The Somme

Monday 28th June 2010, Amiens, La Somme, Picardie
Tonight finds us right in the heart of the battlefields of the First World War. As we have driven through the countryside today we have passed several war graves cemeteries. The first was near last night's campsite on the outskirts of Soissons. It is a national cemetery for French soldiers. We were surprised that there was nothing written about it at the site, not even a book of remembrance. Alone in the cemetery we walked beneath the burning sun along row after row of headstones to young French soldiers who died in the surrounding fields. To judge by the dates, the worst of the battle ranged around Soissons and Compiegne in 1916. We were surprised at the number of Muslim headstones for soldiers from French colonies in North Africa, fighting for the Patrie. It is something we had not realised before.

First World War French cemetery, Ambleny

Muslim headstones in the French war graves cemetery at Ambleny

When we last passed through Northern France in 2007 we visited the huge French cemetery at Verdun. We found it both a moving and harrowing experience. Reading through that account we seem to have captured the futility, horror and bravery of the young soldiers on both sides embroiled in such dreadful carnage.

Today we were heading towards Amiens but we stopped to investigate Noyon on the way. We knew nothing of this little town when we arrived. It seems to have been dealt a very bad hand throughout history yet it remains a pleasant place with some attractive buildings and very friendly people. If only the town council would employ a street sweeper it would look so much more cared for. This could be said of almost every French town; cleaning the streets is not high on their list of priorities.

Noyon has a large, towering cathedral. From the outside it looks stark, bare, pock-marked and damaged. The inside however is much nicer with its graceful, early gothic arches and high columns. It was here that the Emperor Charlemagne was crowned King of the Franks in 768. During the French Revolution the building was completely sacked, every single statue and image on the outside being wantonly destroyed while the inside was used as a public bar and dance hall. In 1799 attempts were made to raze it to the ground, but wiser counsels prevailed.

Then, during the First World War the town found itself at the centre of the fighting, passing back and forth between the Germans and French. It was mercilessly bombarded and the walls of the cathedral, both inside and out are riddled with shrapnel damage.

During the Second World War the town had the misfortune to find itself in the line of the German troops as they advanced on Paris. In 1940 a shell landed in the cathedral close to one of the main columns and other damage was suffered.

Noyon has struggled, time and again to undo the ravages of war and revolution. So it is small wonder that the town wears so many battle scars and its cathedral initially appears bare and ugly. Its shattered tympanum is a monument to the pointless destruction caused by revolutionary fanatics and its shrapnel scarred walls record the tragic futility of the fighting here during the First World War.

Stark exterior to Noyon cathedral after damage during the French Revolution and two World Wars

Images hacked from the entrance portal of Noyon cathedral during the French Revolution

Still awaiting restoration, a chapel beside Noyon cathedral

Behind the cathedral, Noyon

The sun was beating down on the vast, open plain of Northern France as we left Noyon. Searching for some shade we turned off towards some woodland marked on Ian's map. Most woodlands are managed, used either for forestry or hunting so they are generally cordoned off and inaccessible. We were lucky, managing to pull off the road, climb over the barrier and set up our picnic just inside the shady woodland. It was cool with the sound of birdsong,

After lunch we were immediately out onto the baking plain with nothing to alleviate the sun's glare. We headed straight for Amiens, on the banks of the Somme. Straight is definitely the right word. The roads are die-straight, cutting right across the plain. It was possible to see the cathedral long before we reached Amiens, which turned out to be bigger and busier than we had expected. It has a population of around 140,000.

Entering the city we were fortunate in finding a shady side street for Modestine and made our way through the hot streets to the city centre. Amiens, like so many of the towns of Northern France, suffered badly during the Second World War, and much of the city is modern. There is considerable use of brick as a building material and parts of the town struck us as Flemish in style.

Railway station and post 2nd World War architecture, Amiens

The glory of Amiens is its cathedral, listed, with full justification, on the Unesco World Heritage list. It is the largest cathedral in France, if not Europe, surpassing both Reims and Chartres. Early gothic in style it dates from 1220-1270. Its ornate west facade has a stunning rose window, triple entrance portal and twin towers. Inside its soaring gothic arches give it a light and airy feel. Much of the stained glass is intact with coloured light streaming through the rose window.

