A flock of red-legged partridge has just crash-landed in a flurry of feathers into long grass at the edge of a field, and overhead the cause of the consternation, a buzzard doing a passable impersonation of a kestrel, hovering on the wind, ready to drop in on lunch. The landscape east of Amiens is mainly farmland, alternating long stretches of flat ground with reaches of undulation and both flecked with stands of mainly pine woodlands. It’s not at all what I imagined. This, in 1918, was the front line between German and Allied forces. Today, dotted everywhere, it seems, are small, neat, well-tended war graveyards, nearly 500 in all – the Dartmoor Cemetery, the Norfolk and numerous Commonwealth War Graveyards wherein rest members of the Australian Cycle Corps and the Royal Fusiliers.
Down a narrow, winding lane I met a Welsh dragon, a memorial to 4,000 men of the 38th Welsh Regiment who perished here in July 1916, in the Battle of Mametz Wood. I’m taking pictures as a man approaches. Like me, he has the equipment of a professional photographer – Nikon, Volvo and a hungry look in his eyes. He is Marc Véron from Commenchon, working on a book about war memorials. At Villers-Bretonneux, he tells me, there is a huge Australian cemetery, where every year in March more than a thousand people gather from all corners of the world, to pay their respect. I did the same; there were young lads of seventeen from the Royal Lancashire Fusiliers and numerous other regiments, and others, alas too many others, for whom there was just a simple headstone saying ‘A Soldier of the Great War’ – no name, no regiment. Some died as late as 28th November 1918; ironically the Armistice was signed more than two weeks earlier.
It is difficult to know how to cope with a tour of the Battlefields of the Somme; it is certainly a moving experience, and the desire of people from many countries to remember those awesome times is as prevalent today as ever it was. Everywhere I went I encountered small groups of people wandering through the cemeteries or pausing in front of memorials. It’s a natural part of everyday life here.
I was moved to tears, I confess. My grandfather fought during, and survived, the last year of the war (he even played football for England against the Germans on Christmas Day, 1917), so I had more than a passing interest. But I have no wish to glorify war, and hoped that I wouldn’t find it being glorified here. I didn’t. There are numerous monuments to groups and individuals, the war graves, of course, and museums that explain what the war was about and how it was fought. But everything is done with good taste and evident respect for those who lost their lives: every cemetery has a visitors’ book and a register of those buried there.
In the hope of approaching the battlefields in a favourable light, both figuratively and photographically, I began by driving towards the Etangs de la Somme, an area of wildlife marshlands flanking the river that are Heaven on Earth for anglers, and, for anyone heading for the ‘Aire de Souvenir’, as it is known, something in the way of Nature’s valium. You can do it the other way around, of course, depending on whether you want your peace of mind before or after.
Dr Terry Marsh has written extensively for magazines and produced guidebooks for walkers to the French Pyrenees and the French Alps.