Nom de Plumage

July 25, 2013

On The Trail of My Heroes In The Somme

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How can anyone ever really be ready for the magnitude of war? Can anyone who has had the great privilege to visit war cemeteries, not be affected somehow by the masses of perfect white headstones; many unknown. I defy anyone who says they experience no emotion. I have dreamed of one day undertaking this pilgrimage and naïvely believed that I would comprehend the scale of the human cost. No way! There is nothing that can prepare me for what I am about to see.

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Amiens cannot be described as being picturesque or quaint, and yet it does possess some charm and beauty. It is the cities geographical position within the Somme and its gothic cathedral, where her claim to notoriety lays. I have no personal patriotism towards any city or cathedral, but my host does, and believes that Amiens cathedral is more superior to that of its famous sister in Paris. Admittedly, Amiens cathedral is larger and the intricate façade at the entrance is very beautiful. But within the stone walls, lays a cold and almost bare building, lacking any character. Notre Dame of Paris maybe smaller, but she packs a stunning impact and its fame is well deserved. Although something wonderful to ponder, is that the façade of the cathedral has only recently been discovered to have been constructed using colour. All the figures and scenes depicted on the stone walls, came to beautiful life as you would expect from a painting. Over the years, the colours faded and then disappeared, lost in knowledge and admiration for the skilled craftsmen who built such a place of worship.

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The gentle green hills of the Somme valley is dotted with war cemeteries. Gone is the mud and stench of death and in the spring, the fields come alive with poppies. But it is winter now and although there are no flowers in bloom, the sun is shinning, the sky is a radiant blue and the fields are lush. I am taken aback by the beautiful scenery and the serene atmosphere. If there is one cemetery within France that holds a special place within Australians heart, it is Villiers Bretonneux. Countless times I have seen it on TV, but nothing can prepare me for the real thing. Situated within the heart of the valley, the beautiful stone monument that reaches for the heavens, has the names of soldiers that perished in the Great War. I walk alone between the many rows of white headstones, reading and wondering who you are and did you know what horrors lay before you? There are many headstones without names and even though I know not their identity, I thank them all for their sacrifice.

I have never been to an ANZAC ceremony in Australia, nor can I see footage or photo’s of both wars without feeling great sadness and anger for the millions of lives lost. I am of a generation who can never understand or imagine the sacrifices  made or the horrors faced by the men and women. But as an Australian I write, my tears are late and decades have passed, but my heart is full of admiration and pride for the thousands of men who sacrificed their lives and future for the freedom of France and the world. What makes driving through this valley very special, is the proud display of the Australian flag in the window of homes, at schools and in the small villages.

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A few kilometres up the road, is Le Hamel; another war memorial dedicated to the Australians. On the site of the battlefield that our hero General Monash fought some of the bloodiest turning point battles of the war. The trenches are still visible but have long ago been reclaimed by mother earth. It was interesting to read detailed stories of the battles fought here and the courage and sacrifice of all involved.

We stopped at a lake nearby for a picnic lunch of sandwiches, foie gras, fruit and tea.

A short stop at Pozieres and another Aussie war memorial before we headed to the mother of all memorials at Thiepval.

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Nothing can prepare you for the magnificent stone structure that consists of sixteen four-sided pillars with the names of 76 000 men lost from France and Britain. This memorial also has white headstones and wooden crosses from both sides, identifying soldiers killed. But it is the names carved into the faces of the pillars, lost forever, that catches my breath. What is even more scary, that the figures are only a fraction of the true cost of the war. Of all the memorials, this is the most impressive and there is also a fantastic bookstore and museum on site.

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Our last great war memorial is Beaumont Hamel. This one is dedicated to the tens of thousands of Canadian and Scottish soldiers that perished. Unique, because this is not a memorial with headstones, rather an intricate trail of trenches that are now covered with a thick green carpet of grass. I walked through some of the trenches and failed to even imagine what life was like among the mud and stench of this place of refuge. Many trenches and parts of the battlefield are out-of-bounds, due to live shells and bombs that lay dormant among the trees and hills. The Canadians have dedicated an impressive bronze statue of a caribou that stands proud on a hill overlooking the trenches. The Scots have erected a beautiful bronze statue of a soldier in traditional costume (kilt), protected by lions as they also overlook the trenches.

