Verdun Farewell

I think the Battle of Verdun is a bit distant in the British consciousness. When it comes to World War I, we have the Somme, we have Passchendaele. The loss of so many of our own men is hard enough to get our heads around. But Verdun is sacred in France and it warrants understanding. Despite writing about the battle every day for the duration of its centenary, I had a lot to learn.

The small yet infamous city of Verdun is nestled in the valley of the Meuse, relatively close to the German border (closer in 1914 than it is today) and on what Major & Mrs. Holt describe as a “classic invasion route” (Battlefield Guide to Western Front – South). The formidable hills surrounding Verdun had been heavily fortified since the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and so it was in these hills that the Battle of Verdun took place – not in the city itself, which never fell into German hands.

The front here was in stalemate and in April 1915, a serious lack of both men and guns for the active front in Champagne led the French to disarm their Verdun fortifications. In 1916, Germany took the French by surprise. Heavy artillery bombardment began on February 21, big guns firing straight across the valley from German stronghold to French; and so began an onslaught that would last for 10 months. The French Army showed remarkable tenacity, clinging on to their positions at all costs – and the cost was high. Though Verdun never fell, 540,000 French and 430,000 Germans paid the price.

1. Verdun Memorial Museum

“Mum, why did you give birth to me? Why do I have to see all this?”

I have been consistently impressed with the standard of the museums to the Western Front in both Belgium and France and this one still blows me away. It is built right at the heart of the Verdun battlefield and the experience is immersive – from dramatically-displayed artefacts to stirring contemporary accounts, from a 100-square-metre video wall to the floor presented as the littered battlefield beneath your feet.

Beyond the emotive, I enjoyed learning about some of the behind-the-scenes ‘management’ of the Verdun front.

  • German soldiers were posted to a particular area for long periods of time and therefore got to know it very well, whereas French soldiers would spend a short period of time in one place and more than likely not return to it again.
  • The postal system was a huge operation (and not just on this front). Soldiers were often writing to loved ones multiple times a day – though I knew letters were important, this was much more than I had imagined. I’d assumed that all letters were read by superior officers for censorship before they were sent on but the volume was far to high for that to be the case.
  • And something else I had never considered: the families of the soldiers on both sides, here, were just behind the lines and the military had to control access to the front to stop family members trying to get through. This seems so obvious and yet had never crossed my mind before: fighting ‘overseas’ it presumably wasn’t something the British had to consider.

I was probably a little too excited about a double-ended pencil in a display cabinet. When you have spent four years writing about and researching different WWI battles, you get used to seeing maps with zigzags of red and squiggles of blue representing the trench systems of the opposing sides. To find out that there was a special pencil just this purpose was quite a delight.

Mapping pencil on display at the Verdun Memorial Museum [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Mapping pencil on display at the Verdun Memorial Museum [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
I am very conscious that I am the only English person in the museum – the visitors seem to be equal numbers of French and Germans. This is a magical experience in itself. This place is not portrayed as a site of French sacrifice but as a place of shared sacrifice, and the horror experienced by both sides is presented on an equal platform. That quote, above, is from a German soldier’s letter. The story this museum tells is not one of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. It is about human experience, human suffering and the extremes of human endurance.

2. Fleury and the Forests of Verdun

Today, the site of the Battle of Verdun is a vast forest full of shell holes and much of it part of the Zone Rouge, land so polluted by war that it was labelled: “human life impossible”.

Before the war, this land had thriving villages, such as the prettily-named Fleury-devant-Douaumont. As the line had stabilised in this part of France, the residents of Fleury stayed at home – until the bombardment began in February 21. It was pummelled into oblivion by artillery fire and could never be reinhabited. Fleury is one of many officially-named “villages that died for France.”

The residents of villages that fell into German hands were used as labour and food was scarce as the Germans prioritised their soldiers. I visited the remains of Fleury at the same time as a German school group and, having spent the last four years jumping between the past and the present to write the Diary, in that moment I could see the strange juxtaposition: should we be transported back 100 years , we would not have been able to stand side by side. I am so heartened to see young people from all nations are still deeply engaging in their history.

A path through the destroyed village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
A path through the destroyed village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
3. Forts of Verdun

I recall feeling surprised by the mention of forts in the earlier years of writing the Diary of the Great War. It did not seem like a 20th-century concept to me – perhaps because I live in Britain where forts tend to be medieval constructs (or earlier). However, in European warfare, it seems the fort had been the key line of defence right through the 19th century and that it was during this war – rather than any time before – that the fortress began to seem outmoded.

