November is upon us and with it the familiar sight of Poppy Sellers for the Royal British Legion. How many know the story of the Poppy, the First World War or have journeyed to the area where millions gave their lives in the name of ‘Freedom’.
My journey began on a late autumn morning in the port of Dover where I boarded the P&O ferry Pride of Canterbury. Cloudless blue sky, smooth seas and a warm breeze, what better way to cross those 22 miles across the English Channel to Calais. Ensconced in the comfortable Le Brassier Restaurant with good food and service the 90 minute crossing passes quickly.
Out of Calais Port we head southeast on the A26 to Arras, the only town on the front line for the duration of WW1. Arrival at The Wellington Quarry where underground tunnels, now a tourist feature within the ‘Memorial de la Bataille D ’Arras’, housed up to 24,000 British soldiers in less than comfortable conditions. Visit the Town hall where further tunnels can be explored or take the lift to the bell tower, climb the small winding staircase and out into the sunshine for a view that that exceeds spectacular.
Our hotel is the well-appointed Najeti Hôtel de L'univers only a short stroll from the Grand Place. Tastefully decorated rooms, comfortable lounges and good restaurant. Dinner that night is taken at the Anagram Restaurant in Grand Place. A very modern establishment exuding a great atmosphere and excellent food where due to the open style kitchen arrangement you can actually see your food being prepared and cooked. Dinner over its a stroll around the main squares of the city showing this to be a city of young people amongst beautiful old buildings that at night have their tops flood lit giving a fairy tale appearance.
Next morning, an early start to meet our guide Yvres at the La Maison Blanche German military cemetery, Neuville-Saint-Vaast. The simple grey crosses, each one identifying 4 graves, are a stark difference to the white headstones found in the cemeteries of the allies. Standing in the centre of the cemetery you appreciate the enormity of it. This is the final resting place of nearly 45,000 German soldiers, over 8,000 of whom were never identified. At the highest point standing over 20 feet high is a simple grey cross again a stark difference to that found in the allies cemeteries.
It is then onward to La Targette Cemetery where French white crosses stand in perfect line showing the graves of nearly 11,500 French soldiers, whilst to the right, a section with white headstones depicting the 638 British soldiers buried there. Photographs taken its back in the mini bus heading for Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery in Souchez where over 6,500 Commonwealth soldiers are buried, with over half of them unidentified. Again row upon row of white headstones upright and in perfect line from every angle you look. Some with inscriptions but many just saying ‘A Soldier of the Great War’ ‘Known unto God’. By now the enormity of the conflict is starting to dawn on me and with it the number of young soldiers who were never identified. The sun is shining and the air is warm, a contrast to what it was like at times when the battle raged.
The nearby Lens 14-18 War and Peace History Centre, opened in June 2015, apart from telling the story of the local battle contains many pictures and artefacts that have been found in the area making it worth a visit and entrance is free.
The French National Necropolis of Notre Dame de Lorette, is the world's largest French military cemetery so named after the plateau, 500 feet above sea level, on which it is built. Here lie the remains of nearly 45,000 French soldiers. The Lantern Tower inaugurated in August 1925 stands 150 feet high and within is the chapel housing 32 oak coffins with the remains of unknown soldiers. After sunset the beacon light atop the tower revolves 5 times a minute, pin pointing this memorial up to 45 miles away. The basilica built between 1921-1927 exhibits a mosaic ceiling matched by few and is accentuated by its altar. The Notre Dame de Lorette statue stands to the right of the main altar and the tomb of Monseigneur Eugene Julien, Bishop of Arras to the left. To me a place of haunting beauty, tranquility and somewhere to reflect.
Across the way stands the newly erected International Memorial known as ‘The Ring of Remembrance’, the bronze coloured panels built in a ring to form a continuous link. The panels are inscribed with nearly 600,000 names in alphabetical order representing all nationalities, allies and enemy alike making it one of the largest memorials in the world.
