum itself is underground, and weaves under the Basilica. It was an air raid shelter, as Albert was pretty much flattened in the war. The Museum gave a good indication of what life was like for soldiers both above and underground. There was also a section of tunnel which endeavoured to give an idea of the noise of being in a trench while a bombardment was going on. No wonder so many suffered from shell shock.
We surfaced again on the other side of the Basilica and across the road!
The Basilica was built originally in the late 1800’s, but was pretty much destroyed by the Battle of the Somme. The Golden statue of an Angel was leaning horribly for pretty much two years, and legend had it that if it fell the war would end. The Angel fell in April 2018. The Basilica was rebuilt by the son of the original architect to his father’s plans, and it is spectacular.
Lochnagar Crater. The photographs cannot convey the scale of this mine crater. It is huge. 91m across and 21m deep it is a relic of the series of explosions which happened on July 1st 1916 at 7.28am and marked the start of the Battle of the Somme by the British. The crater and surrounding land was purchased by a British man, to preserve and encourage remembrance. Have a look here www.lochnagarcrater.org for more information.
From there we moved on past a couple of Cemetaries at Poziers and towards Thiepval, they told us at the Museum that this could be seen for miles around, and they weren’t wrong! It is huge. It is the memorial to the 72205 missing British and South African soldiers who fell between July 1915 and March 1918 and who have no known grave. Their names are inscribed on the 16 pillars making up the base of the monument under the names of the Battles in which they fell. I found an E.A. Farrow, no idea if he is a relative, but I was shocked to see the name there. The visitor centre has a very good time line display which helped put things into some kind of order for me. The Memorial was very busy with parties of students, French military cadets, and Battlefield Tours. They were getting ready for the commemorations for the 1st July, and the vigil on the 29th June, so lots of workmen around, yet it still seemed peaceful. The views were astounding, across the war fields in which these men had died.
Moving on from here, we went to Longueval, and to the New Zealand cemetary, we saw two or three different Cemetaries, they have such odd names, Thistle Down Cemetary is off the main road, appears beautifully maintained, and yet there is an unmade road to access it. We didn’t try to take the MH down it, we stopped at the bigger Caterpillar Valley instead.
Everywhere you look it seems that there are war graves in a little square, or a memorial which if you blink you may miss it. For me, I wonder if these men really are at rest, at peace, do they resent the intrusion of tourists or are they pleased that we remember? The bigger Cemetaries have many visitors, I feel sad for the little ones, the tucked away ones, those who never get visitors, are they any less forgotten or more remembered?
We wanted to go back to find the Memorials for the Welsh at Mametz and also the Newfoundlanders at Beaumont-Hamel. When you put this type of place into the Sat Nag you certainly see more of the countryside. We passed through agricultural land which was sodden. It took very little imagination to realise what conditions must have been like during the battles.
The Memorial at Mametz is tucked away, and although signed, you would have to be looking for it to find it. A Welsh Dragon, with barbed wire in its claws, it’s tail pointing in the direction in which the Soldiers had come over the hill and its face pointing towards the woods they were aiming to clear. They were canon fodder. Over 4000 men were lost, including 600 killed and 600 missing. I have tried to show the height of the hill they would have come down towards the woods, and also the distance to the woods, where the Germans were waiting for them.
We moved on from there to the Canadian Memorial, or more precisely the Newfoundlanders Memorial. The battlefield has been preserved and you are able to get an idea of the scale, the trenches and the ferocity of the battle at Hawthorn Ridge. We were greeted by two young Canadians one of whom offered us a guided tour, but once we had accepted this, she was told that it wasn’t possible, because she would miss lunch and they had school parties coming in! So we took the self guided leaflet and wandered off. Funnily enough, she lived not far from my brother in Canada!
On the way to Saarburg we see a French WW1 cemetery and we stop, I learned that until 1915 soldiers who died were buried together, and Officers had individual graves. This changed after a law was passed.
Further on and we see an enormous WW1 French Cemetery at Saarburg and again we stop.
This time, my flabber is gasted. This is a Cemetery (the only one in France) for all the WW1 French Prisoners of War who died of disease or wounds and who were repatriated after the war 13,389 of them. There are so, so many graves.
We arrived in Verdun to find a town that is holding a massive MH show, and seems to have closed off most of its town centre because of road works. Having tried to drive into the town centre to see what was there and perhaps stop for lunch, we ended up heading out of town, and seeing a sign for the Battlefields. No idea what’s there, let’s go see.
The Forest you drive through is pitted with holes full of water, and it seems everywhere you look there is a memorial of some sort. Andre Maginot had a huge one, there was the Lion of Soulleville, and little and big ones everywhere you looked.
We came across a very impressive memorial / museum which was well worth visiting, as it explained a lot of what we had seen already. The Battle for Verdun had rendered the landscape a mud scape, villages destroyed and off the face of the earth, and so the Government after the war declared it sacred land, and that a forest should be planted there. The trenches, tunnels, fortifications, shell holes were left as reminders, these were the holes we had seen on our way up.
The Museum had many artefacts, films, displays, all in English, French and German, and we could have stayed longer. We moved on though, and stopped at the Douennement Ossarie (spelling?), I took some photos, but we chose not to go in this time. A tour takes about an hour and we were very hot. The French also have a Memorial for the Muslims who fought and fell on their behalf from their Empire, and on the other side, is one to the Israelis.