An entrance into Fort Douaumont with German, European Union and French flags flying above [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
An entrance into Fort Douaumont with German, European Union and French flags flying above [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Following the French disarmament, Germany seized Fort Douaumont in 1916 after a few days of shelling, entering without firing a shot. At Fort Vaux, on the other hand, the few French soldiers garrisoned there clung on desperately and suffered horribly. While writing the Diary I read the harrowing accounts of this fort under siege; scenes of heroism, yes, but scenes of despair too.

To visit both of these sites was both moving and disturbing and yet to see the European Union flag flying alongside the French and German flags at these sites is inspiring. In a place like this, that union feels tangible and important. I can’t help but reflect that whether some other nation wants to be part of that union or not, we ought to support those that need it.

Destroyed gun turrets of Fort Vaux [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Destroyed gun turrets of Fort Vaux [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
4. Douaumont Ossuary

At the top of Douaumont, above Fleury and around the corner from the fort, is a French mass grave containing the bodies of 130,000 men. 16,142 individual graves are set out in a sea of crosses in the cemetery in front. The scale of death in this one site is just overwhelming. I came on this trip to try to understand more about the First World War. After 5 days, I stand here now and I think to myself, I give up. It is beyond all understanding.

The French cemetery and the ossuary at Douaumont [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
A few of the 16,000 French graves and the ossuary at Douaumont [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
5. Mort Homme

When I came across Mort Homme in the Diary of the Great War, it made me pause. Though it gained its moniker before the war, a place with the name ‘Dead Man’ sticks in your mind. I drive along a dirt track at the edge of a field and enter into dense woodland as the road climbs upwards.

It feels apt that this is the final place I will visit on my battlefield tour, for at the top of Mort Homme in the midst of the trees is a statue of a dead man standing by his tomb, declaring “Ils n’ont pas passé”. They did not pass. Symbol of bitter bloodshed, symbol of resistance, symbol of holding on to what matters. Verdun is a lesson to all about the importance of peace. Farewell, France.

The memorial at Mort Homme [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
The memorial at Mort Homme [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

Chemin des Dames

Driving the Chemin des Dames [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

I’m cutting south-east from the Somme into territory less familiar. The parts of the Western Front that were primarily held by the French feature heavily in the Diary of the Great War – the Marne, the Aisne, Verdun and so on – but, compared to the British sectors, I’ve found it difficult to understand the detail and context about what happened here. There isn’t so much on the internet – at least not in English. I am interested to explore these areas and to visualise for myself what might have happened here, using the Diary as my guide.

I plot my route to pass through Péronne and over the Mont St. Quentin – site of a considerable Australian achievement nearly 100 years ago to the day of my visit, though today just an average residential street. Onwards to St. Quentin, a town which lay on the Hindenburg Line, then south for an hour to Soissons.

Soissons lay at one end of the line of the “Great French Attack” (as the Diary put it) that is known as the Second Battle of the Aisne. This was the French offensive that followed hot on the heels of the British successes at Arras in April 1917. At the other end was Reims, and I am going to drive the stretch that lies between them: the Chemin-des-Dames.

The Chemin-des-Dames was a key site on my battlefields tour because it is mentioned so often during the 1917 and 1918 Diary entries. How could a place whose name literally translates as “Ladies’ Path” be that important?

Well, as with much of this trip, now I am here I completely “get it”. I’ve seen some high ground of differing degrees as I’ve travelled through Flanders to the Somme but this is what I would call a ridge – a long stretch of hilltop with the ground sloping steeply away on either side in many places, and views for miles around. The valley of the Aisne is one way and the valley of the Ailette is the other, the ridge stretching on and on for 18 miles. I find it hard to picture quite how the French could have successfully attacked in this terrain. Whilst it was the site of violent and intense fighting – as sorrowful in French memory as the Battle of the Somme is to the British – it is also the site of French mutiny. Of course, this was not mentioned in The Times’ Diary.

Views from the Chemin des Dames, at the Caverne du Dragon [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Views from the Chemin des Dames, at the Caverne du Dragon [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Today the D18 road runs along the Chemin des Dames, a scenic ‘memorial’ route marked by a cornflower-blue line along the edge, the colour of French remembrance. As I drive, each place I pass shifts from abstract concept to concrete reality as though black-and-white is turning into colour: Moulin de Laffaux, La Malmaison, La Royère, Cerny, Craonnelle, Berry-au-Bac. I’m also excited to drive through Craonne, an unusual name which lodged itself in my mind way back in 2014 and hasn’t left. This Craonne isn’t the same as the one that the Diary of the Great War records though – that Craonne was completely destroyed in the war and is now an arboretum. A new site was chosen for a new town, a fresh start.

Driving the Chemin des Dames [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Driving the Chemin des Dames [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
The Chemin des Dames route is also lined with many monuments and French cemeteries. It is difficult to stop on this road to look at many of them, though where I do, the information panels are (naturally) in French, so the knowledge I gained was limited! I understand that this ridge made use of quarries, perhaps in a similar way to Arras as I’d discovered at Wellington Quarry a couple of days ago; I would have loved to have visited the main museum to the Aisne front, the Caverne du Dragon, but it was closed for renovation during my trip.

