Tuesday, 8 May 2018

1918 – 2018 To the Somme again Part 2

Detail of Thiepval Memorial, Picardie

Euston Road Cemetery was peaceful yes, but there was a strong wind, just as there was when I first visited it, in 2011. Like a reminder. Wind as presence, wind as monitor, wind as scribe too. Commentator. You won’t forget, not with this wind.

We drive on to Beaumont-Hamel where it is still windy, sun still shines. The fields and trees are green, their branches spread out wide and even. The trenches are green too, so different from how they must have looked 100 years ago. They curve, wind and zigzag between conifers and lime trees, planted since then, since 100 years ago.



The wind is here too, messenger and marker, the carrier of memories – some picked up, some delivered to your door, some distributed through all your cells, not just brain or sight or hearing, but through fingers, through the light hairs on your skin that react without your volition, before you have time to tell yourself it is just imagination.
And it’s gone.

And we go on to the Thiepval Memorial, thick and squat and solid. Dense as the forest of lives it names, those whose bodies were not found. On a slight rise, looking out over a valley. In a way, it offers shelter and support and it is vaulted like a place of prayer but it is also open to the sky.



The wind here is so strong you cannot stand up straight you have to lean into the brickwork.
Is it always windy in these places? The air howls and whistles around the dense, defiant towers. Red brick, furious. Golden sandstone, compassionate.

Does the wind always blow so hard, does it always moan and sing here as if the brickwork and stones form an instrument it blows through, a giant reed the air presses itself against, to produce this chanting and these rhythms and this song?


On to Albert where we stayed the night, with an excellent meal at the Hotel Basilique just across the road from the Church Notre Dame des Brebières where we saw an unexpected treat in the evening – a light show projected against the wall of the Basilique. This year 2018 is of course the anniversary of the 1918 armistice and it is being marked in many ways across France.


Sons et lumières  by Video Mapping Festival  are being shown in different regions and it just happened to be in Albert that week. It depicted the destruction of the Basilique in the war and the legend that when Our Lady fell from the top, (it happened in 1918) that would mean the end of the war.

Friday, 4 May 2018

1918 – 2018 To the Somme again Part 1


The contrast could hardly have been greater. The first time
was after research spread out over years, but concentrated in the last 2 days (in November 2011), fired by determination to find out where my grandfather’s grave was. (The reason for the difficulties is recounted in Looking for Private Smith.) And shortly after discovering the location in Picardie, in the Somme area, I went there on my own in December 2011, when I was on the way to Strasbourg. I took the overnight bus to Paris, trains to Amiens and Albert, and finally, a taxi to Euston Road cemetery, Colincamps. I didn’t have long, as I had to make the return journey to Paris, and then on to Strasbourg.

This time I went with family, and we drove all the way, no timetables to keep to, no changes to negotiate, from bus to train, no luggage to carry with me through metro and train stations. What luxury! We left London early in the morning. April and spring, trees in their first green, K driving brilliantly, first to Folkestone, through the tunnel, then emerging into the wide green of the French countryside, with its wide blue sky, and we reached Arras by mid-day.

Flight to Arras by Antoine de Saint Exupéry was one of the books I remember in the family bookcase when I was a child, though I didn’t read it then, it would be many years before I did.

In the car, the 3 of us agreed that we would have to see Arras, we would stop there for coffee and croissants.

The main square in Arras is more than I had dared to dream of. Reconstructed age, facades carved with roses, sheaves of corn, a Flemish look, a Northern elegance of style and tile colour and crow-stepped gable ends. The vast cobble stone square is empty, roped off, and little grass tufts grow in places between the cobble stones. 

The second square has market stalls and suddenly, the sun appears. At the far end, the large cream building of the Town Hall, with the Clock Tower, the bell tower with its smooth green sculpted bells you go past as you climb the upper spiral steps. 

You come out onto the balcony, beneath the clock, so close in fact that if you stretch with your finger tips you could touch the huge and turning hand of Time. You could slow the hour if you so wished – or you could imagine that it could be done.

Looking down from the bell tower: first square in the background, top left

We climbed down, re-crossed the square, went back to the first one, walked under the arcades and lunched on omelettes and salad, washed down with red wine.

The sun stays out, and afterwards we drive on along the narrow roads, pass through Agny, Ransard, Hannescamps, Fonquevillers, Sailly-au-bois then Colincamps and out on the flat fields the trees are in their newest leaf, most recently-created green, with hints of yellow-gold and the pinkish lilac-bronze of the copper beech.

When we approached the Euston Road cemetery on the narrow, empty road, trees rising from the flat fields, inside a low brick wall – I recognized the trees.

We pull up before the cemetery, all quiet-gathered in the peaceful sun and an emotion meets me at the gate, like an embrace. The light-green trees wave too and I’m convinced that I am recognized. That’s what it feels like. These are the freshest of new leaves, with the fluttering excitement of youth, but somewhere, deeper in the trees’ hearts, some ring of growth remembers me.