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The sun was slowly setting and we both realised just how full our day has been. But it was not over yet. We have saved the biggest to the last. Unfortunately, I could take no photo’s of this site, but to do so, you would need a plane/helicopter to fly high above and get the full-scale of this thing. At La Boiselle is a gigantic hole called Lochnagar Crater. At an impressive one hundred metres across and thirty metres deep,  this awe-inspiring crater was created by the relentless bombing from the enemy. If the result is impressive, what was it like to actually witness this phenomenon first hand and survive to tell the tale.

We drove home exhausted and full of emotion. My host prepared our final dinner together and then afterwards, it was a leisurely evening of eating our dessert in front of the fire and watching Inspector Barnaby in French. A real hoot!

To end…..

I was honoured to have  the special privilege of walking through the valley and among the resting place of the thousands of ‘digger’s’ who have left an indelible mark in our history. The word ‘digger’ is a special name given to the men who have seen war and it gives them a very honoured place among the hearts of all Australians. Lest we forget…….

 

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July 24, 2013

The Somme Valley

Filed under: Travel Journal — nomdeplumage @ 3:57 pm
Tags: , , , ,

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Allow me to rewind my travel clock, to a time last September, sitting on a train bound for Zürich and having a wonderful conversation with a French woman. Our two hours of conversation quickly set the tone of friendship and procured me an offer to visit this woman at her home in the Somme Valley at a later date. In all honesty, I was not sure about this and felt somewhat uncomfortable, but to pass up an opportunity to visit such a historic place, could not be passed up lightly. Fast forward the months and this time I am sitting on a train bound for Amiens and the French woman’s home. You must excuse my lack of personal information in this part of my travels for reasons of discord and pain, which came to the surface a few days later and one that I wish I could forget. But the Somme is a dream come true and a majestic part of the world, that I could not pass these few days by without a recording of what transpired. So, the French woman’s name thus far, I will not mention.

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She was a few minutes late to pick me up from the train station and it was lovely to see her again after many months. We drove back to her home; a beautiful two hundred year old brick home in the heart of the Picardy valley. It was nice to have the opportunity once again to live in a home, with a private room, a bathroom with privacy, an open fire and home cooked meals. True to form, lunch was waiting for me after I settled into my room and it was very French and very delicious; green salad for starter, mashed potato with pan-fried duck breast in a cream sauce, cheese platter and a pithivier for dessert. We caught up with each other’s lives and at times I felt like I was treading on egg shells in fear of offending her. After lunch, we went for a drive to the picturesque valley and a place rich in history.

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In another moment in time, these marshlands were nothing but vast expanse of mud, the stench of decaying bodies littered the land and the deafening sounds of bombs and guns, permeated the surrounding area. Death and horror shaped and transformed this valley and yet here I stand, almost one hundred years later, to a place of utter beauty and serenity. I really had no idea what to expect, for certainly the many photo’s and footage of the war showed only destruction. What lays before me is a place of colour of the vast flat valley, the mirror calmness of the water that is everywhere and the historic village and ancient ruins that dot the hills. The Bay of Somme is a sea that is ruled by the tide and when we arrived, the sea had all but disappeared and wet sand lay exposed to the winter sunset.

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The village is part modern and part historic. The modern part caters to the tourists and the locals and feels very much like a seaside village. The narrow main road through the town is peaceful and very pretty. But for me, it is the historic part that I loved the most. The old uneven stone structures that have survived the war somehow, dot the valley and the lush greenery of the hills and gardens bring life and renewal back to a place once covered in death. Whatever I was expecting, it certainly wasn’t this. We walked over the hills and along the bay. The day was almost over, but not before a splendid marriage of colour over the sea and marshlands as the sun was going down. I stood transfixed and camera happy watching the brilliant pinks and blue of the sky.

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We arrived home late and she prepared a very unusual dinner that consisted of zucchini, onion, aubergine, mashed potato and cheese. I have to admit, different but tasty. Afterwards, I washed the dishes and we made plans for tomorrow. I guess this was the moment when things started to go pear-shaped because when she invited me to her home, it was on the precursor of her showing me around the Somme and the War sites. She either had forgotten or did not want to go and so I had to remind her of my purpose for my visit. She became defensive towards me and made me feel guilty about my family life, my freedom and my travel experience. I knew then, that my three-day visit would be harder than I had anticipated.

 

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