On our Saturday (19th May) shopping expedition, we went in search of a caravan shop to look at satellite dishes for the new Tokai 12volt TV. The reception is ropey and subject to interference from weather, power lines, trees, traffic etc. It constantly re-tunes itself, looking for the best signal and our neighbour in the port told us that the best reception is via a digibox and satellite dish. We headed out of town on the road marked as the N29 on our roadmap. It's now the D1029 that leads to the large shopping centre at Fayet. MWNN
had wanted to eat at one of the brasseries in the Mall, having watched the 'suits' lunch there when he visited the boat in February. We both ordered the plat du jour that everyone else seemed to be eating today - beef in a wine sauce. When our plats arrived, there were no frites, just a mound of very inferior tartiflet, but for 10 Euros, we weren't complaining. (Although I was later to regret it as this
is where I got food poisoning.)
We then headed north on what should have been the N44 and is now the D1044, but we couldn't find a caravan shop. What we DID find was some more WWI military cemeteries. The first was a signpost - 250m west to the 4th Australian division memorial We duly turned left and after about a kilometre, saw another sign pointing at the war memorial way up on the hill, some 2-3 km distant. The track was so full of pot holes, MWNN decided to go no further. We now know this
is the memorial that is visible from the Motorway back to Calais that we have passed many times not knowing whose memorial it was. We turned back to the next sign which pointed east to two British cemeteries, the first at La Baraque was tucked away at the end of the village, the visitors' book and list of casualties set in the stone wall beside the ungated entrance with its stone monument.
The second of the British cemeteries - Uplands - was the most poignant for me. It's a tiny cemetery with about 45 graves within a neatly clipped hedge, the entrance gates have shifted on their hinges and wouldn't open, so we were forced to climb the drystone wall that fronted the site. Most of the dead were from the Lancashire fusiliers, the remainder from the Manchester regiment and only two from the Royal Artillery. All died between 29th September and 4th October, 1918, most on 29th, all within sight of the end of the war. Each grave was carefully tended and planted with low growing plants, pinks, dwarf roses, and other delicate flowers. There was a human scale not present in the larger cemeteries; here lay young men who had lived and died together in these fields. No visitors' book or list of graves here at the top of the hill, just a sense of nothing much having changed in the 90 years that have passed. My mother's uncle, my great-uncle Tommy was killed in action in WWI and most likely would have served with the Manchester Regiment. Perhaps he lies in one of the graves marked 'A soldier of the great war'.
Click for slideshow
We then drove 9km further north to the USA memorial at and the Somme Cemetery at Bony. The contrast with the British cemeteries was great; heavy bronze gates lead the way to the freshly mowed lawns; the Stars and Stripes flies from the top of a tall flagpole in the middle of the pristine rows of marble crosses and star of David grave markers; loud speakers above the stone gateposts broadcast the sound of electronic bells playing the star spangled banner. Hundreds of Americans are buried here, row upon row of young men from New York who died in the push to break the Hindenberg line at the end of September 1918. Many names were of German origin, a few Jewish, three who won the highest military honours and died after acts of extreme courage in defence of their fellow comrades. Fewer of the fallen were from other parts of the US; Texas, Ohio; the vast majority were from New York and New Jersey.
Both American and Brit cemetaries we visited were being 'tended' as we toured the grounds. Some graves even had temporary markers because the stones were being refurbished. The curator at the Somme cemetary (a French woman) has a house on site attached to the visitors' centre.
I never realised why the American cemeteries are so much bigger than everyone else's before this cruise. We went into the visitors' centre at the Somme and read in the book showing European War Grave Memorials that the US tended to collect its war dead and bury them in a central spot marked with a memorial, whereas the Brits buried theirs close to where they were killed, alongside the local population and beside French military graveyards. For some reason, this makes the Brit cemeteries very poignant as it is easier to imagine that small group of comrades living and dying together on the battlefield close to where they are buried. By comparison, the US memorials strike one as almost Imperialistic and full of military pomp because the scale is just so vast.
This isn't a criticism, just an observation about the sheer scale of the US memorials compared to those of the other Allies. The Uplands' cemetary is dominated by soldiers from the Manchester and Lancashire regiments (my home town). I was really overcome with emotion at that one, particularly as the gates were stuck and we had to climb the wall to get in. My great uncle Tommy would probably have served with the Manchester or Lancashire regiment (I have yet to look up his record at Kew). He would have been between 19-24 when he was killed, leaving a young widow and child(ren?). My mother has only very vague memories of her aunt and cousin(s) and didn't know her uncle Tommy at all.
As we cruise through this area, we are aware that this is a very different France from the one we left in Burgundy last autumn. The country lanes here are flanked with poppies, seeds that have flowered with the ploughing of the land rather than artillery shelling. The US cemetery at Bony is just a couple of km north of the American memorial that stands atop the Riqueval tunnel through which we travelled on our way south in 2000. The map on one wall of the enormous edifice shows the military lines of 1918 and overlooks the battlefields of the final stages of the 'War to end all wars'