Silhouette of Reims Cathedral at sunset [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Silhouette of Reims Cathedral at sunset [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
I arrive in Reims, heart of Champagne country, just as the sun is setting. I have come here because of the cathedral, shelled by the Germans in the First World War to the outrage of the Allies, who took the news as incendiary fuel for propaganda. It is a wonder to see it with my own eyes, still dominating the cityscape today.

A German shell explodes on Reims Cathedral
A German shell explodes on Reims Cathedral [Image credit: Collier’s New Photographic History of the World’s War (1919)]
The distinctive towers of Reims Cathedral today [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
The distinctive towers of Reims Cathedral still standing today [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

The Somme (Thiepval to Ocean Villas)

Headstone in Connaught Cemetery. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

“It’s nice countryside. Not flat, more like downland, I think you’d call it. Good fishing in the Ancre – not that I ever caught anything. Open fields with some large woods and copses. Quite heavily farmed for crops and vegetables. A lot of sugar beet, I think. The villages are dull. The railway from Albert stops at Beaucourt. There’s a pretty village called Beaumont Hamel… There’s a problem, though. It is hilly. It depends who has the high ground. You wouldn’t want to attack uphill; that would be suicide.” (Extract from ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks)

As he is informed that his unit will be moved to Albert, our Birdsong protagonist Captain Stephen Wraysford recalls his peace-time experience of the area: fishing in the Ancre, lunch in Auchonvillers, “English teas” at Thiepval (which incidentally he never gets). Of course the British were to attack uphill; it was the suicide that we call the Battle of the Somme.

I drive from Amiens to Pozières on a Sunday morning, and as I turn left to meander up to the Thiepval Ridge, I discover that I am not the only one to have this idea today. My little car is in the midst of a swarm of long-distance runners racing to the summit. Up to the majestic Thiepval Memorial, its brick arches standing tall between the trees at the top of the ridge; down the other side to the River Ancre. As I approach Thiepval village from hard-won Mouquet Farm, a niggling feeling about this competitive event brushing up against the sacred past of this hill is soon resolved in acknowledgment that these runners have a deep form of connection to the men who died. This summit is the shared objective of those who run and those who fought. And this is living, this is what they were fighting for.

The road to Thiepval Ridge with the Memorial and village visible from Mouquet Farm (Mucky Farm or Moor Cow Farm as soldiers knew it). The British direction of attack was towards the camera but they had to fight up the hill on the other side of the ridge first. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
The road to Thiepval Ridge with the Memorial and village visible from Mouquet Farm (Mucky Farm or Moor Cow Farm as soldiers knew it). The British direction of attack was towards the camera but they had to fight up the hill on the other side of the ridge first. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Parking up at the Thiepval Visitor Centre & Museum, a plaque to the Thiepval Chateau catches my eye. I’ve known the name of Thiepval and its Memorial for decades but I’ve never once heard of a chateau. It was destroyed in the war, of course, though the story surrounding its demise is tinged with a touch of irony: a retired army officer purchased Thiepval Chateau in 1912, spent two years renovating it and moved in in 1914… just weeks before the outbreak of the war. He and the villagers evacuated as the Germans moved into this prime high-ground, and the Chateau met its fate.

I am very pleased with the Visitor Centre – lots of detailed maps about the fighting in this sector (as well as an overview of the whole war). From this I can put into context the “Stuff” and “Schwaben” Redoubts that were mentioned in the Diary of the Great War; put simply, they were strong points in the German line at the Thiepval Ridge. In the new Thiepval Museum, I marvel at the meticulous detail of the hand-drawn illustration of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, which stretches 60m around the gallery walls like a modern-day Bayeux Tapestry. (Extracts can be viewed here although the real mastery is in how it all flows together as a single piece.)

And so I approach the Memorial itself. Here I am again, as I was in Ypres and Tyne Cot, standing with the names of thousands of missing men, rising from my feet to high above my head. It is huge – elegant and imposing in equal measure. Its clever positioning makes it visible from many key points on the battlefield and from miles around. And yet I find myself thinking: it is not enough. For the sacrifice of Somme, for the horror of the 19,240 killed on day 1 and the hundred-thousand that followed to the same fate, this magnificent memorial is not enough. There is nothing we can do that will ever be enough.

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
I continue along the road, down the other side of the ridge towards Hamel (and in the process clarifying for myself that Hamel, Beaumont Hamel and Le Hamel – as mentioned in the Diary of the Great Warare distinct and different places). This is the hill that the British had to climb in attack, with the Germans looking down on them from above.

