northern france's war history
Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends. Or perhaps his country. Jonathan Crouch takes his family - and an Infiniti M30d - on a journey to the Pas-de-Calais region of Northern France to search out the wartime stories of men who ninety-five years ago, did both.
Just over a hill at the side of the little road that leads from the French town of Heninel to Croisilles lies a small military cemetery. Small, that is, in size. Not in meaning. For here amongst headstones bleached white in nearly a century of summer sun lie buried forever stories of bravery, acts of heroism and the lives of ordinary people asked to do extraordinary things for a country they didn't know, fighting a war they didn't understand. The Great War extracted a Great price.
In a sense, Britain still pays it. How different a country would ours have been had it had the service of the millions of lives frittered away in the conflagration that enveloped Europe between 1914 and 1918? And of the millions more who died in Hitler's nightmare little more than two decades later? In both conflicts, Northern France provided arguably the principle theatre of war, but especially so in the First World War when the world's two greatest armies faced each other across a bloody line that bisected France in two.
The geometry of the line pivoted back and forth depending on the results of skirmishes that saw whole platoons and regiments sacrificed for the acquisition of little towns like the one just a few kilometres from where I found myself standing one August afternoon at the entrance to the Heninel to Croisilles Road Cemetery. The fight for Heninel didn't change the course of the War but the larger battle it was a part of around the nearby city of Arras did. It's now just a footnote in history for most on our side of the Channel but for those who live in this closest part of Northern France, the Pas-de-Calais region, it's a harder chapter to forget.
'Take the A1 south from Calais and Arras, one of the very first cities you hit, is speckled with little British military cemeteries, each with rows upon rows of bleached British headstone reminders of lives that were lost...'
Take the A1 south from Calais and Arras, one of the very first cities you hit, is speckled with little British military cemeteries, each with rows upon rows of bleached British headstone reminders of lives that were lost. 'Something I've always wanted to see', so many have told me. But somehow they never go. Buy a poppy. Pray for peace. Put it to the back of your mind. I was one of those. Until this year, my wife and I decided to visit. Take our young daughters Caris, Ellie and Amy. Show them what really happened. What I'd have lived and maybe died for if but for a twist of fortune I'd have been born seventy years earlier. Make it real.
Not easy at the wheel of an Infiniti M30d, an Executive saloon lacking few conceivable luxuries, an incongruous thing to use when researching a war in which men slept among rats that gorged themselves on human flesh. A world of trench warfare in which dirt and stench were an unwelcome but inevitable fact of everyday life. For us, in contrast, there was French cuisine and a variety of very comfortable kinds of affordable accommodation. Holiday Inns in Calais and Arras. Bed & Breakfasts in Montreuil and Bethune.
Very different of course, from the conditions that the British troops faced ninety years ago. From the cliffs of the Cap Blanc Nez near Calais having smoothly emerged from a rapid Eurotunnel crossing, we imagined their lurching container ship journey across the Channel. And the from the French ports down to Etaples for military training so cruelly arduous that even mild-mannered 'Tommys' were moved to briefly revolt in 1917. It's here that the largest military cemetery in the area lies, rather disappointingly sandwiched between an express railway line and an arterial highway. Fortunately, it doesn't matter. You could set this place with its neat little rows upon headstone rows in the middle of Spaghetti Junction and it would still feel solemn and peaceful.
Like the pockmarked cratered Forest of Vimy Ridge where a gigantic memorial to over 11,000 Canadian First World War fallen dominates the landscape. It was here, as the kids played in the perfectly preserved First World War trenches, that I really felt they were beginning to get it. The previous afternoon had seen them 20m underground in Arras' Wellington Quarry, the gathering place for thousands of British troops who sprang out of it at 5am on 9th April 1917 to start the Battle of Arras. To complete the picture, we visited the quiet, cold deserted German cemetery, rows upon rows of dark, sad little crosses near the town of Neuville-Saint-Vaast. And the impressive French cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette, the crosses this time cream against blood red roses and somehow just as sad.
By the time we pointed the Infiniti northwards and back towards home once more, the mood in the car was different. The end of a trip that had changed us. And how often does a holiday do that?
FACTS AT A GLANCE
THE FIRST WORLD WAR HISTORY OF NORTHERN FRANCE - PAS-DE-CALAIS REGION
Where to visit?:
- Cap Blanc Nez [cliffs near Calais]
- Etaples Military Cemetery [the largest Commonwealth Military cemetery in France]
- Wellington Quarry in Arras [the Allies gathering place prior to the Battle of Arras]
- Vimy Ridge [the Canadian Monument & First World War trenches]
- Notre Dame de Lorette [French Military Cemetery]
Where to stay?:
Bed & Breakfast suggestions - [Montreuil] www.levertbocage-fourdinier.com / [Bethune] La Ferme du Beau Marais
Hotel suggestions - [Calais-Coquelles] Holiday Inn / [Arras] www.holidayinn-arras.com