Thursday, 26 September 2013

French letters

Today has been an extraordinary day, which started in North London and seems to have ended in a little market town in Picardy called Albert. 

It's been a day of beautiful weather. A day of ambitions fulfilled, wonderful food and heart-stopping sights.

The trip down to Dover was surprisingly uneventful. We picked the parents up from Liverpool Street, just as the City was turning from an eerie ghost town into a hustling, thrusting, get-out-of-my-waying money making machine. 

We had hot chocolate at Medway services and literally sailed straight onto the ferry, just as the sun burst through the clouds. 

Full marks to the P & O staff who went out of their way to help my Mother in her quest to find a watch she'd fallen in love with which had a lovely blue strap but didn't seem to be in stock. It's a long story, but  it ended with the manager of the duty free shop searching the ferry to find my mother to tell her, if she wanted it, she could have the display model. That kind of customer service requires big thanks and I spent ages filling in a form with the suggestion that all the members of staff be given bonuses!

As we drifted into Calais, we were lucky enough to catch an impromptu performance (in the Horizon Lounge) of a Kent-based barber shop choir on their way to some kind of festival in Holland. They sang three cheery numbers and were really very good. As I stood watching them, their faces filled with an absolute love for singing, I thought what a pleasant start to the holiday we'd had.

We blasted through northern France and within seconds were picking up signs for some of the places whose names would turn the most healthy heart to stone. Bethune. Arras. Amentieres. The site of indescribably awful battles. 

Our first stop was Vimy Ridge. I'd been there before, with Fiona, funnily enough the day before I met Nathan. I was surprised at how little I remembered...

I think we were all shocked at our first sight of shell craters. 100 years on. Covered in grass and grazing sheep and healthy-looking trees, but so very obviously a scene of absolutely carnage and devastation. An autumn breeze rustled the trees. The trees murmured tales; rumours even they didn't want to acknowledge. 

At the top of the hill, an enormous,  gleaming white monument stretched into the powder blue sky, so brilliantly white that it made my eyes ache in the bright sun. It is a monument to the 60,000 Canadians who lost their lives in the war. A monument to a country which was somehow born in the conflict. We stood at the top of the ridge and stared out towards Belgium. The horizon was lined with triangular slag heaps.

Human beings will never be able to walk through those forests again. There are still too many unexploded bombs nestling just under the surface . Sheep wander through the trees, munching at the lime green grass, tidying up the mess that man created but is too frightened to reverse.

Electric fences keep us out. Modern day barbed wire. I sat for some time listening to the sound of electricity passing through one particular section of fence. It was a spooky, barely audible rat-a-tatting. A distant sound, like something far away being carried towards me on a mysterious breeze. The sound suddenly sent a shiver through my body. It frightened me and I couldn't work out why until I realised that the noise I was hearing could easily have been the ghostly whisper of First World War machine gun fire. 

We took one of the official tours of the site which are provided by a gaggle of energetic Canadian university students. They're free and hugely informative and include a trip into some of the highly atmospheric tunnels underneath the battle field, which were dug by Welsh miners as a means of transporting troops, providing a safe haven during bombardment and as a starting point for much deeper tunnels underneath the German front line which were filled with bombs and exploded to devastating effect. 

We then had an opportunity to look at some reconstructed trenches in a section of the battlefield where no-man's-land was only 20 meters wide. It was stirring stuff, but, perhaps because the battle was considered successful for the allies, and perhaps because the entire site had been reconstructed, I didn't feel overcome with any sense of atmosphere. The place felt very much  at peace with itself. 

We left Vimy, headed further south, came off the motorway, circled around Bapaume and started heading along the B roads to Albert. And here the scores of cemeteries started appearing. Most of them are surrounded by carefully topiered  hedges and filled with standard issue white headstones in neat little rows. There are staggeringly large numbers of them. Every one made me shudder. 

Here and there, by the side of the road, patches of pock-marked grass remind us where we are. Brown signs read "ligne de front" (line of the front) and give the dates when the Allied front line occupied a particular area of land. The most devastating sign for me was the one which read "ligne de front, 1er Juli 1916", the day the Pals died...

We checked into our hotel, which has an enormous statue of a British soldier outside, labelled "Le Tommie." You can buy all sorts of ghastly things inside, including a snow globe featuring a young British soldier going over the top. The relationship between tourism and horror is a peculiar one! 

We had food in Albert and sat outside a cafe in a beautiful square watched over by the famous golden statue of the Madonna and child which sits on top of the tall church tower. As it got darker, the flood lighting made the statue appear to glow more and more until it began to resemble some kind of heavenly golden angel in the night sky. And you can see her for miles...

And then it occurred to me... This was the very statue which greeted the Pals as they marched into the war zone for the first time. Albert was the first town they encountered which had been badly damaged. There are accounts of them coming across an old clothing factory, covered in broken sewing machines and seeing the church for the first time, which was something of a legend to all First World War soldiers. A shell had dislodged the statue of the Madonna and child and left it hanging at a 45 degree angle from the top of the tower, almost as though Mary were flinging the baby Jesus at the ruined town below. As the war progressed, the statue seemed to hang at an increasingly  gravity-defying angle and a myth built up that when the statue finally fell, the war would end. And to my knowledge, this is exactly what happened! 

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