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The Ancre passing through a culvert in Albert [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
I pass across the valley of the Ancre. Yesterday I saw the River Somme for the first time; it felt quite strange to connect with it, a key feature in the topography of the war and a name heavy with the loss of innocence. In Birdsong, in the chaos of the attack, Stephen Wraysford finds himself swept down the River Ancre and this had always puzzled me somewhat, given he was fighting in the Battle of the Somme. Having descended from the Thiepval Ridge into this valley myself today, it all makes sense. The Ancre was as much a feature of this 1916 battle (particularly during October and November) as the Somme, the front line straddling its banks. Thiepval Ridge one side, Hawthorn Ridge the other.

Caribou statue at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Caribou statue at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
I pay a brief but rewarding visit to the Ancre British Cemetery with this in mind. Here I read that this burial site was established in May 1917, the first chance the British had to clear the Somme battlefield of the dead. I was shocked. Men had laid abandoned in no man’s land for nearly a year, broken bodies exposed to bombardment and the earth churning around them. Suddenly the vast numbers of ‘missing’ made sense to me and the real horror of the word hit home.

I have one last stop to make on the battlefields of the Somme: Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. This park is beautifully kept by the Canadian administration, with trench systems preserved in the grass, a number of small cemeteries and a caribou statue keeping watch. However, I am here for the Scots. Right at the back of the site stands a kilted soldier, a memorial to the 51st Highland Division, which included members of the Black Watch (my great-grandfather Ferguson Hunter’s regiment). The Division were responsible for taking the village of Beaumont-Hamel in the last big push at the Somme. It feels a strange coincidence that the cemetery next to the statue is called Hunter’s Cemetery.

Hunter's Cemetery at Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, with the 51st (Highland) Division memorial in the background. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Hunter’s Cemetery at Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, with the 51st (Highland) Division memorial in the background. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
My time on the Somme battlefields has come to an end and before my long drive to Reims, I am in need of refreshment. The staff at the Newfoundland Memorial recommend that I go to Auchonvillers, just metres away. I know this place-name from Birdsong. It is where Stephen Wraysford and the Azaires sought their own refreshment during their Ancre fishing trip in 1910:

“[They] took a pony and trap up the hill to the village of Auchonvillers which had been recommended […] as having a passable restaurant… Auchonvillers was a dull village consisting of one principal road and a few tracks and lesser streets behind it, most of them connected to farms or their outbuildings. The restaurant was more accurately a café…” (Extract from ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks)

Well, ‘dull’ it may be but I’m pretty excited about getting a drink in a place where my fictional forebears had lunch. I am even more delighted when I pull up at the side of the principal road to a tea room called ‘Ocean Villas’ (the name the British gave to the town in their usual humour). I say tea room quite deliberately because it is immediately obvious that this isn’t your average French café: picnic tables on the neatly cropped lawn, roses climbing the arbor. I walk into the building and two smiling faces say a cheery “Hello!” as if they have known me all my life and have been waiting for me to return. I have found my “English teas at Thiepval” in the home of ex-pat Avril Williams. And she even has a real WWI trench in her back garden.

Ocean Villas Guest House & Tea Rooms, Auchonvillers [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Ocean Villas Guest House & Tea Rooms, Auchonvillers [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

The Somme (Albert to Pozières)

Mametz Wood and Welsh Dragon Memorial. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

From my base in Amiens, it is a short 30-minute drive to the battlefields of the Somme, which saw continual conflict throughout the war, including one of the most infamous of battles in British history, the Battle of the Somme. I’ve got a day and a half to take in as much as I can. And there is a lot of take in.

  1. Albert and the Somme Museum

I begin my explorations in Albert. I would describe Albert as the gateway to the Somme, another French town that was heavily bombarded by German shellfire and which many a British serviceman passed through on his way to the front. Albert gives its name to three battles, including the first stage of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Today it is a small bustling town and home of the Somme Museum which located in the basement of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières. This museum is of the more traditional sort, nonetheless full of interesting objects and information, including scenes of trench life mocked up with considerable attention to detail. It is an excellent way of setting the scene before you head out into the fields. Here, I am reminded that the Battle of the Somme caused over 1.2million casualties between the two sides, for 6 miles of progress. This is 10 times the population of my home city, Exeter. Impossible to picture.

I am also reminded that it was not uncommon to see WWI veterans with facial disfigurement. This has been a topic I’ve been fascinated to learn about during the centenery, having read Toby’s Room by Pat Barker, My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young, and visited an exhibition of ‘artwork’ by Henry Tonks and others at the Hunterian Museum in London. All three dealt with how to heal – or conceal – facial wounds. At the Somme Museum, I learnt about how these men survived such horrific injury in the first place; in previous wars, a wound like this would have led to almost certain death from infection, if you hadn’t been killed instantly. In WWI, a very simple medical innovation saved many lives – soldiers fighting on the front line carried first aid kits.

