St. Quentin in Picardy is home to many outstanding architectural features including an extraordinary, medieval basilica that can be seen from miles around in the Picardy countryside says Bob Lyons as he visits this quintessential French town…
The Basilique Saint Quentin is imposing and dominating and bears the scars of Great War damage that occurred in this region between 1914 and 1918. This ecclesiastical structure also bears the signs of the preparation of its destruction by German explosives. Next to the town railway station, there is a mighty war memorial commemorating the fallen soldiers of the town during WW1. St. Quentin was occupied early on in the First World War and was used as a component of their defensive Hindenburg Line. The Lycee Henri-Martin, which you can visit, was used by Sir John French as his General Headquarters during the infamous retreat from the Belgian town of Mons in 1914. Saint Quentin these days is very colourful, busy and with a solid sense of typical Gallic culture .
St. Quentin lies at the heart of so many vestiges from the fighting during the Great War and there are many military cemeteries surrounding it; the Somme battle grounds lie not far away westwards, towards the coast. The celebrated Great War museum, under the streets of Albert, is close by. Strangely, St. Quentin is rarely visited by tourists who wish to see the remaining Great War symbols, but it should be a central attraction.
As I strolled around the town centre, St. Quentin reminded me of everything that I had found so reassuring and comforting about France over the years. I took coffee and lunch on a street terrace outside a beautiful little café. In front of me was a very imposing and large central square. On the edge furthest away, guarding the town, an exceptionally grand Hotel de Ville boasts many impressive statues that had been sculpted onto the walls.
After my return to England, reading about St. Quentin, I discovered information concerning a bizarre event that occurred almost at the very spot where I had sat outside the cafe. It was something that happened in August 1914 on the town square that I had been admiring…
The British Surrender at Saint Quentin
Lieutenant-Colonel John Ford Elkington was the son of the Lieutenant- Governor of Guernsey, a general who had led a distinguished career in the British Army. Elkington received a classic private education at Elizabeth College in the Channel Islands. On completion, he followed his father into the army. Colonel John Elkington fought in the Boer War gaining the Queen’s medal with four clasps.
During August 1914, Lieutenant- Colonel Elkington led the 1st. Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the allied retreat from Mons in Belgium. His second in command was Colonel Mainwaring of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusilliers. Colonel Mainwaring was exceptionally war fatigued and unwell. During their retreat, these two officers led their men into St. Quentin. Somehow, they concocted a written deal with the French Mayor of the town. They agreed that there would be no resistance shown to the approaching German army. The British and French were war weary, hungry, thirsty and profoundly fatigued. The agreement would ensure that no further war casualties would occur and food would be provided for all of the starving soldiers. It seemed at the time to be a clear cut military surrender.
Colonel Mainwaring signed the agreement in the central square in front of the town hall; Elkington left the scene, setting off alone for the local railway station. The reasons were never documented.
Both British officers were subsequently court martialled and dismissed from the armed forces. The final remarks however, made at the end of the process, were published and stressed that Colonel Elkington was not disciplined for any failure of courage. It was attributed to a brief error of judgement made under circumstances of great stress, fatigue and genuine concern for the well being of the men under his command.
Return to the fold…
Elkington left the British Army as a broken, middle aged man facing appalling humiliation. He subsequently joined the French Foreign Legion in the ordinary ranks. By then he was fifty years old. He again saw service on the Western Front and was personally involved in an incident where his conduct was so conspicuous and courageous that it was brought to the attention of the French commander, Colonel Joffre. The Medaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre with palm were conferred on this ex British officer by the French state, the greatest award that could be made to a foreign person by the French military. The demonstration of bravery and courage was described as quite extraordinary.
The London Gazette later reported that, as a result of his actions in the Foreign Legion, Elkington was to be returned in his original rank to the British Army. The British King had made it clear that Elkington’s court martial had made no judgement about his courage. His reinstatement was a personal vindication not only to him but also his fellow countrymen.
Colonel Mainwaring never returned to the British armed forces and died in obscurity it seems.Colonel Elkington returned to the war as a senior British officer and was later badly injured in action.
During the time of the ‘Surrender’ at St. Quentin in 1914, one of the junior officers in the Warwickshire’s that day was a certain Bernard Montgomery. He later became the distinguished Field Marshall, and then Viscount. His service during the Second World War, as everyone knows, was illustrious. Montgomery had plainly held nothing against Elkington as he later laid a wreath at a memorial to him.
Saint Quentin, a Quintessential French Town
Saint Quentin is a curious place to visit that lies at a crossing of the Somme River amongst the Picardy countryside just to the east of Amiens. After the war, the architecture in the town was reconstructed in the Art Deco style a common mode in north east France as it was popular during the rebuild years of the 1920’s. There are many additional features to visit in St. Quentin. Museums include the Matisse family house and the Museum of Resistance and Deportation in Picardy; the beautifully maintained ‘Champs Elysees’ gardens are perfect for a picnic on a sunny day.
So much of the history of the Great War lies in Nord, Pas de Calais and Picardy. St. Quentin is hardly ever included in any of the tourist routes of the battlefields. It is, however, very much a major player in that period and can reveal so many secrets of its own from those days a century or more ago. Saint Quentin is bright and vibrant these days. It is a typical symbol of a modern France and teems with energetic, optimistic and enthusiastic life.
Bob Lyons is an pilot turned travel writer who journeys all over France.