Amiens cathedral

Ornate west front of the cathedral, Amiens

Rose window, West front of Amiens cathedral

Rose window, Amiens cathedral

Chancel, Amiens cathedral

Columns and clearstory windows, Amiens cathedral

Marble maze, intended for those unable to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They could follow the maze instead. Amiens cathedral

There are some wonderful screens with stone carvings depicting the life of St. John the Baptist and the life and martyrdom of St. Firmin, who brought Christianity to Amiens in the 4th century.

Stone carvings depicting the life of St. John the Baptist, Amiens cathedral

Stone carvings depicting the life of St. Firmin, Amiens cathedral

We were particularly intrigued to discover not only a small relic of St. John the Baptist, but his entire skull! It looked remarkably small. It would seem that once his head had been cut off and given to Salome, the rest of his body was buried, as mentioned in the gospels. During the crusades his head was discovered and brought back to Amiens.

The skull of St. John the Baptist, (Seen through glass and an iron grill.) Amiens cathedral

There are also British memorials to the dead soldiers of the First World War, including a personal one recording the death of the eldest son of Lord Asquith, Britain's Prime Minister at that time. Over 1,000,000 soldiers from Britain and its colonies lost their lives on the plains of Northern France where most of them lie buried. On a tomb behind the high altar we discovered a weeping cherub, carved by Amiens sculptor Nicholas Blasset in the 17th century. He apparently touched the imagination of many British soldiers in Amiens who sent postcards of him back home to their families.

Plaque in memory of Raymond Asquith, son of Britain's Prime Minister, Amiens cathedral

Weeping cherub, Amiens cathedral

Over the last two days we have seen three of the huge gothic cathedrals of northern France: Laon, Noyon and Amiens. Two are stunningly beautiful and seem to have miraculously escaped the worst ravages of both World Wars. That poor Noyon suffered so badly is not surprising, given its location directly on the line of the German advancement towards, and retreat from, Paris. It is amazingly fortunate that Laon and Amiens did not suffer similar bombardment. And how did Amiens and Laon manage to survive the excesses of the French Revolution unscathed?

Amongst the illustrious names linked with the city is that of the science fiction writer, Jules Verne who died in Amiens in 1905.

We had spent so long exploring the cathedral there was little time left to explore the rest of Amiens. Returning to Modestine we found a campsite listed on the outskirts of the town. It was a long trip round the outer ring road in the rush hour to reach it and it has nowhere near enough shade but darkness has now fallen and we have survived yet another hot day.

Ornate late19th century clock restored in 2000, Amiens

Tuesday 29th June 2010, Veules-les-Roses, Haute-Normandie
Today has been far more restful. In part this is because we are back on the Normandy coast and there is a gentle sea breeze blowing in from the Channel which freshens the air most wonderfully! Oh how we have missed the sea during the hot weather, deep into Europe. Today it has been a mere 29 degrees maximum!

This morning we drove through a mixture of lanes, woodland and flat, open countryside, passing through pretty villages of brick cottages, smothered with climbing roses. At Crouy-St.-Pierre we turned off to visit a small British war graves cemetery from the 1914-18 war. It stands on the agricultural plain a short distance from the village. Such cemeteries are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and soldiers from Australia, and Canada are also laid to rest there. In a corner there are a few graves of German soldiers as well. So many of the young men fell within days of each other and most were only in their early twenties. What can have induced national governments to send so many of their young men to be slaughtered out on these wide empty plains so needlessly? Such a loss and so much misery for their families. We are so blessed to have lived in such relatively peaceful times! It struck us as quite likely that many of these young men from the First World War, buried in a foreign land, may have recently become fathers, may perhaps never even have seen their baby sons. Those same sons, just a generation later, in the Second World War, may also have laid down their lives at much the same age, and like their fathers, lie buried in a foreign land, just a short distance along the coast in Normandy. Two lost generations! Two generations of children destined to grow up without fathers.

We have to say, the War Graves Commission has created worthy resting places for these soldiers of both World Wars, in Picardy and in Normandy. There was a wonderful atmosphere of peace at Crouy and today the sun shone down on the rows of headstones each with the name, dates, rank and regiment of the buried soldier. Around the graves red roses bloomed and flowers were massed in the surrounding beds. Dappled shade came from apple trees set into the smoothly mown lawn.