The Basilica has its own wartime tale. On top of its tower stands a golden statue of the Madonna and Child, the Golden Virgin. In 1915, a German shell struck the statue and the lady was left hanging over the edge, perilously dangling her baby. She stayed there though – becoming known as the Leaning Virgin – until 1918 (when the tower itself was destroyed).

Battle of the Somme memorial mural in Albert [Image copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
“We went through the place today where the Virgin Statue at the top of the Church was hit by a shell in January. The statue was knocked over, but has never fallen, I sent you a picture of it. It really is a wonderful sight. It is incomprehensible how it can have stayed there, but I think it is now lower than when the photograph was taken, and no doubt will come down with the next gale. The Church and village are wrecked, there’s a huge hole made by a Jack Johnson just outside the west door of the Church.” (Observations of Army Chaplain Rupert Edward Inglis in a letter to his wife on 2nd October 1915. Image: Battle of the Somme memorial mural in Albert, image copyright 2018: A. Matthews)
2. Lochnagar Crater.

I travel along the Albert-Bapaume Road in the direction of the British 1916 attack, to La Boisselle. Here, you’ll find the Lochnagar Crater, known in French as the Grande Mine – the largest of 19 mines detonated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (and a precursor to the 20 mines of Messines Ridge a year later). This is one of those coach-trip stops, a must-see even for a summary tour, and I came here on my school trip 20 years ago. Returning today, it still takes my breath away.

The size of it! More than 300m around the edge, and 21m down its steep sides to the bottom, it was created by an explosion that threw the earth more than a kilometre into the air. It remains the largest man-made crater ever made “in anger” (in the words of the Lochnagar Crater Foundation). Today it is a protected site of memorial, the chalky earth – very different from the Flanders mud – grown over with grass and scrub.

Lochnagar Crater. A dimple on the horizon behind the gate on the far side of the crater is the Golden Virgin atop Albert's basilica. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Lochnagar Crater. A dimple on the horizon – behind the gate on the far side of the crater – is the Golden Virgin atop Albert’s basilica. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
I stand on the road and look beyond the crater for a moment. Imagine the terror of the German soldier that stood near here a century ago, his nerves in tatters from the mighty explosion of the mines and a week of artillery bombardment. Picture battalions of British soldiers emerging from the valley, advancing in long lines uphill, towards him across this open land. And imagine how easy his job would be – in his fear and his determination, his vantage point and the British soldiers’ vulnerability – to shoot down these men. 19,240 walked into death on the first day.

Panorama of the Somme battlefields around Lochnagar: "Sausage Valley" and Becourt Wood. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Panorama of the Somme battlefields around Lochnagar: “Sausage Valley” and Becourt Wood. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Time to head out along the line to visit a few of the other key sites from day one of the Battle of the Somme, before it gets dark.

Mametz Wood and Welsh Dragon Memorial. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Mametz Wood and Welsh Dragon Memorial. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
3. Mametz Wood.

A short distance south of the Lochnagar Crater is Mametz Wood, place of legend in Welsh memory and subject of the epic poem In Parenthesis by David Jones, who fought here. 4,000 Welshmen lost their lives in this square mile of forest, fresh recruits against the elite Prussian Guard. Today, Mametz Wood is watched over by a red dragon memorial erected in memory of these men. There is a dusty path leading across the field into the dense wood; though I might have felt brave enough to explore a corner of Polygon Wood, nothing could ever make me enter this dark place.

Headstone of Private F. J. Matthews, Devonshire Regiment, 1st July 1916.
Headstone of Private F. J. Matthews, Devonshire Regiment, 1st July 1916.

4. Devonshire Cemetery, Mametz.

Growing up in Devon, this small, secluded cemetery was on the itinerary of our school trip to the battlefields. It’s tucked away above the road, well-hidden behind a copse of trees, which makes me feel it is all the more important that I am visiting again. The Devonshire Regiment set off in attack from this spot on 1st July 1916 and returned on 4th July to bury fallen comrades in a section of their old front line trench.

In 1998, I found the grave of a namesake here, Private Matthews. His name had been missing from the cemetery register and I wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to ensure he was included. It was touching to return to him after all this time. Here is where I lay the second of the two poppies I ‘d bought in Ypres. (Read about the first poppy.)


