August 2014 marked the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. The world’s most intense trench warfare and loss of life took place between 1914 and 1918 in Nord-Pas de Calais amongst the green and rural landscape. Bob Lyons reports on an exhibition that looks behind the lines in Montreuil-sur-Mer…
If you are fascinated by the events of World War One, travel to Calais and take the southbound route either by car or by train to visit the elegant little town of Montreuil sur Mer. This settlement became the centre of operations for the Allied forces that were protecting the security and future not just of Europe, but also so much more of the wider world. The town was chosen because it was positioned half way between Paris and London, was surrounded by robust, ancient fortifications and was safely clear of the intense fighting areas. An exhibition has been set up in Montreuil to display the life and culture experienced by the British and Commonwealth troops that existed alongside the local French people away from the fighting. It is a museum that does not depict trench warfare but deals with the ordinary human life that went on all around it. The exhibition “The Friendly Invasion – the World at our doorstep” will remain open in Montreuil until October 2014.
France has always been a loyal guardian of its own history. It has witnessed much that it does not wish to forget. France is commemorating the Great War rather than celebrating its own eventual victory. An exhibition portraying ordinary the intense human associations that continued to flourish away from the violence fits in very well with this concept.
During the Great War, Nord-Pas de Calais became home to hundreds of thousands of British and Commonwealth troops engaged in the conflict. There were men and women from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and India in addition to vast numbers of British soldiers. These people were fighting on the Western Front but lived separate, parallel lives amongst the local French community. They had to experience the ordinary things too of their own, young lives. They had to be fed and supplied, trained and entertained. They had to make friends and their sanity had to be protected. The British sport of football caught on very strongly with the local French civil population. The impact on the local culture at the time was profound and in many ways lasting. The museum at Montreuil portrays this non aggressive aspect of life so well. It presents photographic, video and written accounts of the genuine humanity that was still alive and energetic during those days.
If you visit the museum, you will learn much about this almost unique social interaction. Examples of aircraft maintenance facilities that existed in the open French countryside are displayed. Training sites that were created in towns and fields throughout the area are shown in photographs. Exhibits show how the Commonwealth military used their horses and equipment to assist with local agriculture. The exhibition describes how military medical services were used to treat the resident population when it was required. And of course, there are many examples of liaisons and marriages producing vibrant young families growing up surrounded by the intense horror of the fighting. The photographs and accounts are very touching and serve as a reminder of how the ordinary aspects of human life remain so robust even under the most stressful of circumstances.
The museum does not ignore the negative difficulties. There was intrusive crime, alcoholism and prostitution. The exhibition does not shy away from the uglier side of human life and describes it well in the associated literature. There were vast demands made on local agriculture to provide milk, eggs, meat and other rations to supply the troops. This led to much protest from the financially very hard pressed and deprived local French farming community. A new awareness of the reality of those dreadful years is clearly depicted in the museum. During the Great War years, life in Nord-Pas de Calais was dominated by the war effort. International social interaction was not only enhanced but terribly strained as well.
The town of Montreuil sur Mer stands today as a timeless reminder of the Great War. The head of the Commonwealth general staff at the time was Field Marshall Douglas Haig. A mighty metal sculpture of him astride his horse adorns the town square in front of the pretty theatre to this day. Visit the museum in the fortified citadel enveloping the town and then enjoy lunch in the centre of town where you can admire the handsome sight of Montreuil and reflect on the steadfastness of human life even during the most difficult of times.
Visit the museum: www.musees-montreuilsurmer.fr