Roses are blooming in Picardy. British and Commonwealth war graves cemetery, Crouy-St.-Pierre

Further along, at Bourdon, we came to a German cemetery containing the dead of the Second World War. In the 1960s Germany started to bring together, from scattered graves, its soldiers who had fallen in the Somme area during the German advance into France in June 1940, and their retreat from Paris in late July/early August 1944. They were reinterred in the newly formed German cemetery at Bourdon where 22,216 are now buried.

Plaque at the German war graves cemetery, Bourdon, Picardie

Germany has its own way of honouring its war dead. The German War Graves Commission is a private association with over 90% of its funding coming from members' contributions, voluntary donations and legacies. From these it maintains German war graves and runs youth camps to involve young people, actively helping in the cemeteries, so that they learn to understand the horror of war and the need for peace. The German cemetery is peacefully set on rising ground overlooking the Somme. The stone crosses stand in offset rows, each with the names of three soldiers on each side. At the centre stands a heavy, circular, stone monument. The inside is lit by a round hole in the roof and four small openings. At the centre a stone sculpture represents the pain felt by every mother in the world at losing her son to war. It is heavy and Germanic, but very moving.

Memorial in the German cemetery representing the misery of every mother who has lost her son in war, Bourdon

WW2 German cemetery, Bourdon

Germany really suffered appalling losses during the Second World War, not just here on the Somme, but also on the Eastern Front with Russia, where the losses were far greater. There are so many Germans of our age today who have never known their fathers. This is the case with our own German friends for whom their fathers were never more than a faded photo and a difficult, lonely childhood without siblings.

We passed several other, small British and Commonwealth cemeteries from the 1914-18 war as we drove westwards, crossing the Somme several times until we reached its estuary. Already the air felt fresher as we parked Modestine in St.Valery-sur-Somme and walked down to the river to watch the fishing boats and pleasure craft chugging their way out towards the open sea against the incoming tide. The little town is delightful, full of pretty cottages, many still using red brick. Hanging baskets and pretty gardens gave colour to the main street with its little shops and restaurants. The town is supposed to be mediaeval but we cannot believe the village, delightful as it was, was that ancient. So where the cité mediévale was, we don't know. The town is twinned with Battle in Sussex. It was from St.Valery-sur-Somme that William the Conqueror set out to invade England in 1066.

Stone commemorating William the Conqueror setting out for the south coast of England and the Battle of Hastings, St.Valery-sur-Somme

Estuary of the Somme, St.Valery-sur-Somme

Charming brick cottage typical of the region, St.Valery-sur-Somme

For the rest of the afternoon we have pottered along the coast, inhaling great gulps of fresh sea air. We've been standing on cliff-tops looking out across the bright azure sea as white gulls wheeled above us, and walking in shady woodland listening to the sound of chaffinches and blackbirds. After skirting Dieppe we stopped at Varengueville-sur-Mer, with its picturesque old church overlooking the sea with views along to the white cliffs around Le Tréport.

Decorated column in the little clifftop church of Varengueville-sur-Mer, Haute-Normandie

Impressive modern glass window (2000) depicting the crucifixion in the church of Varengueville-sur-Mer, Haute-Normandie

This stretch of the coastline of Upper Normandy was appreciated by the Impressionist painters, particularly Monet, both for the quality of its light and its many Parisian visitors whom they could paint.

Coastal view from the graveyard of the church at Varengueville-sur-Mer, Haute-Normandie

At St. Marguerite-sur-Mer we turned off to find the lighthouse on the cliff top. I was convinced I'd stayed in a little hotel there over forty years ago. Things change though and we could not find the hotel. Indeed, I strongly suspect even the lighthouse is more recent that the one I vaguely recall!

We'd intended reaching Fécamp tonight but as usual our travels have taken far longer than expected. So we've stopped at this campsite at Veules-les-Roses for the night. Now the sun has finally decided to sink from the sky the air is fresh and cool for the first time in weeks, it seems. We may even need to use our duvet tonight. Oh joy! Tomorrow we are expected back in Caen for a few nights while Ian completes some research he needs to do in the Departmental Archives.