Devonshire Cemetery, Mametz. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Devonshire Cemetery, Mametz. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
A tribute to the Australian soldiers at Pozières [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
A tribute to the Australian soldiers at Pozières [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
5. Pozières. Rejoining the Albert-Bapaume Road as dusk begins to descend, my final stop is the village of Pozières to visit two sites. I am rather excited to pass through Bazentin-le-Petit on my way, another of those place-names that grabbed my attention during the writing of the Diary of the Great War (as I puzzled out its relationship with Bazentin-le-Grand). I arrive on the outskirts of Pozières. On one side of the road, a monolith stands tall in memory of the Tank Corps, small tank models at its base. This is one of the places where tanks gathered the night before their first ever deployment.

On the opposite side of the road is the site of the 13th century Pozières windmill. There’s little evidence of the windmill today, as it was destroyed in 1916. It sat at the highest point of the Pozières Ridge and was bitterly fought for – and won – by the Australians. As darkness falls, I look out across the fields to see the Thiepval Memorial standing quietly yet boldly amongst the trees on the next ridge. I promise myself, this will be my first stop in the morning.

5 ‘Birdsong’ sites to visit: Stephen Wraysford’s Amiens

The French city of Amiens is known for the battle that turned the tide of the war in favour of the Allies and saw the beginning of the end, through the Hundred Days Offensive. It is also the city in which the acclaimed First World War novel Birdsong is set. Ever since I read this book as a student two decades ago, I’ve been interested to see the places in which Stephen Wraysford’s story unfolds, places which are vivid in my imagination even after 20 years, thanks to the vivid descriptions of author, Sebastian Faulks.

This is a bit of a guide to Amiens for other “literary tourists” who might wish to follow in Stephen Wraysford’s ‘footsteps’: 5 Birdsong sites to visit. Beware spoilers if you have not yet read it!

  1. Cathédrale Notre-Dame – In 1910, Stephen visits the cathedral for reflection, in the midst of his affair with Isabelle. He ends up thinking about death and memorial – a literary portent of what he is to experience in the Great War and the monuments like the Menin Gate, Tyne Cot and Thiepval that were erected in remembrance in the aftermath. I found a spot to pause and recalled this passage:

Inside Amiens Cathedral. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Inside Amiens Cathedral. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
“The chilly, hostile building offered little comfort; it was a memento mori on an institutional scale. Its limited success was in giving dignity through stone and lapidary inscription to the trite occurrence of death. The pretence was made through memorial that the blink of light between two eternities of darkness could be saved and held out of time[…] So many dead, he thought, only waiting for another eyelid’s flicker before this generation joins them[…] He sat down on a chair and held his face in his hands. He saw a picture in his mind of a terrible piling up of the dead. It came from his contemplation of the church, but it had its own clarity: the row on row, the deep rotting earth hollowed out to hold them[…] He knelt forward on the cushion on the floor and held his head motionless in his hands. He prayed instinctively, without knowing what he did. Save me from that death. Save Isabelle. Save all of us. Save me.”

Photographs on display in the aisles show the cathedral during WWI with its huge wooden doors barricaded with sandbags to protect them from German shellfire: the residents of Amiens had learned the lessons of Arras and Reims, whose cathedrals had been bombarded. The defence of Amiens Cathedral is referred to towards the end of the book as Jeanne describes life in the city in the spring of 1917:

“To begin with the town was filled with refugees from other places as the Germans advanced. Then we were bombarded and the mayor gave the order to evacuate the town[…] They used to shell at night using flares to guide their fire. It was frightening. I went to the cathedral to help them take out the stained-glass windows. We wrapped them all up in blankets.”

The façade of the cathedral is incredibly ornate. Every night during the summer a stunning digital light show is projected onto it – make sure you go along, it is seriously impressive (and free – as is entry to the cathedral itself, at the time of publishing this article).

Amiens Town Hall [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Amiens Town Hall [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
2. The Town Hall. Isabelle’s husband Azaire is a town councillor, which is referred to at the outset with regard to his mistreatment of his factory workers. It also decides his fate in the war when the Germans occupy the city: “All men of service age were required to present themselves for deportation[…] Azaire, who saw his duty as a councillor to lie with the men of Amiens, went with them.”

3. The River Somme. This is the Somme. Its name has so many painful, terrible connotations and yet here the river flows gently along, blissfully unaware. Whole chapters of Birdsong describe the Battle of the Somme with unflinching clarity of expression.

The River Somme [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
The River Somme [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
4. No. 39, Boulevard du Cange. Only a few minutes’ walk from the Cathedral, on the other side of the Somme, the Boulevard du Cange is recognisable from Faulks’ description on the first page of his novel: a broad, quiet street; a rutted, leafy road. This is a street of unremarkable terraced houses, apart from one. There is no mistaking the inspiration for the Azaires’ house.

