Posts Tagged ‘Chemin des Dames’

Europe, war and the imagination

June 29, 2016

It’s a century since the start of the Battle of the Somme this coming Friday, July 1. Before I start this post, honour to the memory of those who died!

I’ve been reflecting on human imagination, and more specifically mine, in the context of the Great War. Obviously many writers, from those who lived through the events and times and wrote in prose and verse – and who didn’t need to use their imaginations because they were there – to those who have written much more recently, and mainly novels, have been able to put words onto the page, which have shown readers over the years the nature and effect of the war, and the havoc it wreaked.

I have been so fascinated by what they wrote, that I taught First World War literature at school for a good number of years, and always with a focus on messages for us as readers today: what might we learn? how might we behave differently? And this fascination has led me, in recent years, to make a number of visits to various battlefields: relatively brief excursions in Flanders, but two lengthier explorations of the Somme, and visits to the Chemin des Dames and the Verdun battlefield, by way of seeing the war from a French perspective.

So I have walked some of the ground. I have seen some of the places where the carnage took place. I have mementos – some fragments of barbed wire from Mametz Wood and a machine-gun cartridge case from the outskirts of Peronne. I’ve walked French and German and British war cemeteries, seen the French memorial at Douaumont and the British one at Thiepval.

2016-04-19 10.41.03 verdun

And I’m still stunned. My imagination is defeated totally by the scale of it all. I’ve stood at the Lochnagar Crater and thought, God, you could get half my street in that! but can’t begin to conceive what it could have been like for a German in the front line when that mine went off. I’ve stood at Thiepval and oriented myself, and thought, how could anyone possibly survive walking that distance gradually uphill towards machine-gun fire? The scale of it all is just too much. And, although one can read about the number of deaths and casualties, it just isn’t possible fully to conceive or make sense of the enormity of it all.

One thing was brought home to me very clearly, with out the need for my imagination. This photo, from a display in one of the museums at Verdun, shows graphically what an exploding shell does; I am no longer surprised by accounts of men being torn to pieces and bodies being unrecognisable…

I think it’s really important for people to visit these places and to remember the past; I’ve noticed that Germans are now also coming to find the graves of their ancestors, and I’ve been very moved by the tributes GCSE History students on school trips have left in a number of war cemeteries, on the graves of combatants from both sides. It’s really important for people to keep on reading the literature from and about those times. This war – and another, perhaps even more horrific in other ways – happened in our, civilised Europe, and until very recently, in living memory, and deliberate efforts to ensure that such things never happen again germinated the European project that Britain managed to reject a few days ago. We have had more than seventy years of peace in Europe, and that’s far longer than any period of time peace before then. Imagination may defeat us, but memory should sustain us.

Pause for thought Friday 1 July 2016, 7.30am.

Chemin des Dames

September 10, 2015

I like to have a good travel guide when I’m off exploring somewhere, whether new or familiar: there’s always something I want to find out more about, and though it’s possible to access information online instantly, a lot of it is very superficial; you can settle down with a good guidebook, flipping back and forwards through the pages, with a finger in at the page with the relevant map on… and so on. You can tell I don’t do it all through my phone.

So I was pleased, as I revisit some of the key sites of the Great War in Northern France, that Michelin have published a new series of guides to various battlefields. They were quick off the mark in the 1920s with a series in both French and English which has apparently been reprinted (by G H Smith of Easingwold if you are interested); the new series is obviously to link in to the centennial of the war, but seems only to be available in French, and is illustrated with pages from the volumes of a hundred years ago.

I found the volume on the Chemin des Dames very helpful, with lots of thorough background explanation and information; key places to visit and things to look out for were well-documented; the book is divided sensibly into a number of sections according to area, and there is a detailed map, in the usual Michelin style, of each area. This is the only weak aspect of the book, really: I think it could usefully have done with more maps, larger scale and more detailed, rather like the town and city plans they provide in their ordinary guidebooks, because many of the monuments, cemeteries and other landmarks one is looking out for are not easy to find, and often I found I’d driven past before I realised where I was…

Nevertheless, the book is good because detailed and carefully produced, which is the case I’ve always found with Michelin guidebooks: they are objective and informative without being patronising or trendy… and, looking forward (hopefully) to a visit to Verdun next year, I have also purchased that guide to prepare myself.

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