The north east corner of France, Nord-Pas de Calais, and the rest of France will, in August 2014, be commemorating a century since the start of World War One. As this chapter in world history begins to slide into the murky ether of time, present generations will also be remembering the Great War…
I am 61 and I remember my grandfather very well. He served in the Great War at Vimy Ridge as a gunner in the Royal Artillery with the British army. He witnessed the wholesale destruction of life in the trenches on both sides. Surviving the war, he was discharged from the army in 1918 having been totally deafened and poisoned by gas attacks. He ran a successful business after the fighting and drove his car almost every day until he died in 1967. Despite his experience, he made the most of his life. I have the utmost admiration for him and when I think of him it is impossible not to consider the human tragedy of the Great War.
The Great War really was a world war. Soldiers principally from France, Britain, Germany, Canada, Australia, Portugal and India were involved. Overall though, more than one hundred other nationalities also took their place. Associated conflicts at the time involved other parts of the world. Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and China were all implicated. It was the appalling slaughter, however, in the trenches of Nord-Pas de Calais that destroyed and changed the lives for so many millions for ever. It was thought to be the war that ended all wars. Somehow it wasn’t.
In France, the dividing line between the Allied forces and the German army lay in the Nord-Pas de Calais region and was known as the Western Front. Visit this district and you will find traces of the conflict. Sections of trenches are still visible as undulations in fields. French farmers, even to this day, continue to plough up left over relics, rotting equipment and sometimes unexploded devices from the dark days between 1914 and 1918.
Vimy Ridge is at the northern end of this French region. It was here that more than 11000 Canadian soldiers lost their lives. Visitors to the area can see preserved trenches just as they were during the war, much of the land though, is still closed off to the public due to the continued presence of unexploded shells.
In the little town of St Omer, south east of Calais, you will find an active civil aerodrome. It was once the headquarters of the Royal Flying Corps, the original British air power that fought so gallantly as part of the Allied force. St Omer aerodrome was the location of over 50 flying squadrons at varying times. Major Trenchard, later Lord, served as a pilot with the RFC at St Omer. He later became the founder (or Father as he is known today) of the Royal Air Force in Britain. A monument to the RAF stands at the entrance to the aerodrome and provokes reflection on the three week life expectancy of young RFC pilots in France in 1916.
The town of Fromelles is where on July 19, 1916, Australian soldiers launched a battle to divert enemy attention away from large scale conflict around the Somme basin. The initiative was a disaster and more than 5000 Australian soldiers lost their lives, along with 1500 British men. The Germans hastily put bodies into a mass grave in Pheasant Wood, close to Fromelles, to prevent the spread of disease. This grave was only discovered in 2008 and all of the bodies are being separately identified and individually re-buried close by. A poignant museum and monument to the Australians erected at the cemetery attracts many visitors from around the world and in particular Australia.
Montreuil-sur-Mer is an elegant town close to the Opal Coast and was the headquarters of the British Army under the command of General Haig in 1916. You can view a splendid monument to him astride his horse on the town square. France admires and maintains so well all the features and reminders of the conflict that killed so many of her own soldiers.
Just outside the southern boundary of Pas de Calais is the town of Albert. This town suffered much destruction in WW1 and is home to an underground museum commemorating the Great War. The Somme 1916 Trench museum is located in the tunnel complex running under the streets. It features many fascinating reminders of the war. Discarded weapons, uniforms and military equipment provide much insight to such a terrible period. You can gain an insight into the ghastly living conditions endured by the soldiers with the array of artefacts and the reconstructed trench scenes.
As August 2014 approaches, Calais Nord will remember the conflict with a number of events around the town of Bethune, an appropriate place to remember this period of history due to its location close to the Western Front.
There will be a number of battlefield coach tours in the area including the imposing Commonwealth War Memorial and the cemetery at Le Touret. The tours will take in the Portuguese National Cemetery at the village of Richebourg, resting place of the many Portuguese soldiers who died whilst fighting in the Allied forces. They have their own outstanding memorial maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Coach tours will also stop at the substantial monument to Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting alongside Commonwealth troops. This memorial very much reflects the Indian architectural style and culture – gleaming bright white against the green and now peaceful countryside that surrounds it.
In Bethune walking tours will start from the ‘Grand Place’ and in the surrounding streets. Bethune symbolised French resistance and stood free for almost all of the Great War whilst under occupation by the Allied forces though terrible destruction took place in the town during the final furious fighting. Other coach tours are also being organised to visit Givenchy and Festubert, villages so appallingly ravaged and only much later reconstructed.
Coach tours for schools will also take place in an active venture by the French Government to ensure that children are aware of the pitiful loss of life that occurred in such recent history on their own doorstep.
The last surviving soldier of the Great War was British. His name was Harry Patch and he died on the 25 July 2009. He was 111 years old and, briefly, was the oldest man in Europe. He fought in the trenches during the furious Battle of Passchendaele. He took to his grave the last remaining consciousness of the worst slaughter humanity has ever imposed on itself.
For more information on these events, go to www.tourism-bethune-bruay.fr