"The Azaires' house showed a strong, formal front towards the road from behind iron railings. The traffic looping down towards the river would have been in no doubt that this was the property of a substantial man. The slate roof plunged in conflicting angles to cover the irregular shape of the house. Beneath one of them a dormer window looked out on to the boulevard. The first floor was dominated by a stone balcony[...] There was a formidable front door with iron facings on the timber." No. 39 Boulevard du Cange [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
“The Azaires’ house showed a strong, formal front towards the road from behind iron railings. The traffic looping down towards the river would have been in no doubt that this was the property of a substantial man. The slate roof plunged in conflicting angles to cover the irregular shape of the house. Beneath one of them a dormer window looked out on to the boulevard. The first floor was dominated by a stone balcony[…] There was a formidable front door with iron facings on the timber.” [Image: No. 39 Boulevard du Cange; Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Hortillonages [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Hortillonages [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
5. Hortillonages. The Azaire family takes a boat trip through the floating water-gardens of Amiens with their friends. You can visit these gardens too, a wonderful experience in its own right let alone the chance it offers to live the experience of the characters. In an hour’s meander along the streams of the Somme, you pass by astonishing, hidden gardens used for growing market produce, for a relaxing weekend escape or as colourful riverside flowerbeds. This is truly one of the highlights of my whole trip: the epitome of slow living.

Though the boat trip in Birdsong is for pleasure, after drinking wine on an intensely hot day Stephen Wraysford does not enjoy it! Faulks shares Stephen’s thoughts in another clever foreshadowing of wartime experiences he will come to endure:

“He was repelled by the water-gardens: their hectic abundance seemed to him close to the vegetable fragility of death. The brown waters were murky and shot through with the scurrying of rats from the banks where the earth had been dug out of trenches and held back by elaborate wooden boarding. Heavy flies hung over the water, beneath the trees, dipping into the rotting tops of cabbages, asparagus and artichokes that had been left unpicked in their reckless prodigality. What was held to be a place of natural beauty was a stagnation of living tissue which could not be saved from decay.”

Hortillonages [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
A channel between two hortillonages – no rats, just the occasional lily pad [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Are you visiting Amiens or the battlefields? I’d love to hear about your own experiences that brought Birdsong to life.

Up High and Down Low (Kemmel to Arras)

La Targette French and British cemeteries [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

Today is a travelling day, and I’m heading from Ypres and Amiens via a few key places of interest!

1. Kemmel. Or is that Kemmelberg? When I was writing the Diary of the Great War in April and May this year, variations on the placename Kemmel cropped up frequently. What I couldn’t be sure of was whether Kemmel, Kemmel hill and Kemmelberg were the same thing. Before I left the UK, I pledged to seek out this place and clarify the situation in person.

One evening I was chatting to my B&B host in Ypres about the (literal) lay of the land in Flanders and he happened to say, “Have you seen Camel Hill? It is the highest hill in Flanders, but even that is only 150m high.” Translated to Flemish, that’s Kemmelberg! Driving to Kemmelberg today to see what it’s all about, I come to a small village called Kemmel, at its foot. So, there is a hill/berg, and there is a village. Problem solved! Onward to the summit. Sure enough, here is a proper big hill in the Flanders landscape, rising conspicuously out of the level surroundings just like a camel’s hump. It feels high (even though it is only a little taller than Caterpillar Crater was round) and I find this quick glimpse of the view from a hotel car park (the rest of Kemmelberg is heavily wooded):

The view from Kemmelberg [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
The view from Kemmelberg [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
What a view the Germans had from up here, and how Ypres must have been at the mercy of their guns! And what a feat to have fought on its steep and forested slopes.

When we arrived on 16 April 1918, Mount Kemmel was a nice spot, still heavily wooded and covered with cheerfully coloured flowers, looking for all the world like Clifton Grove in May. When we left, it was a tortured mass of brown earth, with splintered trees and a poisonous air you could hardly breathe. (A British soldier describes Kemmelberg)

2. Spanbroekmolen. I get a good view of the elevation of Kemmelberg from this place, also known as the Pool of Peace, another of the 19 craters created by the blasting of the Messines Ridge in June 1917. This one has been dedicated as a place of reflection and contemplation, now a lake within a small nature reserve. Just across the road I discovered the small, hidden Lone Tree Cemetery, a few graves in the corner of a farm.

Kemmelberg rising from the flat farmland of Flanders [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Kemmelberg rising from the flat farmland of Flanders [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
3. Béthune. I’ll be driving an indirect route around France to tick off some key Diary of the Great War locations (to prove to myself they exist in real life) and though I don’t stop for long, Béthune is one of them!

4. Vimy Ridge. An unplanned stop (because I’ve visited this place in the past) but popping into the Vimy Ridge visitor centre I realise that today I am effectively tracing the front of the Battle of Arras which took place in April-May 1917 (before the Battle of Messines and Passchendaele). Vimy Ridge is the site of one of the first major battles of this Arras offensive, beginning on 9th April 1917, another major Allied attack (Canadians this time) up a hill towards high ground held by the Germans. Vimy was a success. They took one side of the ridge here thanks to a “creeping” artillery barrage well-coordinated with the infantry advancing behind it.