Lunch is had at Al’polee d’Landre a small restaurant at the foot of Notre Dame Lorette hill. Full of memorabilia, piano, old motor cycle, pictures, clocks and even a set of bagpipes. The food is excellent as is the wine to wash it down with. A short journey takes us to the Canadian National History Site at Vimy Ridge. Set trees of Pine and Maple it tells the story of Canadian Forces at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The trenches and grounds are there to be explored but the true gem is the magnificent Canadian National Vimy Memorial. Two white columns gleaming in the late autumn sunshine towering 45 metres high. One bears the Maple Leaf, the other, the Fleur de Leys. A memory to the 60,000 Canadians who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Great War, over 11,000 of whom have no known grave.
On the journey to Lille for our overnight stop the picture of that beautiful memorial haunts my memory. Booking in at the Novotel Lille, a modern hotel in the centre of the city, is quick and easy. Room 404 on the 4th floor is a double with a lovely bathroom that not only has a bath with shower attachment but also a separate shower cabin. Tea/coffee making facilities are in the room, flat screen television and a wonderfully comfy bed. The Wi-Fi is free and of good speed. Dinner is taken at the excellent L’Estaminet Lille, a small restaurant with a wonderful atmosphere and food to match. A choice of the main menu or ‘specials’. I order the Carbonnade and what an excellent choice this turns out to be washed down with a very pleasant Rosé wine.
After a comfortable night’s sleep and breakfast its hit the road again, this time to Pheasant Wood Cemetery-Fromelles the only cemetery to have been built by the British and Commonwealth War Graves Commission since WW2. The last resting place of 249 soldiers, mainly Australian, found in two mass graves in 2009, many of whom thanks to the advancement of DNA have been identified. The bodies were exhumed and reburied with full military honours in 2010. Alongside the cemetery is the Museum that tells of the Battle of Fromelles where 5,500 Australian soldiers lost their lives in 24 hours.
A short distance away, the Australian Memorial Park featuring the statue ‘Cobbers’ depicting Sergeant Simon Fraser carrying a wounded comrade. The name comes from the famous letter written by Fraser a few days after the battle in which he mentions a wounded comrade who calls out ‘Don’t forget me Cobber’. The carrying of the wounded comrade is a reminder that for 3 days after the battle soldiers went into no man’s land to rescue their wounded comrades and bring them home.
Lunch at Le Terminus in Lille, a bar-brasserie produces excellent food at a very reasonable cost and is certainly to be recommended. My cheese and ham omelette was the biggest and tastiest I had eaten in a very long time and the sweet, a fusion of fruits in juice, sweetmeats, cream brulee and a wonderful chocolate mousse washed down with Rosé wine making for an excellent final meal in France.
Our last afternoon is spent at Cite Bonjean Military Cemetery in Armentieres. Again row upon row of white headstones some with personal inscriptions whilst others have the inscription I have become familiar with over the last few days ‘A soldier of the Great war’ ‘Known Unto God’.
I often wonder why the 1914-18 war is called The Great War and conclude it can only be due to the horrendous loss of life on both sides. They came from all over the Commonwealth to assist Britain. From Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada and many more, young men in their teens answered the call for help, sons, fiancées, husbands, and they paid the price. 17 million died and 20 million were injured in the conflict. Some of the epitaphs on their headstones are heart wrenching, ‘Our Harry Lies Here’, ‘In Loving memory of My Dear Son’, ‘The Country Called, He Answered’ and the one that brought a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat ‘A Mothers Loss, The Nations Gain, From His Loving Mother’. This is a journey that everyone should make at least once in their lifetime. For me, it’s time to head for Calais and the P&O Ferry ‘Spirit of France’ to take me home to my family unlike those I have left behind.
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Alan Fairfax -
is a travel writer for
YOUR HOLIDAY TV
Alan also writes for the
Ashford Advertiser Media Group with regional papers across Kent with regular holiday & travel sections in all editions
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