I take a short walk around the preserved trench system that weaves between grassy shell holes and craters. Vimy Ridge is a key battlefield site – you wouldn’t want to miss the beautiful Canadian national memorial or the chance to visit the Canadian dugout and mining tunnels complete with soldiers’ graffiti carved into the walls.

Craters at Vimy Ridge [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Craters with buttercups at Vimy Ridge [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
5. Lichfield Crater. This crater was used as a burial place by the Canadians for their fallen comrades after the attack on Vimy Ridge. Near to the crater I spot a rusty WWI shell lying at the field-edge, recently unearthed after 100 years underground, unexploded. Back in the car, I am excited to see road signs in this area for places like Souchez which was mentioned in the Diary a huge amount in the summer of 1915, and Neuville-St-Vaast, location of the German underground ‘fortress’ known as the Labyrinth.

6. La Targette Cemetery. Here, vast British and French war cemeteries lie side by side.

7. Arras. I’ve no time to visit the city itself by the time I arrive as my main objective is Wellington Quarry. I get there at about 4:30pm and am the only person to sign up for the next tour – lucky me! Arras remained in Allied hands throughout the war (except for one day in 1914) though the German lines were nearby. Wearing our British Army tin helmets for “health and safety” (and the authentic war tourist experience), my tour guide and I descend into the man-made cave. New Zealand tunnellers began digging in March 1916 to connect this and other quarries and cellars  discovered by the British beneath Arras. They created a huge, secret “dug-out” that accommodated more than 24,000 soldiers and sheltered them from German shelling (and in WWII, sheltered civilians from air raids). Perhaps our own ‘labyrinth’.

This quarry was situated on the outskirts of Arras near to the German lines and in April 1917, troops were gathered in its tunnels ready to deliver an attack. After eight long days of waiting, on 9th April 1917 (in coordination with the attack on Vimy Ridge) they were unleashed on the unsuspecting Germans, emerging from their underground cavern straight onto the front line. The Germans were taken completely by surprise, and the battle was a great success for the Allies. It had only been intended as a diversionary tactic from the “real” attack to be delivered by the French at the Chemin des Dames in Artois.

La Targette French and British cemeteries [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
La Targette French and British cemeteries, near Arras [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

Authentic Ypres?

The (rebuilt) Cloth Hall in Ypres, home to the In Flanders Fields museum. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

Most of my last night in Ypres is spent in a Chinese restaurant, the only affordable (ish) place I could find that was open on a Thursday though far from the authentic fair I was hoping for. From my window seat, I can see a huge stage being erected in the street next to the Cloth Hall. The waitress tells me that there is a rock music festival tomorrow. In soundcheck, the heavy booming bass rattles the restaurant’s windows and the waitress covers her ears and tells me, with a look of panic, that it is much too loud. My mind drifts back to Ypres 100 years before and the sounds that shook the city then.

What is Ypres? I walk through the historic streets and my imagination wants to picture British ‘Tommies’ strolling along, smoking cigarettes and leaning on street corners. But this city was set alight by the Germans in 1914 and they bombarded it for years from the high ground to the east (Passchendaele, Messines, and so on). The soldiers who came to ‘Wipers’, as they called it, would only have known it in ruins.

Historic Ypres is an illusion. The whole city centre looks as old as Bruges but it is less than 100 years old! The Belgians understandably wanted their beautiful old city back after the war destroyed it and so they carefully reconstructed it in the original style, including the “mediaeval” Cloth Hall. It was paid for by German reparations.

Reading and drinking the Wipers Times in Wipers [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
When in Wipers… [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
Today it is a city of only 1500 residents – barely the size of a town – and it clearly relies heavily on the ‘war tourist’. Many of the shops sell wartime memorabilia and souvenirs, school groups on educational visits queue at the chocolate shops, and bars and restaurants teem with those who have come to witness the Menin Gate ceremony.

Architectural heritage is a powerful expression of the spirit of a place but can you bring back what has been lost simply by rebuilding the façade? Does the true soul of the city reside in these unblighted bricks? I openly admit that I have not sought out another side to this place but my impression of Ypres today is that it is primarily a hub for wartime remembrance, much like it was a hub for wartime activity 100 years ago. This city was scarred not just physically but emotionally and that could never be concealed by reconstruction.

Tonight, I am a ‘war tourist’ myself. My evening concludes at St Arnoldus Speciaal Biercafe, which has 25 local beers on tap and a Poperinghe atmosphere. My choice is easy: a glass of ‘Wipers Times’, to go with the book I have brought with me to read.